Rev. Sarah Buteux
March 27, 2022
Lent 4, Year C
Luke 15:1-3a, 11-31
(We had some technical difficulties this morning so our service begins just a little ways into the scripture. The sermon begins at the 4 minute mark. Click here to watch)
2000 years ago, Jesus sat down and broke bread with a bunch of sinners.
Other than the tax collectors, we don’t know exactly what sort of trouble these folks got up to, but the fact that they were recognized as sinners meant that they were the sort of people who sinned in a way everyone else could see, which somehow made their sins just that much worse.
And when the scribes and the Pharisees saw these folks sitting around Jesus, they were pretty seriously put off.
The scribes and Pharisees were good men after all: smart, literate, faithful. They knew Jesus was special. They knew he had a lot to teach, a lot to give, a lot he could accomplish if he played his cards right, and yet here he was compromising all the good he had to offer by associating with all the wrong sorts of people.
His behavior was inappropriate, his company indiscriminate. If Jesus was so wise then he should have been more discerning. If he was so good then he should have held himself and these others to a higher standard.
And if he really cared – cared about God, about scripture, about faith and righteousness and the future of their people, and well…I mean…come on…If he really cared he wouldn’t be wasting his time with the burnouts and the losers but using his time well, discussing things that really mattered, with people like them.
“This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them,” they grumbled.
Sensing their resentment, Jesus turned toward them, took one more swig to wet his whistle, and told them three stories.
The first was about a shepherd who lost a sheep.
The second was about a woman who lost a coin.
And the third was about a man who lost his son.
Stop me if you’ve heard this story before… “There was a man who had two sons…” I’m kidding, because of course you’ve heard this story before. We all have, and not just today in church. This isn’t just one of the most well known parables in the gospels, it’s also a familiar story throughout the scriptures.
Adam had Cain and Able. Abraham had Ishmael and Isaac. Isaac had Esau and Jacob. Jacob had Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zubulun, Joseph, Benjamin. Oh, and a girl named Dinah, but you probably only remember Joseph and maybe Rueben if you were really paying attention back in Sunday school.
Sometimes there are 2 sons, sometimes there are as many as 12. But in a society where the first born son was supposed to take precedence, there are a remarkable number of stories about younger sons getting the lion’s share of their father’s love, attention, and property… whether they deserved it or not.
The younger son in Jesus’ parable is no exception. He’s a weasel. A spoiled, selfish, self-serving, little weasel, and … his father loves him anyway. In fact, if the father preferred him to the older son, the way Abraham preferred Isaac to Ishmael, or doted on him to the exclusion of his brothers the way Jacob doted on Joseph, the father in this story might well bear some responsibility for the fact that his son is a spoiled, selfish, self-serving little weasel.
For, as you well know, when the young man asked for his inheritance, the father not only acquiesced but divided his property between his two sons. Typically the oldest would have gotten all or at least 2/3 of his Father’s assets, but in this case the indulgent father can’t seem to help himself.
He bestows half his estate on Weasel, and what does the little rodent do? He takes off without so much as a backward glance and then blows it all on dissolute living in whatever country served as the Vegas of the ancient near east.
Of course you know what happened next. A famine arose in the land where he was living and, although Weasel found a job feeding pigs, his circumstances were such that the slop they were eating looked better than anything he’d had for a long time.
And so, conniving as ever, he came up with a brilliant idea. ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger!” he said. “I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”‘
It is important to note that even his “confession” is self-serving. Weasel isn’t looking for reconciliation or interested in making any sort of restitution. There is no evidence here that he has learned his lesson or at long last come to appreciate his family. He’s just looking for a good meal and he figures that heading back to Daddy with a well rehearsed confession is his best bet.
As much as we might want to read this as a straight up story of repentance and forgiveness, Jesus’ parable resists such simple reductions. Our little prodigal was a spoiled, selfish, self-serving little weasel when he left home and in spite of all that has taken place, he’s still a spoiled, selfish, self-serving little weasel when he returns.
Imagine his surprise then, when he arrives within site of his ancestral home and is welcomed by his Father running out to meet him. Apparently, Daddy has been keeping an eye out for him this whole time. Before a word is out of the Prodigal’s mouth, his father embraces him, and welcomes him home.
I’d like to think that it was enough of a surprise to jolt the young man into a mode of true confession. “’Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But who’s to say? Maybe when those words finally came out of his mouth, they were both surprised at how much he actually meant them. Maybe not.
It does’t really matter, because before the younger son can say another word the father calls to his slaves and says:
‘Quickly [now], bring out a robe–the best one–and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And [immediately] they began to celebrate.
Celebrate, but without whom?
The older son.
In Jesus’ first two stories, when the shepherd found his sheep and the woman found her coin, they threw a feast for the whole neighborhood. They went out and invited everyone to come in and celebrate. But no one runs out to the field to tell the older son what’s going on. No one goes out to invite him in. Because no one, not even his father, noticed he was missing (Thanks to Amy-Jill Levine for this heartbreaking insight on p 67 of “Short Stories by Jesus”).
25“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28Then (the older son) became angry and refused to go in.
A man had two sons but it would seem he only ever had eyes for the younger. A man had two sons and somehow managed to lose the only one who never left. Like the shepherd and the woman, the father must now go out to find what has been lost in order to make his family whole.
“But children,” says Amy-Jill Levine, “are not sheep or coins (to be picked up and carried home), they are not property; they are people” and bringing people back together can be incredibly hard (p 67).
Realizing what he has lost, the father pleads with his son to come inside, but the elder son will have none of it. His words, full of deep resentment, make it clear that he may not have left the house, but he hasn’t been home for years.
[H]e answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me (so much as ) a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’
The words Jesus chooses emphasize this young man’s deep sense of dislocation. The younger son set out for “home.” The elder son approached “the house,” The elder son talks to his father, but unlike the younger never utters that word, “father.” He speaks of that, “son of yours,” but never utters the words “brother of mine.”
He sees himself as a slave, not a son; someone who has been valued for his effort, but not someone his father ever truly loved. His resentment is as understandable as it is heartbreaking. It’s been simmering for a long time and it is poison. Resentment is poison. Which is why the Father and Jesus go out of their way to save those they love from getting lost in it.
Brene Brown, in her new book, “Atlas of the Heart,” devotes a whole chapter to jealousy, envy, and resentment (p 25-31). She explains that jealousy rears its ugly head when we fear losing relationship. Envy rises when we want something someone else has. And both are dangerous, because they are often accompanied by feelings of hostility.
We don’t just want what others have, we want to take them down so we can have it for ourselves. And resentment flows right out of these bitter waters. Most of us think that resentment is born of anger, the anger we feel when people misbehave and we have to pick up the pieces.
But it turns out that we don’t resent people because of their actions – because they are lazy or prodigal or irresponsible or sinners – we resent them because we’re envious; wishing we could act like they do and get away with it.
I don’t think they even realize it, but the Pharisees actually envy the sinners at Jesus’ table. The older brother envies his little brother. They crave the time, attention, focus, and love the others are getting in spite of their bad behavior.
But rather than come right out and ask for the attention they need, the Pharisees grumble. The younger son asked for his inheritance, but the older son never asked for anything. Instead he stewed in silence for years, in part because asking for what we need is an incredibly vulnerable thing to do.
To illustrate this, Brene tells a little story about her first birthday as a new bride. You’re not going to believe this, but she woke up to nothing on her birthday the first year of her marriage: “no signs taped to the wall or notes on the kitchen table – nothing.” Not so much as a goat on the off chance that she wanted to go off and celebrate with her friends. So Brene carried her very resentful self off to therapy to complain about the injustice of it all.
“I told (my therapist) that we did these kind of things in my family and it really hurt my feelings that (my husband) Steve didn’t do it for me. I was sure it was because he was too busy in his residency.” The therapist then asked Brene if she had explained to Steve how her family celebrated birthdays or shared her expectations with him. To which, “I rolled my eyes, and said, ‘If I have to ask, it’s not worth it.’” Brene’s therapist tilted her head and said, “If you’re not asking for what’s important to you, maybe it’s because you don’t think you are worth it.
Shut up. You don’t know me. You’re fired,” thought Brene, because her therapist was absolutely right (p 47).
For a lot of “good” people – people like the pharisees, the older son, and I dare say some of us in this very room – our good actions, our best behavior, our tendency to go the extra mile, is often rooted in deep fears and old wounds.
We act well in part because we are determined to prove ourselves. Determined because somewhere along the way we learned that we were valued for our effort, but we never felt truly loved simply for who we are. Seeing someone like weasel get the attention we work so hard for, sends us right over the edge.
And the fastest way to build ourselves up when we feel low, rejected, or worthless, is to drag others down into the mud with us; label them as sinners or point out precisely why they don’t deserve the very thing we want, because deep down we’re afraid we don’t deserve it either.
Such behavior is as understandable as it is ugly. It is as common as it is dangerous. Jealousy, envy, and resentment are the sort of poison that can destroy marriages, families and friendships, churches, communities, even countries. Fights become feuds. Feuds become war.
You have something I want. You have the love and respect I crave. You have what I can’t seem to ask for. A man had two sons, Cain and Able. Jealousy, envy, and resentment, destroyed them both. It is one of the oldest stories in the world, but it doesn’t have to be this way. The story doesn’t have to end in blood.
And so the Father goes out to find the one who is lost and with words like “son” and “brother” tries to call him back, not just to his home, but to himself. “Son,” he says, “Son. (My child.) you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice because this brother of yours – your brother – was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”
And in telling this story, I think Jesus is calling the pharisees back home as well. I think he’s letting them know that he sees them. He cares about them. In fact, he cares about them so much he’s hoping they can see the sinners around the table as their brothers too.
Because in the end, we’re all in this together. Anything that separates us into good and bad, in and out, worthy and unworthy, diminishes us all.
A man had two sons and he lost one. I think it’s on all of us to do what we can to help bring that child home.
I think it’s on all of us to look around and ask who is missing?
On all of us to ask God for the grace to confess, forgive, and try again.
On all of us to ask for what we need… ask and ask and ask and ask until every lost soul finds their way home. Amen.