Sermon – Lent 4
March 6, 2016
By Roland Legge
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
You know the story of the prodigal son. Over and over we have been told that this story is about how God chooses to forgive repentant sinners. So it was a big surprise when I heard this story told in a very different way, by a man named Richard Rohrbaugh.
If we made a new title for this story it might be called: “The Prodigal Son: “A Dysfunctional Family and its Neighbors”. Now you might be wondering if this could be the same story. You see Richard Rohrbaugh has spent much of his life studying Middle Eastern Culture and the Mediterranean Peasant culture at the time of Jesus. It is through the eyes of Jesus contemporaries that we now view the story. Mediterranean Peasant culture was an honor shame culture which is very different from what we experience in North America.
In our culture we focus on the individual. In Jesus time he and his contemporaries focused on the wellbeing of the community. So if you did something really good it would have a positive effect on yourself and the whole community. But if you did something wrong then you, your family and the whole community would pay the consequences. You might even risk being thrown out of your community or even worse killed.
The father looked foolish for distributing the inheritance before he died. But even more, when the prodigal goes off and waste all his share of the inheritance, this shamed the community even more. So by the time the prodigal returns home, the community would not have been pleased to see him. Hence he would have been in danger upon his arrival home. Kenneth Bailey explains why the father runs out to greet him:
In the Mediterranean old men do not run. It is not only shameful (ankles show), it also indicates lack of control. They certainly do not run to meet or welcome anyone, and especially not their children. But if an emergency exists, perhaps that is another matter. Obviously the father acts in this way because the boy is in trouble. The villagers would be angry and the father’s compassion’ is well placed… The embrace and kiss are not first of all signs of welcome; they are signs of protection.
“A Dysfunctional Family and its Neighbors” found in the collection Jesus and His Parables Edited by V. George Shillington p.g. 156
The father could have chosen to punish his sons. This would have been the expected action of the father. But he chooses to have compassion even at the risk of losing face. Yet he goes even further by calling a party and welcomes the whole community. How do we know the village was invited? If it had just been the family a goat would have been killed. The killing of the fatted calf suggests that the whole village was invited. This party was to encourage reconciliation between the village and his family. It seems to be working as when the older son comes to the home he sees people dancing. But the problem is the older son will not reconcile with brother and father. This again would have been a great shame to the family. In the end we do not know how things work out.
So why, would Jesus have written this parable?
Because as Rohrbaugh says, it’s something peasants could identify with and understand, “commending the valiant struggle of a beleaguered if foolish father” (p.g. 163).
The story affirms our need to be loyal to both kin and village even when sin has gone rampant. The surprise is how the father does it. The father counters his own disloyalty with foolishness of his own. (lorenrosson.blogspot.com) He sets an example of how we are called to respond. Instead of responding to his younger son with anger, rage and violence he embraces him with compassion and love even when it makes himself look like the fool.
This parable is not about repentance/forgiveness taught today in most churches. The key is not to equate the father in the story with God. This is more an earthy story with a heavy meaning rather than a heavenly meaning. Likely, the readers of this story would have believed that the apocalypse was imminent. So Jesus in this context calls on his people to radically change their behavior – like this father, to become asses and fools of the kingdom.
While today most of us don’t believe in an imminent apocalypse; are there not enough serious problems in our world that beckon us to radically change how we live our lives? Are we not called to find creative ways to live out our love for family, friends and all God’s creation? I do!! I believe this is all an important part of our call to radical loving. A radical living that may look like foolishness to the rest of the world. What is God calling you to change?
I know for myself that God is continually calling me to pollute less in the world. This is not an easy thing to do. First I am becoming much more conscious of how I am polluting. I can’t change anything that I am not aware of. This is a big first step. Jen and I continue to explore ways of being better stewards. We try to recycle a lot. I do have a small car, but I think twice now before I use my car. In town I try to walk when possible. Sometimes this means I just need to get up a little earlier so I have the extra time to walk. Sometimes I am good at this but there are other times when I succumb to the car. What are you doing for the environment?
What else can we all do? Building community in our families and churches is going to make the difference. This can lead us to mission, people working for peace and justice in our world. This is a human community where God becomes most active just as God became active in this very human imperfect father. One person who expresses this well is Jean Vanier.
Community is the place to share together that we are obstacles. That is to say, we’re not perfect. Maybe our wounds from the past, the wounds that cause blockages in our relationships, maybe these will always be with us. Jesus can heal these, but it seems to me that the first thing is to be able to talk about the wounds and the blockages—to talk about them without being threatened.
Reflections on Christian Community. by Jean Vanier. Sojourners Magazine, December 1977
So let us go out and celebrate life with our family, friends, community and world. Let us go out and be fools for God. Let us go out and love the unlovable. Let’s hang in with people that are sabotaging themselves and others. Let us stand in solidarity with the oppressed. Most of all let us do what God would want us to do even if others are going to think we are fools.