Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Screw-up Son, the Sulking Son and the Forgiving Father

The gospel for the day is Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32.

The NET translation, which you can get online or even as part of the free smart phone app, the Touch Bible, is a translation I use a lot. It has excellent notes, both on the reasons for certain translation choices, as well as on the subject matter of the verse in question. But what I particularly liked when I opened it to today's gospel passage, instead of entitling the parable by its more common name "The Prodigal Son" it labeled this section instead "The Compassionate Father." And that really is the key feature of this story. It doesn't work without the extraordinarily forgiving father.

That said, I want to look at all 3 characters in this story, because Jesus takes what could have been a straightforward 2 person drama and adds an intriguing and insightful twist by introducing a third character, the older and faithful brother.

The younger brother seems at first a stereotypical spoiled brat. Right off the bat he asks for his share of the estate. 2 points to note here: first, the Greek word usually translated "property" in this passage, in non-biblical contexts denotes considerable wealth, according the NET notes. So they translate it estate. Although as the younger child, he gets half of what his older brother does by rights of being firstborn, the value of his share is probably sizable. Secondly, by asking his father for his share at this time, something he would normally only get after his father died, he is essentially saying to his dad "Drop dead!" He will be reducing the amount his dad and his brother have to live on. This shows how little he cares for anyone but himself. I would gauge him to be in his late teens to early 20s because we now know that your brain isn't completely wired up until your mid- to late 20s and the last part of the brain to become mature is your pre-frontal lobe, where judgment is located. The kid is not thinking of the consequences of his rash act.

The surprise is that the dad does what his son asks. For such disrespect his father could have him beaten. Is the man nuts? Is he too lax? Why doesn't the father tell him "No?" Jesus doesn't tell us. And at this point we do not have enough information to understand the father's thought processes.

The listener to Jesus' story is not too surprised that the kid goes off on a trip and squanders the money. The Greek word here could be translated "wasted." It literally means "scattered."  "He threw his money around" we would say. And not in an unwise investor way, either. He spent his money on an unrestrained lifestyle. He denied himself nothing. Later, the older brother says he spent it on prostitutes. In any case, he spends all his inheritance.

Then comes a severe famine and the younger son finds himself in need. Now if he spent his money, how does a famine make him worse off? Because during a famine, like a recession, there are more people in need, people who would be generous have less to give, jobs go away if the crops are dying. So the normal sources of charity have dried up along with the agriculture. There's no one he can even sponge off of. And the only work he can find is taking care of pigs, unclean animals by Jewish law. Jesus' audience figures the kid has hit bottom. But not quite yet. Because we find out that he is literally being paid starvation wages. He is even contemplating eating the pods he's feeding to the pigs. Now he has hit rock bottom.

The kid comes to his senses and realizes that he would be better off working as a hired hand for his father. His father, unlike the kid's current employer, pays decent wages. The young man makes a decision. He's going to go back home. Some see this as a merely practical, if not cynical, move. He's just going back to sponge off his dad now. But to me, the kid seems repentant. He admits that he has sinned, not only against his father but also against God, by his disrespectful demand for his part of the estate. He even says he is not worthy to be called his son. He wishes to be treated simply as a hired hand. And it goes without saying that he can expect nothing when his father does die.  

Now after all he's done, this would not be considered by Jesus' audience as humility but effrontery. He spends all his inheritance and then comes crawling back. They were probably expecting the father to rebuke the kid and throw him out on the streets. It's what he deserves.

But that's not how it plays out. The father sees the son from far off. Was it just by accident or was he looking for him? Either way the father recognizes his son from quite a distance. He is filled with compassion. The Greek could mean either "affection" or "pity." If pity, then the father can see that his child has fallen on bad times. Possibly it is the state of his clothes. Or lack of sandals. Or it may be that he lost a lot of weight. Either way, the father runs to his returning son. To heck with dignity! He hugs and kisses his boy. The kid takes a breath and starts on his speech. He gets out the part where he confesses his sin and that he is unworthy to be his son, when his father cuts him off. He calls for his slaves to bring the best robe. This would have been the father's robe. He calls for his ring. This was probably a signet ring with the family insignia, which would say that the kid is reinstated as the son of a well-to-do family. He calls for sandals. The fact that the young man is not wearing sandals says a lot about how far from his position he has fallen. Then the father calls for the killing of the fattened calf for the welcome back party. One commentary I read said that the calf would be enough to feed a whole village, something aristocratic families would often do to celebrate a son becoming a man or a child's wedding. So this is going to be one heck of a blowout!

Now most such moral tales for a Jewish audience would have stopped with the kid feeding pigs and starving. End of story; moral obvious. If it were about repentance and forgiveness, it would have ended right here, with the father celebrating receiving his son back. But Jesus isn't done just yet.

Enter the older son. He's been diligently working the fields. As he approaches the house, all tired and sweaty, he hears this big shindig going on and grabs one of the servants to find out what the heck is going on. When he finds out, he is so angry that he can't bring himself to enter the house. So the father comes out to talk to him. But the older brother can't be mollified. "I've worked like a slave for you for God knows how many years," he says. "I never disobeyed you," he says. "Did you give me so much as a goat so I could party with my friends? No! But this son of yours, who gobbled up your assets with whores, comes back and for him, you killed the fattened calf!"

We don't know for sure that's where the money went but the guy has a point. Isn't it always the conscientious, hardworking folks who get overlooked? The screw-ups of the world get plenty of slack but the people who do their jobs never even get a pat on the back, much less a "welcome back" party. Most of us can understand the older kid's anger. A few years ago it came out that Jane Fonda had become a Christian. A lot of people can't forgive her for what she did during the Vietnam war, though. Jeffrey Dahmer, the serial killer cannibal,  became a Christian in prison. Would you have embraced him during the passing of the peace? What if a member of Al Qaeda repented and became a Christian? Would you be able to accept that he might be in heaven?

But the father goes back to the heart of the matter. (1) The older son is always with the father and everything of the father's is his (especially since the younger kid has spend all of his share.) (2) Most importantly, your brother was dead to the family but now is alive; he had lost himself for a while there but has been found.

You would think that would settle matters. The older brother should be happy that his little brother has seen the light and turned his life around. Was he? We don't know. Jesus lets the dad have the last word.

It's pretty obvious who the true identities of various characters in this drama are. The son who screwed up but came to his senses represents the sinners that Jesus was spending way too much time with for some folk's tastes. The sulking son stands for the Pharisees who just can see past other people's sins, even if they are a thing of the past. And the forgiving father is God. So what is Jesus saying?

First, that no matter how badly you've screwed up, how much you've betrayed God and how far you've strayed from our heavenly Father, if you turn the direction of your life around, if you admit your sins humbly, God is more than willing to let bygones be bygones.

Next, if you can't find it in yourself to be happy for former sinners returning to the fold, you're going to miss out on a lot of the fun of following Jesus. The joy of heaven is not the smug satisfaction of self-righteousness but reveling in the redemption of sinners.

And the reason for that is that we have a very forgiving Father in heaven. And he is forgiving because he loves us. Otherwise, it would make no sense. Strictly speaking, forgiveness is not fair. Justice is getting what you deserve. The younger son deserved to suffer all the consequences of his rash actions. He should have starved. Mercy is not getting all you deserve. Had the father taken the kid back on the kid's terms--treating him like a hired hand--that would have been mercy. He would have, at the very least, not starved.

But the father is more than merciful; he is gracious. Grace is getting what you could never deserve. The kid did not deserve to be clothed in his father's best robe, or to have the ring with the family's crest put back on his finger, or to have a feast thrown in his honor. But his father's love is such that he restores him to his former position, as a beloved son.

And as Jesus points out in another parable, those who are forgiven much are more grateful than those forgiven a little. A person who has hit rock bottom and then come to know the love, mercy and grace of God knows the value of what he has been given. Someone who has lived a relatively good life may not realize just how much of that he owes to God. And he may resent the person who threw it all away only to come back to God begging on his hands and knees. But God, like the father in Jesus' parable, doesn't care about dignity when more important things are at stake. It was not dignified for the father in the story to hike up his robes and run to his son. It wasn't dignified for Jesus to be nailed naked to a cross on a public road. But, like the father in the parable, he was motivated by his compassion. Behind all of God's actions is his love.

Which child are you? The screw-up asking for mercy? The sulker demanding justice? Whichever fits you, remember that all children, especially when they are small, want to be like their parents. In this case, it means being like our Father, forgiving and gracious to the penitent and seeking reconciliation with those who are indignant over injustice. Forgiveness is not fair. It is not justice. It is, however, our only hope of spending eternity with our Father in heaven.

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