Wednesday Sermon – Brenda Tibbets, AiM – August 13th

THE PARABLE OF THE PRODIGAL

Wednesday Worship, August 13, 2014                                                                                      

Text:    Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Next to the story of The Good Samaritan, The Parable of the Prodigal is probably one of the most well known teaching stories of Jesus.  So well known in fact, that often when we come to hear it told again, we have already arrived at our own interpretation and our own conclusion as to what the point is.

The richness of the Parables, however, is that they constantly challenge us to listen again – to think again.  It is as though Jesus holds a mirror to our face and says, “Come closer.  Let’s take another look.”

So because this story is so familiar, let us take another look to see what God wants us to hear in this place and in this time.

In taking another look, we notice that this parable takes place in a particular context.  How shameful and shocking that Jesus is sitting with…well, you know, people that are less than “desirable” in a proper society.  Not only was he sitting with them, but he has also eaten with them.  Really!  How could he?  Table fellowship with people who did not follow the holiness codes or proper etiquette?  Unthinkable!  Simply scandalous!

Jesus’ behavior and the company he kept provided “The Good Proper Folk” with a smorgasbord of gossip.  Certainly, there was no end to the speculation as to what Jesus might do next.

Luke’s gospel tells how Jesus handled the grumbling Pharisees and scribes.  “So he told them this parable…”  Not only did Jesus tell them the parable of the shepherd seeking out the lost sheep, he went on to include the story of a woman who searched high and low to find a lost coin.  In our modern day context, how far would we go to search for a lost pet?  How many times would we turn our homes inside out to find a lost diamond from a wedding ring or a hunting compass given by someone special?

Those parables hold up a mirror that is clear.  Yes, we would all do that!  We understand the panic that comes in losing some THING that is precious.  We would certainly call or tweet all of our friends and post it on Facebook that we had finally found what we had been looking for.  Kind of a “No Brainer”, wouldn’t you say?

And then, Jesus holds the mirror a little more closely.  OK, you show all this concern for animals and objects.  What about people?  In particular, people who make poor choices?  People who live lifestyles that you don’t agree with?  People who end up in less than desirable circumstances  whether by choices made by themselves or choices made by others that affect them?  Then what?  Do you care or would you rather label them and stand away from them?  Then,  Jesus upped the ante.  This time it wasn’t livestock or pets or personal property.  He challenged them by saying, “There was a man who had two sons…”

How we hear and understand the parables depend so much on our own context, our personal and community life experiences.  As such, our understandings can change as to which character we might identify with at different times in our lives.

Mark Allen Powell, a contemporary theologian, did an experiment on the story of the Prodigal.  He did a controlled study of 100 students in St. Petersburg, Russia, in Tanzania, and in the United States.  Powell asked them what this biblical text meant to them.  The Russians focused in on the dire affects of the famine.  The Tanzanians focused in on the failure of the surrounding community that allowed someone in their midst to be starving and no one gave him anything to eat.  Probably this should be no surprise to us, the U.S. students zeroed in on the money – and how it was spent.  How about you?  What do you hear in Jesus’ Prodigal story and with which character do you identify?

The longer we’ve walked on earth, it is very possible that we have, at some point or another, identified with all three:  the reckless younger son, the resentful, responsible elder son, and the waiting parent.  In the past couple of years, I have heard this story in a new light as the mirror was held ever closer to my own household.

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God, has an impeccable sense of irony at times.

It was a beautiful spring day and I was down in the West Wing getting set-up for a Wednesday night worship.  We were going to begin a 3 week series on “The Prodigal Son.”  I was diligent in doing my prep work.  I had read the scripture text multiple times.  I read what the commentaries had to say about each of the characters and the possible meanings, customs, etc.  I had the DVD cued up to the proper place.  I had even consulted Webster’s Dictionary on the meaning of the word “Prodigal” (which by the way, means extravagant…)

And then, my cell phone rang.

It was my sister-in-law wondering if I had heard from one of my adult kids.  The tone of her voice warned me it wasn’t good news for me and my husband.  The story unfolded.  Our son had been arrested and was in jail.  My first thought was, “Come on, God!  Now?  You’ve got to be kidding me.  He’s arrested right now as I’m getter ready to teach on the Prodigal son??!!”

Suddenly, the parable was no longer about someone else’s family.  The parable was becoming all too real, all too close for comfort.

Due to circumstance beyond our control, we were not allowed to have contact with our son until the day of his court date and he was brought in front of the judge to hear the charges against him.  It takes time for court systems to process paperwork and there are specific rights under the law as to how long a person may be detained.  But the weekend was coming…we hadn’t heard and we were nervous.  Finally, a hearing date was set for Friday morning.  After the hearing and after being interviewed by the probation officer, our adult son was relinquished into our custody.

Never before had I witnessed such a visible change in a person’s demeanor and body language as when my husband and I walked the long, marbled courthouse corridor to the place where our son was waiting on the hard bench.  Total abject shame.  And all I could think of was, “This is our boy.  This is our son.  This is the one we have worried about and prayed for – and loved…That hasn’t changed nor will it change.”

I walked over to him where he was sitting and quietly said his name.  He wouldn’t look up.  So I told him to “Stand up!”  He did.  And all I could do was to put my arms around him, crying, and tell him, “Don’t you know how much we love you?  We love you and we’ll get through this together.”  In that instant, the Parable of the Prodigal became totally real in every sense.    Rather than teaching it, I was being taught.

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God is actually “The Prodigal” throughout this parable Jesus told.  Our heavenly Father is the One who is the source of prodigal/extravagant love.  The source of extravagant forgiveness.  The One who waits and watches…and welcomes, with outstretched arms telling all of his children, the reckless and the resentful alike, God calls each of us by name and asks us to look up as well.   “Don’t you know how much you are loved?  Come in.  Let me take you home.  Let’s get you put back together.  You need a bath – and in my baptismal waters, all shame and disgrace are washed away.  I will clothe you with the clean clothes of new life and fresh beginning.  I bet you are hungry, too.  Here is my table and the meal is ready.  This is what love and forgiveness look like.  This is what it tastes like: and I want you sitting with me and with the entire household.  You are marked with the cross of Christ forever.  You belong to me.  Trust me.  We will work this out – together.”

Life experiences change the context in which we hear scripture and see ourselves in the parables.  The Parable of the Prodigal is your story.  It is my story.  It is God’s story.  People in trouble who make the news are now seen as somebody’s kid.  And God knows that somebody’s kid’s name and waits for them with open arms, too.

I’m not here to judge the parenting they’ve received or the choices that have been made.  Consequences still happen and restitution must be followed through.  But God’s invitation is for all people.  God’s grace goes above and beyond what we understand or can even imagine!  We need only look up and accept his invitation, his pleading to come.  St. Paul writes, “So, if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” 

God’s prodigal love and forgiveness is for you!  We must celebrate together when the lost are found and the dead are brought back to life!  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

– Brenda Tibbetts, Associate in Ministry