Take a good hard look at Jesus, or the father he tells a story about, and you might think he just ain’t right. At least that’s what the Pharisees and scribes thought.
Fourth Sunday in Lent (Year C) – March 6, 2016 – Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
St. Jacob’s-Spaders and Trinity Lutheran Churches, Harrisonburg, Virginia
Just Ain’t Right – Pastor Evan Davis
There was a cartoon show on when I was in high school called King of the Hill – you know what I’m talking about? It’s about a stereotypical Texas family. The father, Hank Hill, sells “propane and propane accessories.” He’s about as simple as it gets. Most of the show revolves around him and his three friends standing by the fence, shooting the breeze. You know how men do when they get together…they make observations about life. Hank often talks about his son who does and says some things that seem to him to be…a little strange. Maybe the best line of the show is Hank’s frequent refrain, “that boy ain’t right.”
It’s not hard for me to imagine the Pharisees and the scribes – good, upstanding, torah-abiding men in their community – standing along the side of the street, making observations about life. Did you hear what Jacob did last week? Man alive, it don’t make no sense. Can you believe Rebekah’s going to marry him? And then there was…Jesus. Did you hear? All the tax collectors and sinners come right up to him, listen to his teaching, if you can call what comes out of his mouth “teaching” at all! And he doesn’t turn them away. He lets them stay. He even…eats with them. This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them! What is this world coming to? That fellow just ain’t right.
At this point, Luke narrates, “so he told them this parable.” It is a parable Jesus tells specifically in response to these street-corner observations from the Pharisees and scribes.
It’s a story about a family that has some issues to deal with. We first meet a younger son. Is this young man a little strange? Let me count the ways. Number one – he is the younger son, which means he has a smaller share of his father’s estate anyways. But he goes right up to his old man and asks for it while his father is still living. It’s like going up to your granddad and asking him for your share of his house when he’s still living in it! It’s as if he was wishing his father were dead. That boy ain’t right. But here’s what’s even more bewildering…the father gives it to him. He doesn’t smack that boy like he should and send him back into the fields. Something ain’t right here.
Just a couple days later that boy took his share and ran off with it clear across the border! Do you know what kind of establishments they have over there? It didn’t take him long to spend every penny in those dens of iniquity. Like I said, that boy ain’t right. And just his luck, at that very moment a famine hit the land, then he sure was sorry. Soon he was feeding the pigs and wishing he could eat their slop! Oh my, how fast and how far he fell! But then the light bulb lit up (not saying it was very bright, but it lit up) and the boy figured his father’s servants were eating better than him! Maybe he fell hard enough that the sorrowful speech he composed in his head was genuine. Maybe he was ashamed and repentant. Or maybe he just knew it wouldn’t be too hard to work the poor old man for a meal.1
But if you thought this story was crazy already, it’s just getting started. Because while the boy was still far off, his old man sees him. What would a dignified father do in the face of such brazen disrespect from his son who dared again to show his face after he effectively cashed-out of the family? A self-respecting father would stand there and stare him down. Maybe send the servants, or the dogs, to intercept the kid. He’d let him come all the way up, on his knees, and not say a word unless the boy said something properly repentant and humbling. Then he’d lay out the terms of any readmittance – working off his wasted inheritance, perhaps.
But this father, this fellow, just ain’t right. While the kid was still far off, the father runs down the lane like a little boy, with his heart on his sleeve, and puts his arms around him and kisses him. The boy attempts his rehearsed speech, but the father isn’t even paying attention. He’s too busy planning the party. Quickly, bring out a robe – the best one – put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet, kill the fatted calf and let the party begin!
There will be no indentured service for this father’s son…no, immediately he is an heir once again. Re-adopted into the family. This father just ain’t right.
And he keeps going, because when the rightfully enraged older son refuses to enter this ridiculous party for that worthless “son of yours,” as he puts it, what does this father do? Just as he ran out to embrace the younger one, he runs out to plead with his older son. What father pleads with his son? Certainly not in that culture of honor and shame. Can’t you hear the older son’s words, can’t you identify with them? “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 even a goat! But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” Here’s the only member of the family making any sense. Those Pharisees and scribes would be nodding their heads.
But this fellow, this father, still ain’t right. “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”
It was never about the younger son or the older. It was about this prodigal father whose love just ain’t right in the eyes of the world, whose dignity and honor melts before his love for all his children. He is the one whose choices, whose reckless love drives the story, whose prodigal love surprises those who have made terrible mistakes before they have any chance to make amends, whose prodigal love absorbs the righteous anger of those who have worked their hands to the bone to please him, only to discover that all that is his was theirs from the beginning.
Parables are Jesus’ way of telling us who we are and who God is, what God is up to, and how God loves us. This parable is Jesus’ way of telling those Pharisees and scribes that the God they think is just as rational as they are, in fact, just ain’t right. Jesus puts them and us on notice that we are dealing with a prodigal God.
This fellow is the one who spends his time down at Middle River and the downtown jail with the ones behind bars, just as he spends time in the homes of those who have been victimized by crime. This fellow welcomes successful, hard-working lawyers and doctors and farmers and businesspeople and teachers and nurses in their Sunday best and he welcomes the hard-working poor, addicts, the unemployed, the homeless, the widows and widowers, the loners, the drifters, and the lost, all the same.
It’s his party to throw, and he’s welcoming whomever he wants, most especially you. Whether you are crawling home from the pig sty or whether you’ve worked all day, come, this feast is for you. Amen.
1David Lose, “Lent 4C: The Prodigal God,” http://www.davidlose.net/2016/02/lent-4-c-the-prodigal-god/ (accessed March 3, 2016).