TAKE WHAT YOU NEED
Luke 15: 1-3, 11b-32
A sermon by Thomas R. McKibbens
March 31, 2019
Have you ever noticed that the Prodigal Son story is so familiar that our eyes tend to glaze over when we hear it? This story is an answer to criticism of Jesus for his choice of dinner companions. The Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
In response to their criticism, he tells a story about a man who cannot get his two sons to sit down at the same table together. The younger son is so burdened by a sense of unworthiness that he goes off to a far country and does everything he can to prove that he is unworthy, while the older son acts like an upstairs aristocrat at Downton Abby who refuses to eat at the same table with his brother. The story ends with the older brother in a snit, still standing outside in the yard, while the father returns to party with the rest of the family. We are left wondering if the older brother ever went in and joined the party!
While the story prepares us to condemn the older brother’s attitude, it is clear that the father loves them both. He loves them both! And he goes out to meet them both! That’s the kind of compassion and grace God has, according to Jesus. So I can imagine Jesus speaking to those who were grumbling about his dinner companions and saying to them, “Be compassionate like God is compassionate.” And I imagine him turning and looking through the lens of history down to this present time, a time when people are just as likely to condemn and equally ready to turn away, and he says, “You, too, come on home. We’re throwing a party, and I want all my children to be invited.”
This story has become so familiar that we tend to miss the shock value. For one thing, it was shocking to see the extent to which the younger son went in what the text calls dissolute living. What exactly is dissolute living? The older brother assumed that it had to do with sexual license: … when this son of yours comes back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him! Do you think the older brother’s imagination is hard at work here?
The story never mentions anything sexual! Sexual immorality may be confined to the older brother’s repressed imagination! The story only says that he went to a far country, which is Bible talk for associating with Gentiles. He became ritually unclean because he associated with Gentiles, and then when he was flat broke he took a job working with pigs, the one animal that represented absolute ritual uncleanness for the orthodox Jews. So when in desperation the younger son decides to come home to his family, he is considered doubly unclean: both by association with Gentiles and also by association with pigs.
Something else I want to point out is that this story is about a well-to-do family. We in America tend to think of well-to-do families as living somewhat detached from other people, perhaps living in a high-end apartment with doormen and a buzzer system. Or we may think of them living in a gated community. But remember that this story is set in a Jewish village, where the well-to-do family would be living in the middle of the village. And people talk. Everyone in the village would know about the younger son. If anyone knew, they all knew! So when the younger son comes home, we are talking about a public spectacle. The younger son is walking fearfully up Main Street toward his family home in the middle of the village. Word of his coming home quickly spreads, and the whole village comes out to watch. They are all ashamed of the boy. They expect the father to punish him, perhaps refuse to let him come in. After all, the boy’s uncleanness would infect the whole household! Maybe even the whole village!
The more orthodox among the villagers would begin to taunt the boy as he walks toward home. Meanwhile, the boy has his speech all memorized. His lips are moving as he silently practices his speech. He knows the wrath he will face, and he knows he deserves it.
But then comes the shock of the story. The front door is thrown open, and out comes the father holding up the skirts of his robe and running with all his might toward his son. The villagers at first imagine the father is running out to punish the boy in public, but then comes the shock: Bring out a robe…a ring…new sandals. Kill the fatted calf! Let’s have a party…everyone’s invited!
Even a disinterested observer of this family’s dynamics might agree that given the younger son’s behavior, the story ought to end with the younger son spending some time sweating out in the fields, maybe even working under the supervision of his older brother. It is alarming that the father in the story seems to ignore the obvious poor choices the younger son has made. It is alarming that the older son is so incredibly snooty toward his younger brother who has come slinking home. The older brother has played by the rules, worked hard, said “Yes, Sir” to his father, and now his father throws a party for the younger brother without even telling the older brother about it. There is definitely some dysfunction going on in this family.
Yet Jesus uses a story like this to answer his critics who accuse him of eating with the wrong kind of people! Do you think he may be suggesting that the Pharisees who criticized him and the so-called sinners eating with him might be in the same family? That in fact the Pharisees and the sinners are really brothers?
The father in the story loves them both equally, but the brothers have to figure out a way to live together, to eat at the same table, to party in the same room! This story, in other words, is about giving up the idea that we can love God and despise any of God’s children! It simply cannot be done! The only way to work out our relationship with God is to work out our relationship with our brothers and sisters.
Tom Long, who teaches at Emory University, wrote an article in which he told the story of a student of his who went jogging with his father in their urban neighborhood. About half way through their jog, they decided to phone ahead for a home-delivered pizza. This was before the advent of cell phones. As they headed for the pay phone, a homeless man approached them and asked for spare change. The father reached into the pocket of his sweat pants and pulled out a handful of coins. “Here,” he said, “take what you need.”
The homeless man, hardly believing his good fortune, said, “I’ll take it all,” and scooped up the coins in his hands and walked away. It only took a second for the father to realize that he now had no change for the phone. “Pardon me,” he called out to the homeless man. “I need to make a call. Can you spare some change?” The homeless man turned and held out his handful of coins. “Here,” he said, “take what you need.”
The truth is that we are all prodigals of some sort, whether we have retreated to a far country or stayed at home. And we are all beggars, needing nothing more urgently than God’s love to make us whole. So let’s head home! The banquet table is set, the music is already playing, and all God’s children have on their dancing shoes!
And don’t be surprised if God comes out to meet you, holds out a handful of love more precious than any coins, and says, “Here, take what you need.”