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Not Just Amazing But Unbelievable

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
The three prodigals walked with their heads down. Their boastful talking had given way to silence. The rain had started earlier that morning and continued off and on throughout the day. The boys were wet and cold but they kept walking with one arm extended, hoping to "hitch a ride." Their plans were to go to Atlantic City but they were still a long way from Pittsburgh. Their runaway adventure had becoming a walk of drudgery.

The first night out was fun. They got a quick ride and an easy trip to Youngstown, OH. They slept the first night, stealthy hidden in an aluminum tool shed outside a hardware store. The bummed a few rides across town during the morning but no one seemed interested in picking up three disheveled looking youth on a Saturday afternoon. Supper consisted of a hamburger, fries, and a coke. They talked about shoplifting some food at the grocery store to stretch their money. They had each done it before. It was no big deal but the threat of being caught away from home appeared too risky. 

After the sun had set, they continued to walk even in the darkness. They could not find a safe haven to spend the night. There were no tool sheds. They found one building under construction but it was too dirty and too cold. They finally crashed in a back hallway of a motel hoping no one would find them. The firm hand of the night manager shaking them awake made them realize that their runaway adventure had come to an end.

Sitting in the police station the three prodigals debated whose father would be the maddest. Each of them knew that they had done something really stupid. They had broken the rules. They had violated a trust. They had publicly humiliated their family and none of their fathers would ever be confused with the waiting father from this morning passage.

The life of a prodigal usually begins with a sense of excitement. The thrill of adventure marks the moment but when the money runs out and friends desert, the time of judgment arrives. It is a very tense and stressful time. Whether you have been a prodigal or the waiting parent, you understand how difficult those times are to both. Every parent and every prodigal can feel the tension in this morning's story. I have seen some young people do some pretty stupid things but none as audacious as the son in our story. I have also seen a few parents be very gracious and forgiving but once again, none like the parent in our story. The father in this morning's passage goes beyond the expect norms of a human parent and demonstrate to us that God's grace is not just amazing but unbelievable.

The parable begins with the son's request for his inheritance. In the presence of a living father, this request is tantamount to a death wish. It is going beyond the vindictive words spoken in the heat of a verbal argument. The father should have stuck the boy and driven him out of the house. The child is not simply trying to runaway from home to seek his fame and fortune. The son has overstepped his boundaries and has committed an act of rebellious defiance. This father would know how King David felt when his son Absolam demanded the throne. The father responds with unbelievable charity and grace. He not only grants the absurd request but even allows his son to publicly humiliate him through the public sale of the family goods.

The public humiliation occurred after the son has received his inheritance. The NIV says; "he gathered all he had" but the New English Bible puts it, "he turned it into cash," implying that the boy liquidated his assets. In a small town, he could only do this by publicly selling the goods. This brought the private family squabble public and shamed his father. Jewish law provided for a division of the inheritance before the father's death but the children could not sell any of the inheritance until after their father's death. The son probably sold the goods far below their fair market value. He needed to leave the village quickly before the residents responded in anger over his shameful actions. 1

Have you ever considered that the things that you did in your "rebellious days" brought shame upon your God? In baptism, through the confession of your parents, God sealed you in his love. He placed his mark of adoption on you. He claimed you as one of his own. Yet, you demanded your portion of the inheritance and sought to go your own way. Through it all God the Father granted every absurd request that you made, even while his heart broke.

With the slam of the door, the father's wait begins. We do not need to elaborate on the details of the son's story. This morning's sermon is not about the son. It is about the one who is at home waiting and watching. Parents are better off if they do not know the explicit details of their children's escapades, even afterward. We do not need to know the grim particulars. We do not need to know the reckless decisions, the irresponsible actions. The father waits and tries not to let the pain become overwhelming.

Did you ever wonder what God was feeling while you were playing games in a distant land? Did you ever wonder what God was thinking while you were squandering your inheritance? The pain you felt when your son or daughter walked out of the house in anger barely touches the depth of pain that God the Father feels for his wayward children.

Why does the father wait? The father knows that eventually his son will fail so he waits for the day when the son will return home. He stands and stares down the very same road on which that arrogant, self-centered young man walked. But the father is not idle. He begins to prepare for the day of his son's return.

From ancient times, the Jewish community developed a ceremony for punishing a boy who squandered his family inheritance. It was more severe than the Amish "shun." The villagers would bring a large earthenware jar, fill it with burned nuts and burned corn, and break it in front of the guilty child. While doing this, they would announce that the child is cut off from his people. From that day, the village would have nothing to do with the young man.

The father knew that if he and his son were to be reconciled, he would have to act quickly the moment his son returned. By his actions, he would signal how the community would receive the boy. The ceremony to cut off the young man would not be enacted if the father openly embraced the child.

Before we can understand the father's welcome, we must first understand the son's return. During my reading, I discovered that my understanding of this part of the parable had a flaw. I once thought that the son's response contained an element of repentance. Kenneth Bailey who provided much of the content of this sermon proved me wrong.

The son is not sorrow for what he has done. The son is sorrow for the consequences of his actions. He is alone and hungry. Had he been sorrow he would have returned with some form of gift. This boy walks back empty handed. Even the boy's supposed confession is a calculated statement not a response of penitence. It comes from the mouth of Pharaoh who tried to manipulate Moses into lifting the plagues. Jesus audience would have been filled with Pharisees who knew the source and intent of those words. The young man does not have a contrite heart but is hoping to present a bargaining chip. He thinks that by working for his father, he will be able to repay the money. He assumes that once the debt has been repaid, both his father and the villagers will accept him. "He does not consider the father's broken heart and the agony of rejected love that his father has endured."2

While the boy is still far off, the father, picks up his robe and goes running down the road to welcome him. Given the son's deeds, given the son's lack of true repentance, this is an unbelievable act of grace. Men in the Middle East did not usually run to greet an estranged relative. They would sit stoically in their house waiting for the penitent to enter and offer an explanation and their apologies. Running to greet the wayward child is the mother's role. This father shows us that God is willing to be both Lord and servant, both father and mother. He is willing to do whatever it takes to restore his lost son.

Dad had shared his concerns for his daughter with his pastor several times. The girl refused to take responsibility for her studies. Every campus activity and event seemed a higher priority than her course work. She had been issued an academic warning and was on the verge of flunking out of college. So, when Dad shared that he had just bought a new BMW for his daughter that pastor was rather surprised. "Let me get this straight," the pastor said, "your daughter nearly flunks out of school and you reward her with a BMW? What gives?"

"Well, she's had such a struggle, and she was so upset over last semester. I didn't want her to take her failure the wrong way. I thought she needed a boost, so I got her the car."3

There are times and places when such a gift may be appropriate but a parent who rewards failure is asking for trouble, right? So why does the father throw a party for the son? Isn't he rewarding the boy? What will prevent the boy from making the same mistake? What will prevent the other son, from demanding his share of the inheritance? What will prevent the other boys of the village from making the same demands from their fathers?

These questions all evaporate when we understand why the party is being held. The party is the father's celebration. The child who was lost has been found. The festivities are for the father not the son. The father is celebrating his good fortune. He is not rewarding his son. Listen to his words, "let's have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found." (23b, 24a)4

This is a difficult message for a consumer oriented culture to understand. We assume that God is here to serve us. We assume this worship service is supposed to meet our needs but it is not. This service is a celebration, especially when we gather around the Table and partake of the Bread and the Cup. Each time we celebrate the Lord's supper we remember not only the gracious acts that God the Son offered in our behalf but we also look forward to the Grand Banquet that we will enjoy on the Last Day. But that Banquet will not be a celebration for us but for the Father. He will celebrate the return of his prodigals. He will celebrate his reconciliation with his older brothers. This service, the Lord's Supper is not for us, it is for the Father who patiently waited while we wandered off and then through his arms around us when we returned.

The older brother never understood this. He was so selfish that he simply assumed that the banquet was for his younger brother. He never thought that the Father would throw a party for himself. The older brother was jealous because he was not the center of attention.

Carl was a good churchman. He was there every Sunday. He would do whatever job needed to get done but he just could not stand anyone who "wore their religion on their sleeve." Religion was a private matter. There was no need to talk about a personal God, so when Ben shared that he had been born again, Carl did not want to hear about it or did Carl believe Ben. "Once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic," was Carl's assessment. Carl never understood that he was an elder brother. He did not want younger brothers, like Ben, getting all the attention with their self-righteous piety. Carl wanted a religion that was safe. That did not place many demands on him.

Even prodigals can become elder brothers. Ernest Campbell said that the biggest problem with the American Church is that we have a Loving Father Gospel in an Elder Brother church.5 After serving in the church for many years, we can forget that we were once "far off." We can get jealous when we see new believers or new members get more attention than we get. We forget that we come to church to serve not to be served. Yet, once again the Father demonstrates that his love is not just amazing but unbelievable by offering his love even to the elders brothers of the Church. 

The three prodigals all survived that long and silent ride home. They were eventually reconciled with their parents and their siblings. We do not know how this morning's parable turned out. The story ends with the elder brother standing outside the house listening to the party. The younger brother is inside but we do not know what eventually became of him. I wonder if we are to finish the story ourselves. I wonder if Jesus is leaving the end up to us. We have the choice to come inside and enjoy the party or stand outside. We can choose to welcome the prodigal home or we can choose to let jealousy and envy control us. We have the choice whether or not we will enjoy a love that is not just amazing but unbelievable.

1 Kenneth Bailey, "The Pursuing Father," ChristianityToday, October 26, 1998 Vol. 42, No. 12, 34, Online: The entire sermon is indebted to this article except where noted and the autobiographical introduction.
2 Kenneth Bailey, "The Pursuing Father."
3 William H. Willimon, "A party? And during Lent," Pulpit Resource, Vol. 26, No. 1, 47, 48.
4 Kenneth Bailey, "The Pursuing Father." 
5 Robin R. Meyers, With Ears to Hear-Preaching as Persuasion, (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 1993) quoted by William H. Willimon, "A party? And during Lent," Pulpit Resource, Vol. 26, No. 1, 50.

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