Join the Party Every Day!
Lent 4C – Luke 15: 1-3, 11b-32/ 2 Corinthians 5: 16-21
When I was ordained into the priesthood I received a telegram that read in part, “Dear Kirk Alan Kubicek, May this day mark the beginning of a mission that will bring many people closer to each other, closer to God and closer to themselves.”
This would be the task for all of us as Jesus illustrates in the 15th chapter of Luke. Often called The Prodigal Son, it might better be titled The Generous, Loving and All Merciful Father. Or, The Ungrateful Brother. Or, The Steward of the Household of God. Or, Life Among The Pigs! It is true that Ernest Hemingway tried out almost 50 different titles for his book A Farewell to Arms.
So we read that tax collectors (read “collaborators with the Roman Oppression) and sinners were flocking to see him and listen to him. Obviously he is teaching at the dinner table as the Pharisees and scribes are sneering, “Look, this man welcomes and eats with sinnerssssssssssss…..”, offering their very best serpent impersonation. Overhearing them Jesus does what he does best. He tells a story about a young man and his father. We are all too familiar with this tale. The young man wants and gets his inheritance right now. The beginning of the instant gratification movement! Of course he squanders the money and ends up literally among the pigs. Pigs, you may recall, are not kosher. They are unclean. Yet, there he is wishing that he might eat some of the pig slop.
He had reached his bottom as we say in Twelve Step groups. The text says he came to himself. Spiritual teachers would say he woke up! He realizes that even his father’s debt-slaves get better than this pig slop. So he decides to go home, repent to his father and ask if he might work the fields as a hired hand. He has been humbled indeed.
Before he even gets to the front door his Father runs down the road to greet him and kiss him. Then the Father turns to a servant, apparently the steward of the household, and orders him to bring the best robe, a fine ring and to kill the fatted calf so there can be a party to celebrate the son’s return, “…for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and now he is found.” The Father is genuinely happy, merciful, abounding in steadfast love and relents from punishing his Son. The party gets under way.
The older brother was just coming in from a hard day’s work in the fields. He hears the music and asks, ‘What’s up?’ A servant tells him the news. The brother is incensed and refuses to go in to join the party. The Father comes out to invite him in personally, but the brother will have no part of it. “I have obeyed you and worked my tail off for you day after day and you have never given me so much as a young goat with which to party with my friends!” No doubt he is pouting as he whines.
The Father reminds him that all that is his will one day be yours since your brother already has claimed and spent his inheritance. But we had to celebrate. We just had to! For this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and now has been found!
We are never told if the brother relented and joined the party. Jesus leaves it right there for the scribes and Pharisees and tax collectors and sinners and for all of us to ponder. There is no moral or explanation. Evidently he feels there is no need for one. It is, as we say, self-evident. Or is it?
Without giving it any thought, how many of you identify with the younger son? Perhaps you have squandered an opportunity, or have let go of your relationship with God and/or with others and really really know what it is like to be eating slop with the pigs! Or, how many of you identify with the older brother? I mean really, if there was ever a justified moment for righteous indignation, coming in from the fields and hearing the music and merriment and then realizing it is for your no good reprobate younger brother! Resentment is easy to fall into, just as easy as the younger brother fell into the pig pen. Then who identifies with the Father? You have known the pain of loss – of having lost a child, or at least one that is as good as dead. Or you have felt estranged from a close family member or friend, and yet you still yearn to somehow make things right again. You want to return to a relationship with that person no matter what the cost. And when it happens you put on the Ritz and celebrate and embrace that lost soul unconditionally just to be reunited with one you believed to be as good as dead.
That leaves one final character in our story for today: who identifies with the slave, the servant, the household steward. Does anyone identify with him, this debt-slave? Ironic, isn’t it, that the word steward derives from the term “sty warden” or keeper of the pigs! We ought to all identify with this servant, because that is who we are. St. Paul writes in the fourth chapter of his First Letter to the Corinthians – “…we are servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.”
The Father (God, Abba, Father?) entrusts the entire household to this debt-slave. This servant has access to all the finest possessions in the household: fine robes, fine jewelry, the finest food! The Father trusts this debt-slave with all of this, just as God in Christ trusts us with all the finest gifts of creation, with creation itself, and with the mysteries of God. As Paul writes in his Second Letter to the Corinthians, we are given a specific ministry – that of reconciliation. As such, we are ambassadors for Christ. This, writes Paul, is what it means to be created imago Dei, in the image of God.
“In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” We are stewards of the mysteries of God!
I am told Carl Jung’s understanding of dreams is that we are all of the characters in our dreams working out our own internal stuff. Applying that to this story, it is reasonable to assume that at one time or another we all are the young son, we all are the older son, we all are the Father, and we all are the steward. We can only imagine what the scribes and Pharisees made of all this. We can be sure the tax collectors and sinners understood it right away and left the supper table humbled and with a renewed sense of life and purpose and gratitude.
As stewards of the mysteries of God, we are all given a mission of reconciliation – as my mentor Elie Wiesel wrote to me that day long long ago, “a mission that will bring many people closer to each other, closer to God and closer to themselves.” It was only when the young son came closer to himself that he was able to repent and return home. His Father was so eager to get closer to his lost son that he ran down the road to embrace him. So it is that God waits upon us to come closer to ourselves, our true selves. It is only when we reconcile ourselves with ourselves and others that we truly are home again. We come from love, we return to love, and love is all around. All of life is a homecoming – a coming home to God.
We are not told what the older brother did, but my hope and my prayer is that one day he too “came to himself” and joined the party and truly came home again. The Father loves them both. The Father invites us all to join the party every day! Amen.