Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Follow to the Father (or, How to Give the Same Message to Two Different Audiences)

into       LENT

You can always come home. 

Luke 15:1-3

New International Version (NIV)
15 Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
Then Jesus told them this parable:

11 Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.
13 “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
17 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
31 “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”

The word Pharisee literally means - "separated one".
This group has been a focus for us in this Lenten season. We want to look at the way they do things, how they practice their religion, and how they interact with the world around them. To be separated from the world around them meant to keep some sort of purity for themselves.That purity became an obsession. There was a purity in what they believed about God. Their rituals in the temple. How they conducted themselves while interacting with other cultures and people. Every area of their lives was ruled by this need for purity. Right down to the food they ate. How it was prepared. The way they washed their hands before they ate. And, especially, who they ate said food with.

To the Pharisee, sharing a meal with a sinner or tax collector was not only a trampling of their belief system but also showed a certain acceptance to the lifestyle of said person.

The Pharisees undoubtedly shook their heads in disgust when Jesus would go off with a group of tax collectors and others to eat at their houses. For these religious leaders, the mere idea of being crowded around and touched by such people would have been an absolute defilement.

Jesus, of course, hears these murmurings. He is aware of what they think of his exploits. In this moment we come to some familiar parables in the 15th chapter of the gospel of Luke. Jesus strings together three parables the help illustrate why he enjoys being with the common, everyday people. "The sinners." There is a climatic approach to these parables. A shepherd loses one of his sheep. An old woman who is cleaning loses a coin. A father who has two sons has to watch one of them walk away. In the final story, Jesus casts this rigid group of religious leaders as a key character in his story.

Why the younger son wants to leave, we don't know. Jesus chooses to leaves some details out. Maybe it not important. Maybe what's truly important here is that the father has to say goodbye. It's never easy to let your child go. Letting them leave, for whatever reason, is one of the hardest things a human being has to endure. We raise our children with as much knowledge and fortitude that we can muster. We hope they will make the right choices. We hope they have learned all the need to know to be successful. We don't want them to fail.

I recall what it was like to leave home at 18 and venture into the world.
I had no idea how I was going to make it. I had no real vision for the road ahead. I had a job at the local grocery store. I had a car I loved. There were a few dollars in my pocket and rent to be paid. Other than that, there was no vision for the future. Living day to day. Just trying to survive. Some kids had college and dreams of a career. I just wanted to work and play. Not much more than that. I feel as if I can draw some parallel with the prodigal here. Maybe you can too. There are moments in our lives when we just want to venture away and do our own thing.

The father must let go. It has to be hard. I can only imagine. My kids are still growing and with every milestone I wonder if I will be able to contain my grief. My boy will start kindergarten this year. My girl will head to fifth grade in the fall. Fifth grade! It seems like I was just picking her up like I am my 5 year old boy. I am bracing myself for it. There will come a moment when they both will have to leave home. Like the father of the prodigal, I will have to simply let go and watch them leave.

The prodigal's case is only similar to our if we take it from a spiritual level. The father represents God in the story. The son represent those who have wandered away to do their own thing. Worship their own god. Live their own lifestyle. A lifestyle that is not centered or focused on God's values. But, centered an focused on ourselves. The son wants to take his inheritance and just go do whatever he wants to do. Spend it raucously. Drink whatever he wants. Go wherever he wants. There is nothing forbidden to him now. How many of us sought to leave home so we could 'sow our wild oats'? I recall where my 'old stomping grounds' are in northern Ohio. The things I have done. The moment that require forgiveness. The people I encountered. As teenagers, we can't wait to get out there and blaze our own trail.

It is in the midst of blazing his trail that the prodigal wakes up one morning and realizes there is nothing left. No more money. No more fun. No more wild oats to be sown. In his story, Jesus put him in the midst of a great famine. A picture the Israelites would be familiar with in their own history. How many times did the Israelites go through hardships and trials? Now, this son, this "prodigal" has lost all he has. There is nothing and he is desperate. The only work he can find is slopping pigs. It is in this moment while he is feeding the pigs that he realizes how hungry he is for some kind of nourishment. So hungry is he that the very slop the pigs are taking in looks good to him. Then he realizes one other thing.

If he were at home, none of this hardship would even be possible.

The idea slowly forms in his mind. "If I go back home, maybe my father will take me back."
Maybe he can hire on as one of the servants. Maybe there will be work to do. At least he can eat three meals a day and have the strength to do the work. He forms a repentant speech in his mind. "Father I am not worthy to be called your son..." He has it all planned out what to say and how to say it. With that bit of foundation laid, he begins to head for home.

The father hasn't slept a wink since his son left. He has paced the floor. He has worried about what his son will encounter. He has sat on the front porch waiting and watching. One day as he watches, a small dot punctuates the horizon. He sees a figure in the distance, growing in size with each step taken. Then, he notices a familiar stride. You probably recognize your own family or kin from a distance as well. That walk or the hair or clothing. The father knows it is his son. He leaves the house in a dead run.

Upon reaching his son, he sees a ragged form of the boy who left home. He hardly looks like the person who left to seek fun and pleasure. The son begins to recite the careful tune he has planned to give his father in hopes of finding shelter and refuge. The father doesn't even let him. He calls for a servant. "Get him a robe. Put some sandals on his feet. Put a ring on his finger. Kill the fatted calf so we can celebrate." The boy who was thought to be dead has returned home. Celebration is in order.

The older son comes in from the fields and a hard days work.
Upon hearing all the commotion, he wonders why there is a party going on and nobody invited him. He calls a servant over and ask what he ruckus is about. "Your brother has returned! Your father has killed the fatted calf so they can celebrate." The father finds out that his older son is outside and won't enter into the fray. He steps out to have a conversation that the Pharisees suddenly see as a moment where they fit in to this story. "You've killed the fatted calf and have celebrated this worthless child's return? I have been here all these years and you've given me anything so I can go have fun with my friends!" The father sees his anger. He knows he is troubled. "My son. You are always with me and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found." 

No matter who was are in life, the sinner who has squandered and sown wild oats, or the dutiful person that is disciplined and orderly in their life - we all need salvation. Some go off to distant lands seeking a life filled with pleasure and riches. Some are right outside heaven's door. Living a life that seems good and hopeful. But, inside is filled with hatred and hurt for others. Both need the life that only Christ can bring. No one is meant to be shut out. Both need to "come home". 

In coming home, we find the celebration has begun.

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