Sunday, March 10, 2013

"Every party has a pooper, that's why he invited you..."

If I were going to name the story most of us know as "The Parable of  the Prodigal Son", I would call it "The Parable of the Party Pooper." Let me tell you why. 

Its meaning is lost on us unless we read it in its context. So, we need to begin with what prompts Jesus to tell it. Here’s the deal. Jesus is hanging out with tax collectors and sinners and this isn’t going over well with the fine, upstanding religious people of his day, the scribes and Pharisees. “It just isn’t right!” they insist.
So, he responds to their complaining with three stories, one after another. The first is about a shepherd who had a hundred sheep. One wandered off and he left the 99 to go and find it. As shepherds go, this wasn’t a real smart thing to do, but it all seemed to work out. He found that one lost sheep and brought it back home. When he got there, he told his friends, “This is something to celebrate. Let’s have a party!”

Then the second story is about a woman who had ten coins. She lost one and turned the house inside out and upside down in order to find it. When she finally did, she called to her friends and said, “This is something to celebrate. Let’s have a party!”

And, in case his audience doesn’t quite comprehend what he’s trying to tell them about why he spends so much time with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus tells them one more story to seal the deal.

As I said, we know it as the parable of “The Prodigal Son.” And that very title indicates a bias in the way we interpret it and apply it to our lives. We really like the part about the son who makes a mess of his life and returns home to his father, who is waiting with open arms. It assures us that no matter what we may do in this life, no matter how far we may stray, God’s grace never fails. It’s a story that brings tears to our eyes, especially if we’ve ever experienced our own version of it in real life.

But there’s another son in this story. Another son who separates himself from a father who never stops loving him. Another son who is given all that life has to offer and chooses the way of death instead. The son who really makes a mess of his life. The party pooper.

Jesus’ original hearers knew who he was talking about when he got to this part of the story. They were not the younger son who went off and blew all his inheritance on foolishness. They were the older son, the good one who always did the right thing.

Any Jew of this era would have recognized that the central message always comes at the end of a parable. That’s the way they were taught to listen to them. The punch doesn’t come at the beginning or the middle. It comes at the end. In addition, the story of the older brother also happened to be the story that comes at the end of three parables that were all a part of the same thread. All addressed the issue posed by the disgruntled scribes and Pharisees who were complaining about the company Jesus was keeping. So, Jesus’ big finish to his extended teaching here comes with the story about the older son.

A friend of mine, ELCA Pastor Paul Meier, blogged about this week’s gospel text and referred to it as the parable of “the whiny Protestant Son.” What a weird thing for him to say, I thought. But then he pointed out something in the text I hadn’t noticed before. The father divided his wealth to them. Not just the younger son who asked for his share, but the father divided it between the two of them. The younger son asked for what was rightfully his. And, we all know how that turned out.
But that part of the story is only secondary to the real zinger at the end. We may try to focus on the poor misguided son who is such a mess that he needed the grace of the father. Yeah, that preaches. We like it. But then Jesus moves from preachin’ to meddlin’.
Pastor Meier writes, “Don’t get me wrong, the grace part is highly important for those living recklessly.… The chapter starts by saying Jesus is talking to tax collectors and sinners. They need to hear the good news.…God places no demands on those who are found. God throws a party when God finds them.

“The resentment in compliant sons is that they don’t get to look down their noses at their disgusting brothers to see them grovel and pay for their prodigalness. How can the father accept them with no disciplinary action? They need to be placed on eternal probation so there’s a perpetual hammer over their head that keeps them in line. 

"Lest we forget, the father divided his possession to them.” If the father apportioned the family possessions according to custom, with two sons, the older one got 2/3rds while the younger one got 1/3rd. The elder son got a double portion.
Pastor Meier continues… “The younger son took his money and tried to find happiness. He spent all his money, albeit foolishly. And that’s partly why I don’t think the younger son was Protestant. He was able to spend his money on fun things – which is not saying I agree with his choices of trying to find his life. We usually have to make some mistakes before we come to our senses.
“But Protestants tend to think work comes before fun. Protestants tend to think putting money in the bank for retirement is fun. Protestants tend to think if you’ve got a smile on your face, you’re up to no good. Protestants don’t make mistakes. If they do, they have to repent eternally, until they fail again and the cycle starts over. Protestant is an appropriate name because these people have the most fun when they are in a group protesting about what other sinners are doing or not doing that doesn’t meet with their self-imposed restrictions. And then when they see someone else spending their own money and making some mistakes, they get all whiny about it. They call them names, berate them, call them irresponsible, losers….
“They’ve received a double portion of the father’s wealth – the knowledge of the Father’s love as well as God’s blessings – and still that’s not enough. They hate it when people aren’t miserable like them. They hate it when the Father embraces sinners unconditionally who haven’t paid their dues.
“How do I know this? I was born a Protestant—born to look down my nose at sinners. It takes one to know one. Jesus’ parable is simply a mirror for those of us who read the Bible or go to church to see ourselves in action.
“So if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to have some fun by putting a little money in the bank. Then I’ll meet up with my buddies over coffee and solve the problems of the world by whining about all my lazy prodigal brothers and sisters out there.”

Now, Pastor Meier was blogging with his tongue in his cheek regarding Protestants, to be sure. But he was making a strong point. Especially, when you look at all three of these stories together and you notice that they have more in common than the fact that they are all about the lost being found. Each of them also describes the same response to the lost being found. In each story we hear: “This is something to celebrate. Let’s have a party!”

 And that was exactly what the elder brother couldn’t bring himself to do. He had received twice as much as his younger brother, but he couldn’t bring himself to rejoice and celebrate when his brother was restored to his family. The older brother had a way of looking at the world that said people get what they deserve and the most deserving should get the most.

So, is that what Protestantism looks like? I don’t know if I would go that far, but it does make a great deal of sense when you consider how what we call the “Protestant work ethic” operates. The Protestant work ethic teaches us that if you want anything in this life you’re going to have to work for it. And if you work hard enough, you will be rewarded. It’s an interesting way of looking at life, and I know it’s so engrained in our culture that many people will fight to the death before they will admit that it might not necessarily happen that way. Or, God forbid, that maybe it shouldn’t happen that way.

We hear a lot of talk these days about entitlements. And I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but entitlements are never spoken of in a positive way. Of course, the word choice implies that we are giving people hand-outs, that people are receiving what they don’t deserve. But that's not what it means to be entitled. The irony is that the ones who are most enraged by this are those who, in fact, believe they are the ones who are entitled. They have worked hard and they deserve to be rewarded. Because they are entitled to what they see as rightfully theirs. Does that not sound a whole lot like the elder brother to you?

When the younger son finally returns home, why does the father say, “Let’s celebrate!?” Is it because the son came and groveled at his feet? The father had his arms around his son before the boy even had time to finish the little apology he had been rehearsing the whole way home. We don’t know if the son was truly repentant or if he was just desperate and poor. This son was totally undeserving. And that, of course, is the point. Because that’s the way grace works. What the older son might have perceived as a father’s misplaced entitlement was simply love and compassion. And it was too much for the older son to bear.

 Is the reason why we downplay the part of the story where the older brother whines about how unfair this is because we resemble that remark?  Do we see the older brother’s perspective so clearly because it tends to reflect the way we see the world, too?

I remember once taking a group of college students to Washington, DC on a mission trip. We served lunch to the homeless in a soup kitchen. It was a real learning for the students because of some of the assumptions they had about homeless people. The students assumed that those coming to the soup kitchen would be humble. And grateful for the food. They would realize that these were college students who had chosen to come here over their spring break when they could have been in Ft. Lauderdale. So, they would appreciate these kind young people who were serving them. Well, some did. But some did not. They complained about the menu. They grumbled about the portion sizes. They didn’t say “thank you” when they were served. A few of the students told them what they thought of their behavior and I had to intervene. We had a lot to talk about during our group meeting that night. It was a good learning. They were reacting as the older son who expected a little more in return for his exemplary behavior. These ungrateful homeless people didn’t deserve their kindness. Yeah, that’s about right, isn’t it?

Despite the worldview of the culture around us, we need to be reminded of how things work in the Kingdom of God. And we need to figure out which kingdom we will pitch our tent in. God’s kingdom is not about deciding who deserves food, and clothing, and health care, and an adequate education for today’s world, and who does not. God’s kingdom is a place of mercy and compassion for all. Especially those many of us would deem undeserving. God’s kingdom is not about excluding the undesirables who don’t meet our standards. It is a place where all are welcome as children of God, without reservation.

God’s kingdom isn’t even about gritting our teeth and extending love and mercy to those we may deem undeserving because it’s our Christian duty to do so, doggone it! It’s about celebrating and throwing a party whenever we have the opportunity to participate in God’s loving embrace for all.

“This is something to celebrate! Let’s have a party!” Jesus says. Certainly, it’s an invitation to those who may not deserve it. But I can assure you that it is also an invitation extended to those who are absolutely convinced that they do.  


1 comment:

Sally D said...

A great sermon! I'll be sharing!