Our earliest memories
live in a cloudless chamber
safely preserved from the corrosive effects
of later experiences and subsequent memories.
One of mine is going to my father’s office.
I was the youngest of five
and in the years before I went to kindergarten
my mother would take me downtown
in Muncie, Indiana
where my dad hung his shingle
as a solo attorney.
I remember the rows and rows of bookcases.
I would feel the books
and later count them.
Once I asked why he had so many books
and he said a new one arrived every month
because the laws were always changing.
I remember thinking –
and isn’t it weird to remember a thought –
that when I grew up
I would do something that didn’t change so much.
Many people might assume
that a theological tradition rooted in the Bible
wouldn’t change much –
after all, the Bible is the Bible
and it never changes.
But that would be an assumption
that turns out to be empty.
As I said at the Lenten program last week,
we know more about Jesus
and more about the Gospels now
than Augustine did,
or even earlier theologians.
What we have learned from archeology
and literary and historical criticism
brushes and cuts through the layers and layers
encrusting the Bible.
That is not to say we have perfect vision,
we are still looking through a glass darkly,
but what we have learned in the last sixty years
has radically changed our perspectives.
And in fact, one of the things
we are more conscious of now
is that the perspective from which we look at Jesus
changes the Jesus we see.
We know now
there is no single Jesus
and there never has been
since he died.
The Jesus remembered
and the Jesus preached
and the Jesus encountered
is a prism reflecting and refracting light
that appears and streams differently
depending upon which direction we are looking from.
There is a forty-year wall – two generations –
between a dead Jesus on the cross
and the first Gospel (Mark).
It is a thick, impenetrable wall.
We can decipher a great many things
about the editorial bias and theological assumptions
of each of the Gospel writers,
and that tells us a lot about how Jesus
was perceived in the first hundred years –
and then subsequently, how near or far
beliefs about Jesus changed from there.
But that first forty years is tough to see through.
That is why archeology and anthropology
are so crucial
and why they have added to
and changed so much about how we see Jesus.
Since we do not get to know him,
the way historians can get to know
Abraham Lincoln or Susan B. Anthony,
gaining intimate knowledge
about the life of a first century Galilean peasant
and the politics of Rome and Jerusalem
gives us a lot of light to see through.
We start to ask different questions
and understand the issues of the day differently.
Even the recognition,
as utterly obvious as it may seem to us today,
that Jesus was a Jew
and totally unaware of anything that would
come to be called and considered “Christian,”
leads to a pervasive transformation of our theology
from the past nineteen centuries.
Of course it doesn’t have to lead to any changes.
It is possible not to recognize or accept
any new body of knowledge.
It is quite possible to receive orthodox beliefs
and attempt to make them fit
into a century as inhospitable to orthodoxy
as has ever exited.
And more power to those who are trying
to hang in there with orthodox
or even fundamentalist perspectives,
but you may have deciphered that I am not one of them.
The Prodigal Son story
hints at the Jesus we see differently now
from the Jesus of imperial Rome,
or the Jesus of Calvinism,
or the Jesus of Liberal Protestant Theology
in the 20th century.
So here is something that every seminary-educated preacher
knows but often neglects to tell
when it comes to a story like the Prodigal Son.
which the Prodigal Son story was at one time,
were a unique rhetorical device
of first century Judean and Galilean Jews.
Parables have not been found, in this particular form,
in any other culture.
Parables were pithy,
down to earth illustrations
drawn from every day life,
and used to make a point
about a moral truth or sacred wisdom.
A true parable had a single point:
A sharp tip to pierce the thick fog that pads our thinking.
Held like a diamond with tweezers
the point of a parable is seen between
two contrasting images:
A single point between two contrasting images.
But here is the thing:
almost all of the parables as they appear in the Gospels,
written as they were forty or more years later,
in different parts of the world
and in a different language and culture,
bastardized the specialized Semitic story-form of parable.
Often they were turned into allegories
familiar in the Greek and Roman traditions.
An allegory takes every element of the story
and uses it to symbolize something –
so instead of a single point
there is a cacophony of points.
As an allegory
the father represents something
and the oldest son represents something
and the youngest son represents something
and the pigs represent something
and on and on and on.
But not so with a parable.
If we receive the Prodigal Son story as parable
then we are looking for the tension
held between two contrasting images.
For example, the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed –
an inauspicious beginning
is contrasted with a cosmic conclusion.
The kingdom of God is like the contrast between
wise and foolish wedding attendants –
some stay ready and some do not.
The kingdom of God is like the contrast between
a bad priest and a good Samaritan:
something thought to be good is bad
and something thought to be bad is good.
So what are the two elements
Jesus may have been contrasting
in the story of the Prodigal Son?
It might have been the two sons, but I doubt it –
they don’t do anything except get loved,
and each in their own way
demonstrates just how painfully difficult
it was for them to accept love.
It seems to me
the contrast to keep our eye on in this story
is between the limitless love of the father for both sons
and the limited love of the older brother
for his younger brother.
It is a barbed story
that sticks in the craw of those to whom
Jesus is telling the story.
And it may stick in our craw too.
Now, as with everything, context matters.
Here is the context Luke places around this parable:
“Now the tax collectors and sinners kept crowding around Jesus so they could hear him. But the religious leaders and scholars would complain to each other: ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ So Jesus told them this parable…”
The contrast is between Jesus
who eats with horrible people
and religious leaders and scholars
who only associate with the privileged like themselves.
God and Jesus, according to Luke,
do not hem in their love at the border
between moral and immoral,
good and bad,
acceptable and unacceptable.
That kind of love
is in contrast to the love of religious leaders
and the oldest brother
which stops at the edge of the wilderness
where the shadow-land of human struggle
The utter exuberance of the father’s joy
that wraps his long-lost son in a bear hug
with tearful affection
displays an abundance of generosity
in contrast to the stingy resentment
that leaves the older brother
with an ugly look on his face.
But the action doesn’t stop there!
The dad also welcomes the oldest son
and keeps welcoming him into the celebration –
encouraging and inviting him
to come in out of his resentment.
The dad reaches across angry and bitter alienation
and invites his oldest son to stay connected
because, he says, “what’s mine is yours.”
The love of the father is extravagant
and extended to both sons,
traveling excessively beyond normal standards.
But there is an even juicier nugget to savor:
The dad’s love is not rooted in any way
to the particular choices
that either son makes.
Be they good, bad, or ugly choices,
the Dad extends his love to them regardless.
Who loves like that?
Whose love is not connected to the choices we make?
Love that is not tied with a string
to the other end of a condition
is outrageously extravagant.
Love rooted in
and utterly undifferentiated from
the actions of the one who is loved
is crazy and recklessly extravagant.
isn’t your creation wasteful?
Fruits never equal
the seedlings’ abundance.
Springs scatter water.
The sun gives out
(excerpt from, “Isn’t the Creation Wasteful?” by Helder Camara,
the Liturgical reading for this day).
Now, look at Church.
Still the most segregated hour in America
as Martin Luther King pointed out fifty years ago.
Segregated by class as much as race.
So instead of church leading culture
we reflect the sins of the culture in which
we are embedded, and then
sometimes we reinforce those prejudices.
The message of the Prodigal Son
is subversive to a Christianity
that gleefully draws lines in the sand
between “us and them”
and saved and condemned.
But the message of the Prodigal Son
is not only subversive to religion;
it is also subversive to our political
and economic culture,
finding joy and profit as it does
in segregation and division.
The message of this parable,
if we allow it to,
will relentlessly assault our prejudices
rooted in class and race,
ethnicity and gender,
sexual orientation and religious ideology.
The message of this parable,
as simple as it is, is this:
It sounds ridiculous
but the act of eating together changes everything.
It’s not serve the poor
but eat with the poor.
It’s not agree with the hate-mongers
but eat with the hate-mongers.
Your hand on the same loaf of bread
that awful sex traffickers touched.
My lips on the salsa that mingled with the germs of a drug dealer.
Your fingers placed on the butter knife
that was just held by a CEO
rich off the profits of a credit card company
making billions from immorally exorbitant interest rates.
A table set for you and me and pimps.
A table set for you and me and thieves.
A table set for you and me and torturers.
A table set for you and me and credit hawkers.
A table set for you and me and hate-mongers.
“Eat together,” Jesus says.
And not just eat together – kill the fatted calf!
We’re not talking about tea and crumpets here,
we’re talking PARTY:
hand made pasta with grilled seafood,
chocolate brownies with fudge sauce…
The Prodigal Son parable invites us to
party across the boundaries of acceptability
and reach across the no-no lands between us.
“Associate with the bad guys,” the story shouts,
“all those bad guys
your mom told you to stay away from.
Eat, drink, and be merry!”
The love of God
and the courage of Jesus
to embrace the putrid and immoral,
is contrasted with the oldest brother
(and you and me)
who love what is good and right,
beautiful and fair.
But it turns out loving who and what we like
and approve of
is not good enough.
The story of the Prodigal Son,
which is really about the father and the oldest son,
does not tell us how we are supposed to break down
nor does it guide us through the tensions
awaiting us in such real-life encounters.
All it really says is, “Eat together.”
If we think about the act of eating together,
what happens at the table
and how intimate it really is to share food,
I suspect we would learn what we need to know
once we started eating together.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ is this:
The kingdom of God is like eating together.