Sunday, March 18, 2012

So He Told Them This Parable, Part 4 (Luke 15:1-3; 20)

Note: During Lent, our church is studying Timothy Keller's The Prodigal God. The sermons for the next few weeks will incorporate some of the ideas of the study.

Once the son repents and the father forgives, we see the son restored to his status in the family. His plan was to earn his way back in, starting as a hired servant and then after he paid his debt, to become once again a member of the family. But his father's forgiveness has cut that one off and he is once again a son.

In his culture, "son" was more than a simple biological relationship. It was a position, almost like an official office within the family structure, and it's to that status he's been restored. By once again being a son and heir, he is returned to his family responsibilities as well as privileges.

Of course, we recognize daughters as well as sons as having responsibilities to the family, and we recognize their equality and important roles as well. If Jesus were telling this story to us, he would have changed it so that it fit our understanding. We can probably help "translate" it from the ancient Near East to our own society by including the word "heir" as we study it, since we would understand daughters and sons as heirs to a family legacy.

But on the other hand, that culture also viewed things like the family and the family legacy differently than we do. Being a part of the family meant taking place in a generational story that included ancestors and descendants. The family was your means of survival if you had trouble -- some rulers or some religions might have charitable works, but nothing on the scale of our society and so you relied on your family to help you if you were unable to work yourself.

Like today, wealth was the source of the family's strength and ability to help its members. But unlike today, that wealth was not stocks or bank deposits, but land and property. Dividing the property each generation would drain the family's strength, so the bulk went to the oldest son. He had the responsibility of carrying that family legacy forward, so he was given the means to do it. But the other sons had responsibilities as well, and so the younger son's return meant he was again to take up that work.

We say that our repentance and God's forgiveness has restored our status as heirs to God, a status we lost when we centered our lives on things other than God. God received us not as debtors with something to work off, but as children with our place in the family. As we consider this, we might see changes it could bring in our lives.

As children and heirs, we have an access to God through an intimate relationship. Whenever Prince William and Princess Kate have their children, those kids will be able to see the Queen of England without an appointment. Sasha and Malia Obama can visit the President of the United States without an appointment. Do you think that kind of access to God changes your relationship with him, and with the rest of the world? Does it provide a peace and a sense of security that might not come from anywhere or anything else? It does for me.

We also have responsibilities -- perhaps not the same responsibilities as Jesus, our "elder brother," but responsibilities all the same. We have roles in continuing the family business, so to speak.

Our family business is bringing people into this family fellowship and serving people in need. That description's probably not complete, but it covers the bases. We have roles in that business. God assigned us these tasks as a part of our family responsibilities. Of course people outside the church often engage in some of the same work. Many folks who are not believers help feed the hungry, clothe the needy and visit the sick, and we should be glad they do. But it's our job to do it, our task, our mission. Our welcome back into the family is a call to take up that mission and return to it, if we laid it down, or to start it, if we never did.

The math is kind of odd -- the older son in the story is upset because the younger son's return means his inheritance is diminished. But it seems as though the welcoming of more and more heirs to the kingdom, more and more people into the family of God, only serves to increase the wealth of God's love.

So who wouldn't want that?

Sunday, March 11, 2012

So He Told Them This Parable, Part 3 (Luke 15:1-3; 21-24)

Note: During Lent, our church is studying Timothy Keller's The Prodigal God. The sermons for the next few weeks will incorporate some of the ideas of the study.

In the last part we mentioned that the standard Middle Eastern patriarch probably would have responded with blows and verbal abuse to a request like the one the younger son made. But because he didn't, the son felt as though his plan to return home and work as a servant had a chance of success. He could believe in his father's love, having seen it demonstrated.

And her, as his father responds, we see him proven right. Jesus tells the story to try to illustrate to his listeners what God's love and forgiveness are like. In the two sons, he creates the least deserving and the most deserving caricatures he can manage, puts them in situations where no one could doubt what was supposed to happen to them, and shows how God's kind of forgiveness makes something completely different happen instead.

The father accepts the son even before the son can demonstrate he's come back changed. Remember, we know that he has "come to himself" or "come to his senses," but the father in the story doesn't. All he knows is that the boy left with a third of the estate in his pockets and it doesn't look like he's bringing it back with him. Is he here to ask for forgiveness? Is he here to ask for more money? Has he changed and realized the value of a relationship with his father far exceeds the amount of stuff he can get from that relationship? The father doesn't know, but welcomes him anyway. Jesus would tell us that the only difference between the father and God is that the father doesn't know if the son will disappoint him again, but God knows that we will fall short again and still accepts our repentance and return.

The father also accepts on himself the debt that the younger son has incurred. Any time someone wrongs someone else, a debt is created. Sometimes the debt is literal, like when someone takes something that doesn't belong to them. They owe the real owner his or her property back, or proper compensation for its loss. Sometimes it's metaphorical, like the loss of reputation or prestige, or of happiness and peace. If I insult you then I have tried to steal from your reputation, and in order for the scales to balance again I need to give you back what I've stolen. I owe you a debt.

Junior tells us he wants to repay his debt -- he will work for hire for his father until he pays him back everything he owes. But the father doesn't even let him make the offer before he calls for the robe and signet ring and the sandals and the party. He won't require the son to earn his way back in and he will assume the debt himself. Christian teaching tells us that in Jesus, God does the same thing with our debt of wrongdoing. The debt is real and can't just be pretended away, but God can and does say that he will take the loss on himself and welcomes us.

It's good to be clear here: That's not a plan that will always work with other people. Sometimes forgiveness can restore a relationship, but sometimes a broken human relationship can't be restored even when we forgive. If a person forgives someone who's regularly abusive, for example, we don't ask them to return to the relationship and endanger themselves.

But we sometimes take that guardedness too far also. We use it to excuse our unwillingness to forgive instead of as a prudent choice to get out of harm's way. We may focus on what we have to give up if we forgive, like a loss of reputation, physical property or the pleasure we have at holding our grudge and feeling superior to the person who's wronged us. You can sum it all up in the eternal proclamation of the self-justified: "Well, you don't know what they did."

To which God, of course, answers, "Really? I don't? Someone's been tinkering with the Webster's again, 'cause I'm pretty sure I'm still omniscient." The upshot being that the lack of knowledge seems to be on us -- God knows what wrong was done to us (or by us, for that matter), but we don't seem to be aware that whatever we lose when we forgive is made up for by the fact that we are in a relationship with God. Made up for more times over than we could count, for that matter.

Kris Kristofferson was right that freedom can come from realizing that there's "nothin' left to lose." But it can also come from realizing that what you lose is worth so little compared to what you can gain. Because the father forgives, he is free to take his younger son back without worrying about the debts involved. Because God forgives, he does the same thing. The father believed that what he would gain through his forgiveness was infinitely more valuable that what he would gain if he tok retribution and demanded payment: His son. God believes that what he will gain through his forgiveness is worth more to him also: Us.

Through the grace of Jesus Christ, we have been given something that is worth more than anything that has ever been or could ever be: The relationship with our Creator that we were made for from the very beginning. In light of that, it's hard to see why I might balk at forgiving someone when all it could possible cost me is barely pocket change by comparison.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

So He Told Them This Parable, Part 2 (Luke 15:1-3; 11-20)

Note: During Lent, our church is studying Timothy Keller's The Prodigal God. The sermons for the next few weeks will incorporate some of the ideas of the study.

Our culture has added a lot of things to the meaning of the word "repentance," most of which seem to focus on tears, wailing and expressions of shame and humiliation.

The Hebrew word we usually translate "repent" doesn't have much to do with any of those things. It's much more closely related to the idea of a traveler figuring out that he or she has been on the wrong path and then turning around to head in the right direction. In modern times, it might be like realizing you're on the wrong highway or maybe the wrong airplane. No matter how nice the road or how comfortable the seats, you'll still wind up in the wrong place.

When we look at the younger son in the story of the prodigal, we see him live a lifestyle that values himself and his own desires more than anything else. He doesn't value his father, just the stuff he will get when his father dies. And having received it, he gets as far away from home as he can and then starts the party. The very proper Luke simply says he spent it in asotos living, which gets translated "loose," "dissolute" or "riotous" depending on which version you read. Even if we don't know the details, we can gather that he spends it on whatever pleasure he wanst at the moment. His god was not just himself, but his own desires; Paul would say it was his belly or appetite like the people he warns against in Philippians 3:19.

But he finds this lifestyle a dead end, because when he has no more money he has no more friends, and when the famine hits he's stuck feeding pigs and thinking about how much ketchup he might need to choke down what he's giving them. So he decides to return home, reasoning that if he's going to be a hired worker, he's going to be one where the wages are better and where he might have a chance to repay his father and repair some of the damage he's done.

Such a change would be a complete reorientation of his life -- he would no longer have the guaranteed roof and meals that a relative or even a household servant received, but his living would depend on how much extra work there was to do around the estate. He would have to find his own place to live and buy his own food, and once he's done that he plans to use the small leftover amount to eventually pay back his father for all the money he wasted. He's been focused entirely on himself, but he now plans to live a life focused totally on his father. He has repented of his wrongs in a very real way.

Did you ever wonder why the son thought this would work? Why did he think his father would accept his return, even as just a hired worker rather than as a son? He knew he'd wronged his father and he knew the customs of his society demanded he be held accountable for the loss of family honor. He knew that one way the father could restore than honor would be to refuse to have anything to do with him. In fact, when he made his request the standard response of a family patriarch in his society would have been five across the eyes and a very colorful suggestion to get out of the house, both repeated as needed, so the story listeners would have had every reason to expect the father to reject the younger son's request to return.

The father hadn't behaved like a standard family patriarch, though, and I believe that's the reason the son thought he might have a chance. "He gave me the money when he shouldn't have," he might think, "so maybe he'll give me a second chance." He knew he should repent, and believed it would be possible, because the father had shown him love at every step of their relationship even when he couldn't recognize it.

And on his return, he finds his father has been waiting for him. Not just a casual glance now and again out the window, not just a seat on the porch in the evening with a look at the road once in awhile. When he was far off, his father saw him and ran to him, overjoyed to see him again.

The father's love had never stopped, no matter how far away his son went. The son's repentance and return, to borrow a word Timothy Keller uses in describing this story, detonates that love and the welcome back into the family. Because Jesus means us to see the father in the story as a representation of God, we can have the exact same hope because of the exact same kind of love shown by God.

We can squander every gift God gives us to make our own pleasure instead of devoting it to him. We can focus on nothing but ourselves and center our lives on our appetites instead of on God. But some day, in some fashion, we will come to ourselves and realize we've become a servant to pigs, so empty we'd take what they had just to find something to fill us up. It may happen all at once or it may happen a little at a time, and it certainly will continue happening throughout our lives, but we will look up and resolve to return to God's design and path for us.

And we will find him running to greet us in welcome, even before we've gotten back to the front gate.