Saturday, May 5, 2018

“A Compassionate Father and an Angry Brother”

            This weekend, May 5-6, I will be preaching a dialogue sermon with Beth Menhusen, the Associate Pastor at Christ United Methodist Church.  Our focus will be Jesus’ parable of the “Prodigal Son” in Luke 15: 11-32. 

            The typical approach to this parable focuses on the prodigal son and how his father forgives him and welcomes him back into the household.  This is an important and well-grounded interpretation of the parable.  However, in our dialogue sermon, Beth and I will suggest that an equally important focus is frequently overlooked:  the reaction of the older son to his younger brother’s return and how the father responds to the older brother.

            A key element in interpreting this parable is the context in which Jesus tells it.  This parable is told in response to criticism that Jesus is spending entirely too much time with sinners and tax collectors.  The criticism comes from Pharisees and scribes.  So, the parable appears in a context in which Jesus’ critics have set up a dichotomy between two different types of people:

1.      On the one hand, the sinners and tax collectors are the outcasts of society; the marginalized.  The sinners have failed to keep the Jewish Laws, thus becoming ritually unclean and unable to participate in the religious life of their community.  The tax collectors are businessmen who have betrayed their people by colluding with the occupying Roman Empire.  They collected taxes on behalf of the Romans and were notorious for cheating their fellow countrymen in order to enrich themselves.

2.      On the other hand, the Pharisees and scribes were the elites of society.  They kept the Jewish Law in even the smallest detail.  Consequently, they were ritually clean and were always welcome in the synagogue or Temple.  In fact, they were the religious leaders of the Jewish community.

So, the context for the parable is the dichotomy between different types of people:

the law-abiding versus the sinners
the ritually clean versus the unclean
the elite leaders versus the social outcasts

There are three main characters in the parable of the prodigal son: 

                                   a.            the Father, who represents God.
                                  b.            the prodigal son, who represents the socially outcast sinners
                                   c.            the older son, who represents the elite social Pharisees and scribes

In the parable which Jesus tells, neither of the sons is in a right-relationship with the father.  For Jesus, a right-relationship means humbly and simply accepting the boundless love which the father has for both sons.  Because of his love, the father seeks out both sons in order to repair their relationship and become reconciled.  The younger son sees and confesses his sin to his father, thus receiving forgiveness and reconciliation. 

However, the older son is a moralist.  He mistakenly believes that he deserves his father’s love because he has been obedient and loyal to his father.  The older son becomes extremely angry when he learns that his father has thrown a party to celebrate the return of his long lost younger brother.  The older son adamantly refuses to join the party for his younger brother.  When the father learns about his older son’s reaction, he immediately leaves the party and seeks out the older son, inviting him to come and join the celebration.  The father says to his older son, “But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”  The older son can enter into a right-relationship with the father and his younger brother by simply joining the party.

Jesus ends the parable at this point.  He does not say whether the older brother joined the celebratory party for his brother or if he remained outside, boycotting the party.  It is at this point that Beth and I disagree.  I think that he joined his brother’s party and was reconciled, while Beth believes that he remained outside, unreconciled with his brother.

Whereas it is important to focus on the younger brother and his reconciliation, it is also important to focus on the older brother as well.  In our sermon, Beth and I will suggest that most of our hearers are more like the older brother in the parable.  That is, most church goers are already seeking to be faithful to God in our lives and our actions.  So, like the older brother, we are called to simply accept God’s love and reconciliation, rather than counting upon all of our good works and faithful actions.  As the parable suggests, this is not always easy.

Further, for us older brothers, the biggest challenge may well be accepting and reconciling with the prodigals in our contemporary society.  So, in the proclamation, we will also be thinking about who are contemporary prodigals whom we need to forgive, accept, and love.

Come and join us this weekend, May 5-6, as we reflect on the parable of the prodigal son and what it means for us, today.  Christ UMC is located at 4530 “A” Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  This Sunday is “Marathon Sunday.”  Since many of the streets will be closed for the marathon on Sunday, we will offer an additional worship service.  So, this weekend we have worship services

On Saturday, May 5th, at 5:30 pm
On Sunday, May 6th, at 8:30 and 11:00 am

Come, join us.  Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

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