From the psalm: “Be glad in the Lord and rejoice; O righteous, and shout for joy, all of you upright in heart.”
Today is a day of joy – yes, joy! Every Sunday is a “little Easter,” a time in which we celebrate the resurrected Christ. It is a holiday in the midst of whatever we are doing, even during the season of Lent. So important is the resurrection to our life that we do not abandon the joy of the resurrection for Lent. So Sundays are holy and joyful.
This particular Sunday gives us further respite from the season of Lent. This Sunday, the fourth Sunday of Lent, is called “Laetare Sunday,” from a Latin word meaning “rejoice.” This Sunday is a time when some traditions recognize the new Jerusalem of Isaiah 66:
“Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her, all you who love her; rejoice with her in joy, all you who mourn over her; that you may suck and be satisfied with her consoling breasts; that you may drink deeply with delight from the abundance of her glory.” (Isaiah 66:10-11)
This passage from Isaiah is an expression of deep hope to a people in desperate need of such hope. From the time of Isaiah and before and after, I suspect we are all in need of deep and abiding hope, the kind of hope that lets us know that there is still joy, that we will be provided for no matter what.
The psalmist writes: “Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord’.” What did the Lord do? “You forgave the guilt of my sin.”
Our psalmist continues:
6Therefore let all who are faithful offer prayer to you; at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters shall not reach them.
7You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with glad cries of deliverance.
To which the Lord replies:
8I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you.
God keeps us, protects us, teaches us, counsels us, all while keeping us in God’s sight; we are protected. For the faithful, for those who trust the Lord, and for the righteous, there is steadfast love.
What about the rest of us? We love the Lord, but Lord, we just cannot get everything right: not right with ourselves or our families or our friends or in our giving or in our prayer; what hope do we have of getting things right with You? And yet, you say “rejoice.”
Our parable in Luke, called “the parable of the prodigal son,” is a familiar and beloved story. This parable, as Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “meets generations of listeners wherever they are: in first century Palestine, in fourth century Rome, in sixteenth century Geneva, or in twenty-first century Chicago. Everyone has a weird family. Everyone has at least thought about running away from home.”
The problem with something so familiar is that we sometimes stop hearing it. Maybe we hear this parable from the viewpoint of the first time we heard it; we hear it, think: that sounds good, this is what I think about it … and we do not ever hear the parable again. So the prodigal son is something that we hear with teenage ears.
Because we have heard these words so many times, we may dismiss the parable with a quick “oh, I know that one.” The story never reaches the ears and the hearing that we have today. Like a favorite ragdoll, the story becomes limp (BBT), molded to our way of handling it; the life of the gospel slips through our timeworn handling.
There is another obstacle: we listen to the bible with 21st century ears. What do we hear from this story? It is about a prodigal son, right? – that’s in the title. We can be assured that the gospel of Luke did not originally have titles. You and I have put titles to the words. Okay, the story: There is a man with two sons and one begs for his inheritance while his father is still living. This son squanders the money, loses it all (lottery and Vegas, we think), and comes home after a job of feeding pigs, to ask to be his father’s servant forever. The older son is really mad. We hear that the younger son messed up big time, repented, and came home. The father (God) loves us so much that he threw a big party, gave his errant son the very best; welcomed his son with open arms. How great is the mercy of God! All is forgiven. Rejoice. This is a very good story and there is truth, merit in that interpretation. And yet, this parable came from a first century world. What did it mean then? And then we can think about today. That first century world changes this parable.
(Much of this analysis is from Barbara Brown Taylor, and is marked with quotations, although I have changed verb tenses and wording somewhat.) The world is largely agrarian.
“Their land is our livelihood. We received it in trust from our ancestors and we hold it in trust for our children. There is no courthouse where we record our claims to the land. Those claims are kept in the memory of the community, where honor is everything. Everything. We are an honor society. Break faith with the community or lose its respect and our property lines might be “forgotten,” just like that.
A great deal depends on being and having good neighbors. We count on our neighbors when we need help getting our crops in before the rain, or raising a barn—or having a baby, or digging a grave. The neighbors count in us in the very same ways. We trade chickens and lambs. We invite them to our parties and we are invited to theirs. If things work out the way they are supposed to, then our children will marry their children, and our kinship bonds are strengthened. In this world, an individual has little meaning apart from his or her family. Identity is conferred in the plural, not the singular.
This is a Middle Eastern culture, and there are many things about Jesus’ Middle Eastern world for which we have no reference—the huge honor owed the patriarch of a clan and the elaborate code for keeping that honor in place. Patriarchs do not run. Patriarchs do not leave their places at the heads of their tables when guests were present. Patriarchs do not plead with their children; they tell their children what to do.”
This wayward young man, who threatened the family’s inheritance, livelihood, and honor, leaves. He comes back, not rich and powerful, as we would expect, but in shame and poverty. He had been hired by Gentiles – pig farmers! – who know nothing about God.
The father runs to meet him. Patriarchs do not run. It is not honorable. It just isn’t done. The father runs – leaves the table and runs! Remember: the son did not come home because he was sorry. He came home because he was hungry. (And I think that he was hungry not only for food, but for that which only the Father can give. He is hungry for God.) Not sorry. It is the father who reaches out and breaks all the rules, breaks the honor code in so many ways, in order to reconcile with his son.
Do you hear the difference? Repentance, or lack thereof, versus reconciliation. The father risks his standing in the community, in his world, to reconcile with his son. Rejoice.
We know that when we are righteous, God loves us. The older brother in this parable shows us that truth. We try hard, and God loves us.
The younger son shows us that even when we squander ourselves, our lives, God pursues us. God loves us. God cares nothing about who is supposed to get the best coat or the finest banquet. God is going to show up anyway. God will meet us. But we have to want to come home. We have to walk, finally, in the best way and the best direction that we can. Even when we’re broke. Even when we’re broken. Even when Even when we come home, into our Father’s arms, for the “wrong reason.” However we get here, we are home. We are protected. We are loved beyond measure. We are reconciled with our Lord.
Rejoice, my friends, rejoice.