Rev. Dr. Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd, Westworth United Church, March 6, 2016
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32; II Corinthians 5:16-21
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, our God.
Someone in my extended family approached his father with a very awkward request. He knew that his father would divide the estate equally between his family and his brother’s family. He was also aware that one of his own adult children needed money for a down payment on a house. It would be helpful for his son to have his share of his grandfather’s estate now, sooner than later, even though his grandfather and grandmother were still very much alive and still living in their own house. He approached his father, asking him to give his grandson an advance on what would lawfully and rightfully be his inheritance. It made logical sense and it was deeply offensive. The father was stunned. Somehow a sense of entitlement blinded the son to the implications of what he was asking. His brother was enraged at the audacity of such a self-centered request. The two brothers now barely speak and the father is heart-broken. A sense of entitlement has trumped relationships.
Another side of my family experienced shock and resentment many years ago when someone died unexpectedly and the will was read. The family farm was not divided equally, as the siblings’ sense of entitlement and fairness believed would happen. Instead, one brother was given all the land. 30 years later, two of the siblings still barely tolerate each other. Entitlement to what was just and fair has proven more important than reconciliation.
There is a slight possibility that you may have similar stories of entitlement and estrangement with your families as well. The timeless story of the prodigal son lives on too well.
It was actually frustration that inspired Jesus to tell this story. The religious leaders, those who had learned to distinguish between right and wrong, what was of God and what was not; those who upheld justice and fairness—these were the people who were irked with Jesus. Why? Because Jesus was welcoming bad characters—those who lied and stole, those who had no sense of integrity. He was not condemning them—rather to the contrary, he enjoyed their company. He ate and drank with them—he partied with them. And he had the audacity to do this in the name of God. The religious leaders were not very impressed and began to talk about him behind his back. Jesus’ ears were burning.
He confronted them with this scandalous story. Jesus upped the ante by including every type of scandalous detail he could think of. There was a man who had two sons. His younger son committed the first scandal by asking for an advance on his inheritance, effectively wishing his father dead. But the story was much more scandalous within the culture of Jesus’ time than we might realize. To request his share of the inheritance meant to break up the family estate, quite possibly to sell some of the land and risk being shamed by the community. Scandal number two: A wealthy patriarch would not tolerate such a request, but this father shows no backbone by conceding to this shaming request. Scandal number three: the younger son then proceeds to squander all of the inheritance on questionable activities in a distant land. The scandal here is not just related to the questionable activities. Just as scandalous for his cultural context is that his share of the family inheritance was lost to Gentiles. This was such a serious moral offence in Jesus’ time that there was actually a shaming ceremony called qetsatsah which punished those who lost the family inheritance to Gentiles.
The scandals don’t stop there. Do you recall what type of job the younger son was forced to take when his resources were depleted? A Jewish boy feeding pigs. Think about it: scandal number four.
Scandal number five: the father catches wind of his younger son’s return. He knows that if the village finds out, they will immediately begin to prepare for the qetsatsah ceremony. He runs so that he is the first to meet his son. And yet, even by running another scandal has been committed. Dignified elders did not run. Aristotle was once quoted as saying, “Great men do not run in public.” But the father was so concerned that his son feel welcomed, he didn’t care about how he, himself, would appear to the villagers.
Before his son had any chance to apologize or express remorse for his scandalous actions, his father embraced and kissed him. His compassion and his love for his son was unconditional—it was not dependent upon his son’s remorse. Not only that, he decided to throw a huge feast to celebrate his son’s return. A fatted calf feeds about 100 people, which implies that the entire village was going to be invited—a village which had long been stoking the qetsatsah fires. To attend a feast of celebration would mean to quench any fires of shaming, of revenge, of bitterness.
Apparently, they agreed and a wonderful feast of reconciliation was had. Except for one person—the eldest, responsible son, who had worked hard his whole life supporting his father, who threw nary a feast for him. Scandal number six: in Jesus’ culture, the eldest son was responsible for standing at the door of his father’s house to welcome all guests to any feast held by his father. Perhaps for the first time in his life, the eldest son shirked his responsibilities, rooting himself outside, cloaked in bitterness and resentment. Did he realize that he had now become the son who was shaming his father, or was his compassion so blinded by his pain that he could only understand the language of entitlement and just desserts?
It is hard for us not to want others to suffer when they violate moral codes. When a family member shames the rest of the family by selfish indulgence and has no regard of how the rest of the family has been hurt, we’re angry. And we want this person to feel a little bit of the pain that she or he has caused the rest of us. We want this person to at least show remorse. Isn’t that what tough love is all about—to hold someone accountable and let them experience the consequences of their actions?
This is so difficult. It is one of the most common struggles within families—how do we move out of dysfunctional behaviour? How do we treat one another with fairness and justice while still making room for compassion? I’m a believer in tough love, but I’ve also realized that if it’s practiced without compassion, it may slide into vengeful punishment.
Sometimes insistence on following the rules blinds us to love and forgiveness. Sometimes insistence on fair and equitable treatment trumps relationships and reconciliation. Sometimes what is right, even what is upright, is not of God. If justice and morality are not rooted in compassionate love, they may not be of God.
The father left the party, committing yet another scandal by abandoning his guests. He begged his eldest son to come inside and join them. He stood this time with his second son who had shamed him, once again offering undeserved love. As Jesus told this story to the religious leaders who were so incensed at Jesus’ scandalous disregard for the morality of the company he kept, I picture Jesus speaking not out of righteous anger but with tears of compassion.
It’s strange, isn’t it, when those who break the moral code find it easier to accept the undeserved love of God than do those who are the keepers of morality. But God waits for us as well. God is waiting to gently soften our judgements of right and wrong, of fairness and justice with compassion. God is running up to embrace all of us with an undeserved, scandalous love.
 Barbara Brown Taylor, http://www.barbarabrowntaylor.com/newsletter374062.htm