Two Lost Sons

(Psalm 133; Luke 15:11-32)

I said during the previous series that there were two groups of people following Jesus—the disciples, who were focused on Jesus, and the crowds, who were focused on what they could get from Jesus.  There were two groups within the crowds, as well.  One was the religious folk.  There were several different factions—the Pharisees, the teachers of the law, the Sadducees, who were the priestly party, and so on—and they disagreed about a great many things, but not about Jesus:  they hated him.  There were exceptions to that, but not many.  They followed him to gather evidence against him.

On the other side, you had the “people of the land”—which was actually what the Pharisees called everyone who wasn’t as serious about keeping the Law as they were.  What they meant by it was “scum of the earth.”  This included the professional sinners, of course—the prostitutes, the tax collectors, and the like—but it also included all the ordinary folk.  You might think of them as your typical pew-sitters.  They did the required stuff, but otherwise, they weren’t all that focused on the things of God, so the serious religious types lumped them all together with the rest of the sinners.

As Jesus looked out, he saw both groups.  One was lost and knew it, or at least had been told so on many occasions; the other was equally lost, but thought itself the very model of godly living.  To both, he told a story about a man who had two sons.

The story begins as the younger son says, “Dad, divide the property and give me what’s coming to me.”  That translates as, “I wish you were dead so that I could take my inheritance.  I would rather have the money than you—give me what’s mine and let me go.”  At this point, two things would be expected, in that culture.  The father would be within his rights to beat his son within an inch of his life and cast him out of the house for such an insult; the elder brother has the responsibility to try to patch things up and reconcile his father and his younger brother.  Neither happens.  The older son waits in silence for judgment to fall on his brother; the younger son is determined to go, no matter what, and the older one wants him gone.  The father, grieved and hurt by both of them, withholds judgment and offers grace.

The scandal this caused in the village only got worse for the way the younger brother used the gift his father gave him.  His inheritance wasn’t money or jewels but a portion of the family land, and he didn’t want to stay there, he wanted out; so he sold it off as quickly as he could, just to be on his way.  Since that land supported the whole family, he left all of them quite a bit poorer.  In response, the elders of the town went down to the property and performed the qetsatsah, formally casting him out of the commu­nity.  If he were able to come back with enough money to re-purchase the land and restore it to his family, he could resume his place; otherwise, he was banished—forever.

The younger son must have known that was coming.  Cut off from his name, his family, his community, and even his nation, he headed off to a far land.  The money in his pocket gave him a feeling of security, and so he lived expensively––a penthouse suite, eating at the finest restaurants, dating rich women.  Somehow, though, his business ventures never quite turned out.  He ran through his money, and his associates abandoned him.  He managed to scrape by, until drought brought economic collapse; when the famine hit in earnest, he was out of a job and out on the street.

In desperation, he went to one of the leading men of the city, someone he had wined and dined in the good times, begging for work.  In an effort to get rid of him, this man offered him a job tending the pigs—surely no Jew would accept such a job.  It was an insult, but to his surprise, the young Jew took it, and went out to live with the pigs.

Sitting there in the mud, his stomach aching with hunger, the younger son wised up and faced the facts: he’d made a complete mess of things, and if he stayed there, he would starve.  “The craftsmen who work for my father feed themselves and have money left over, and here I am dying of hunger!  What’s the sense in that?” he asked himself.  “I know what I have to do.  I’ll go back to my father and say, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and you, and right now I’m not worthy to be called your son.  Let me be trained as a craftsman—I’ll be able to support myself and save up money, and eventually I’ll be able to buy back the land I sold.’  It will take some doing, but I bet I can talk him into it.”

At this point, Jesus’ hearers were listening raptly—especially the religious leaders.  Feeding pigs!  The ultimate degradation for a Jew.  This man betrayed his father, and he wound up an exile feeding pigs!  What a perfect picture of the consequences of sin!  Even they had never described it so well.  To earn back his father’s favor, he would have to return to his hometown in utter humiliation and take terrible abuse from the village.  Then, perhaps the father would lock the door on his son and make him grovel for a while; perhaps he would never open the door at all.  It would serve the son right.

But the door wasn’t locked.  The father was on his front porch, sitting on the hill in the middle of town, watching the road.  If his son ever came back, he must be protected from the hostility of the town; if he had to fight past all the people who hated him for what he had done, he might never make it home.  When the father saw his son in the distance, he took off running, leaving his neighbors in shock.  Adults never ran; that was for children, and the more important a man was, the slower he walked.  Running meant lifting your robes and exposing your legs, which was humiliating.  To see this rich man running with all his might—they would as soon have expected him to flap his arms and fly.

The younger son was dumbstruck.  For long, weary days he had been rehearsing the arguments he would make to win over his father, dreading the humiliation and abuse he would face on the long walk through the town—but his father took it all himself, suffering it for him, and it broke him.  His entire plan was gone, for he was being welcomed back as a son.  He said, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you, and am not worthy to be called your son,” and he meant it.

Having welcomed his son in full view of his neighbors (most of whom had followed him down the street), the father now set about making perfectly clear to them that this was still his son.  He ordered one of his servants to bring his best robe and cover his son’s rags with it, told another to go get a ring for his son’s finger, and sent a third to bring sandals—servants went barefoot, the family wore shoes.  A fourth was ordered off to kill the fattened calf—which could feed 200 people—and start up the grill.  Then the father announced in a ringing voice, “My son was dead and now he is alive––he was lost and we have found him––and we will celebrate.”

This turn staggered Jesus’ audience.  This father had violated every right he held as patriarch, had thrown away his reputation and humiliated himself before the whole town—and for what?  To protect a son who had insulted and humiliated him from the proper consequences of his own actions; to restore to his place in the family a son who had betrayed him, making it possible for the son to betray him again.  What sort of love was that?  It went much too far.  How could he do that?

Someone was sent to bring the elder son, but missed him somehow, so the elder son started back from the field with no idea what was happening.  As he drew close to the town, he could hear the music—first the drums, then the sound of many voices, and soon the various instruments.  As he walked through the streets, it quickly became clear that whatever the reason for the party, it was in the great hall of his own home.  When he reached the courtyard, he asked one of the boys dancing there what was going on.  The boy looked up at him and said, “Your brother is back and your father made up with him, so your father killed the fatted calf and threw a party.  They’re waiting for you inside.”

This hit the elder brother like a ton of bricks.  That shiftless, good-for-nothing brat was back, and his sentimental father had let himself be used again and had let him back in the family.  Now there was a party going on, and he was supposed to go in and pretend the brat hadn’t done anything.  He wouldn’t do it.  He turned his back and stalked off.

This was the second major shock of the day for the village, for this was an act of absolute disrespect to his father.  It was fully as bad as the insult the younger son had originally offered the father—in fact, it was worse, because it was in public.  Within moments, someone had hurried in to tell the father what was happening.  The townspeople would have expected the father to have his son dragged off to be beaten, for that would be the proper response—but who knew with this man anymore?

Instead, the father rose and went out to the courtyard to ask his son to come in.  Once again, he did what a servant should do; once again he put his suffering on public display.  His son snapped back, “All these years I’ve slaved for you, and you never gave me so much as a goat to have a party with my friends—but when this, this, this son of yours came back after wasting your money on prostitutes, you killed the pride of the herd for him!  It isn’t fair!”  He insulted his father a second time by addressing him with no title, as he would a servant; the townspeople’s eyes widened, but he didn’t care.  This reconciliation was insufferable, and he would do everything he could to shatter it.

The religious leaders in Jesus’ audience leaned forward as the elder brother spoke, bringing their own reactions into the story; they shared his firm conviction that this was not how things should be, and wondered how the father could possibly answer him.

Within the story, the villagers had their own questions.  The elder son had publicly insulted and shamed his father, and yet he had the nerve to claim never to have broken his father’s commandments.  He had refused to acknowledge his brother and tried to destroy the peace which the father had made between the younger son and the community.  Surely now the father would defend his honor and punish the elder son?  Instead, the father looked sadly at his son and said, “Beloved son, I’ve provided for you all your life, given you everything, and all that I have is yours; you haven’t been my servant, you’ve been serving yourself.  You don’t need to worry that I’ll give what’s yours to your brother—your rights and privileges are intact.  But your brother was dead and has come alive, was lost and we found him; it is necessary to celebrate.  Come in, be reconciled to him.”

With that outstretched hand, the father humiliating himself to reach out to his first son as he had done with his younger son, the parable ends.  Having drawn the religious leaders into the story through the elder son, Jesus left them with the father’s appeal.  The elder son’s decision was yet unmade, for it was theirs to make.  Would they accept his call to reconcile with the younger son—the “sinners,” the “people of the land”—or would they instead hold to their bitterness and reject God?  They did not have any other choice, Jesus was telling them, for he had already reached out to the lost to bring them home.

And for us?  Some of us identify with the younger brother, having gone far away from God into all sorts of wrong lifestyles.  Others see ourselves in the elder brother, because we always stayed close to the house—but maybe on the inside we wandered a long way from God, seeing him as a stern taskmaster and a slave-driver.  All of us need to know that no matter how far from God we go, the Father’s heart goes farther.  His love for his children will not let go no matter what we do.  We need to remember that this is for us, that God will not leave us in our wanderings; we need also to remember that this is for everyone else too, even those we hate and despise.  No matter what they might have done, God wants to bring them home and celebrate.  He longs for the day when he will be able to say, “Look, my children were dead and have come alive, were lost and I found them!”  Heaven rejoices at such words.

Who Is My Neighbor?

(Leviticus 19:17-18, Deuteronomy 6:1-9; Luke 10:25-37)

The curtain rises on one of Jesus’ opponents trying to test him.  The teacher of the Law asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  He wants to know how he can earn his inheritance.  Over the centuries, contrary to what the Old Testament actually taught, the Jews had come to believe that was possible—that by keeping the Law, they earned their reward from God.  In pointing them back to the truth that they hadn’t earned God’s favor (and couldn’t), Jesus was challenging the conventional wisdom.  That’s never a popular thing to do, so the scholar was trying to use this to get him in trouble.

It failed, because Jesus is a master of verbal judo; one of the things I love about him as a teacher is that he never does the expected.  Here, he turns the question back on his questioner:  “What is written in the Law?  How do you recite?”—which is to say, when you stand to recite the Law in your worship in the synagogue, what do you say?

The scribe answers with the same summary of the Law Jesus gives in Matthew 22, and Jesus responds, “You’ve given the right answer.  Do this, and you will live.”  Note three things here.  First, Jesus praises the teacher of the Law for his knowledge, then questions his behavior:  is he willing to act on what he knows?  Second, where he asked about eternal life, Jesus answers about all of life:  “do this now and now you will live.”  This isn’t just about life after death, it’s about real life before death.  Third, this man asked, “What specific things do I have to do in order to inherit eternal life,” and is handed a commandment—in his own words!—to live a life of unlimited and unqualified love for God and for other people.  “You want to do something to inherit eternal life?” Jesus says.  “OK, just continually love God and your neighbor with every part of your being.”

This is an impossible standard.  There’s no line drawn, no list, no limits—no point at which it becomes possible to say, “I’ve done enough, I’ve kept the Law.”  There’s no requirement anyone could actually meet.  Looking for some sort of limit, the scribe asks, who actually qualifies as his neighbor?  If the list is short enough—maybe just his relatives and friends—he might be able to claim that he has fully loved them, and thus fulfilled the Law’s demands.  But Jesus responds with this story:

A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, seventeen miles of dangerous road; like far too many travelers down that road, he was robbed, beaten, and left lying naked by the side of the road.  He couldn’t identify himself to anyone who might come along, because he was unconscious; his clothes would have identified him as a Jew, but they were gone, leaving him not only unprotected, but anonymous.

A little while later, a priest came riding back down the road to Jericho after his two weeks of service in the Temple in Jerusalem.  He saw the man lying there naked, and suddenly he had a problem.  The rabbis taught, “If a man sees his fellow drowning, mauled by beasts, or attacked by robbers, he is bound to save him!  From the verse, you shall not stand by the blood of your neighbor.”  But, the priest hadn’t seen it happening, and he couldn’t tell if the man was a Jew.  What’s more, he might already be dead.

He ought to help, but he was a priest—he had to stay ritually pure in order to do his job.  If he touched the man, it might make him unclean, and then he’d be out of work until he could complete the week-long purification ritual.  And if he found the man dead, he would have to tear his clothes, which would be such a waste.  There was no way he could try to help the man without losing status—and while he was absolutely commanded to maintain ritual purity, the command to help others was conditional.  Clearly, he should just ride on.  So, he did—as far to the other side of the road as possible, since even coming within six feet of a dead body would defile him.

Riding some distance behind him came a Levite, also returning from his two weeks in the Temple.  Unlike the priest, he only had to stay ritually clean, not pure, so he was a lot freer to help.  Where the priest stayed as far from the wounded traveler as possible, the Levite went up to him and looked him over; he could tell the man was still alive, but not if he was a fellow Jew.  Still, he might have helped; but obviously there were robbers about.  If he stopped, he might end up the next victim.  What’s more, he knew the priest was ahead of him—like any smart traveler, he knew who else was on the road—and the priest hadn’t done anything.  Who was he, a mere lay leader, to question the judgment of a religious professional?  If he helped this man when a priest had left him there to die, it would only make the priest look bad, and he didn’t want to do that.  Next to that, how important was one wounded man, really, anyway?

After the Levite’s departure, Jesus’ audience would have expected an ordinary Jew to come along, making the same trip home from the Temple.  Instead, to their shock and horror, the next traveler is one of the hated Samaritans.  To get the full effect, imagine the first traveler is Billy Graham, the second is Dr. Kavanaugh, and the third is an al’Qaeda terrorist.  Or tell this in a Palestinian community and make an Israeli officer the hero—how do you think they would take it?  And yet, that’s what Jesus does:  he tells a group of Jews that after two of their religious leaders have left a man to die by the side of the road, along comes one of their most hated enemies to redeem their sin.

And redeem it he does, step by step.  When he sees the man, he doesn’t start calculating what it would cost him to help; instead, he is seized with compassion.  The Greek word here is derived from the word for “guts”—the Samaritan sees the plight of this man by the side of the road, a man he knows has already been ignored by two other travelers, and he reacts at a gut level:  I have to help this man.  Where the priest just passed by, where the Levite only got close enough to look, the Samaritan actually goes to him and cares for him.  This involves considerable risk for him:  he too risks being made unclean, which would also make his animals and goods unclean, and he makes himself a prime target for the robbers, if they’re still around.  And yet, he steps forward.

He begins by clean­ing the man’s wounds with oil, disinfecting them with wine, and binding them with soft cloths.  This was standard practice, but it was also fraught with symbolism.  Oil and wine were among the sacrifices which the priest and the Levite would have offered at the Temple, and yet they refused to offer them here; it was left to a Samaritan to do that.  What’s more, in the prophets, God promises to bind up his people’s wounds; yet here that promise is kept by a rejected outsider.  Despite that, the Samaritan might receive no thanks, but only rejection, because the Jews said, “Oil and wine are forbidden items if they come from a Samaritan.”

Nevertheless, the Samaritan continues to show mercy.  The priest could have put the wounded man on his animal, but didn’t, so the Samaritan makes up for his neglect.  What’s more, though he has several animals (probably carrying goods), he puts the man on his own animal and walks the rest of the way, leading the animal like any servant.  Where the priest’s chief concern was for his dignity and social standing, the Samaritan throws both to the winds in order to care for a complete stranger.

Nor does he stop there:  he takes the man to an inn, gets him a room, and stays overnight to take care of him.  This is the bravest thing he’s done yet; as a Samaritan riding into town with a badly wounded man, he risks the man’s family taking vengeance on him for the attack on their relative.  Never mind if he’s guilty or not, he’s available, and he’s a Samaritan, so he’s the sort of person who would do such a thing.  It’s not rational, but when those we love are hurt, it tends to make us irrational.  The fact that the Samaritan had gone to considerable effort to save this man’s life would make no difference.  The smart thing to do would be to leave his burden at the door of the inn and disappear—but he doesn’t do that.  In fact, when he heads out in the morning, he leaves the innkeeper with a blank check.  He’s just asking to be swindled.

This is Jesus’ response to the question, “Who is my neighbor?”  He isn’t answering it, but reshaping it, before turning it back:  “Which of these three do you think became a neighbor to the man attacked by robbers?”  There is only one possible answer, and the teacher offers it:  “The one who showed him mercy.”  Jesus responds, “Go and do likewise.”  In other words, “You wanted a standard?  That’s it.  If you want eternal life, that’s what loving your neighbor means.”  To that, there was nothing to say.

The proper question isn’t “Who is my neighbor?” (in other words, “Who do I have to love?”), but “To whom must I become a neighbor?”  The answer is, everyone in need—even an enemy!  The teachers of the Law put limits on the command to love your neighbor as yourself—family, friends, other Jews, the righteous, but not the unrighteous, definitely not non-Jews, and certainly not one’s enemies.  We tend to do the same.  Jesus won’t allow that.  Who is your neighbor?  The abortionist, or the pro-life activist; the homosexual, or the gay-basher; the boss who fired you, the man who abandoned your daughter with a baby, the swindler who took your parents for their life savings, these are your neighbors, just as much as your nearest and dearest.

This is impossible; which means our salvation is impossible, at least for us.  We can’t justify ourselves, because the standard is too high; there’s no way we can meet it, and yet we’re held to it nevertheless.  We can’t earn eternal life, no matter how hard we try; our best doesn’t even begin to come close to an approximation of being good enough.

That’s where Jesus comes in.  The wounded man is left to die by his own people, and then along comes the Samaritan, the rejected outsider, to bind up his enemy’s wounds and bring him healing, to save his life.  To do this, the Samaritan risks his own life and all that he has.  This is Jesus, the despised and rejected outsider, the unique agent of God’s love and salvation; the amazing compassion of the Samaritan is the amazing love of the Son of God.  This is the love that led him to the cross to heal our wounds and lead us to safety; it is the love that is our only hope; and it is the love he gives us to share with all our neighbors, everywhere, wherever we might find them.  Let’s pray.

Follow Me!

(Isaiah 11:1-9; Luke 9:57-62)

The first thing you need to know if you’re serious about being a disciple of Jesus is that Jesus is unreasonable, and following where he goes is unreasonable.

Having said that, I’m going to back up just a moment.  We’ll spend the rest of this year, through Advent, in the parables of Jesus.  This is officially the first sermon in this series, but really, last week was.  There, we saw Jesus drive home the point that there are ultimately only two ways to live:  either you build your life entirely on him, or you don’t.  He was quite clear that building on him is the hard way, and the other is the easy way.  Here in these three encounters in Luke 9, he makes that point even more clearly.

A few verses up the page from this, Luke says, “As the time approached for him to be taken up, Jesus set his face like a cliff toward Jerusalem.”  (That’s the Rich Mullins version, by the way.)  Everything that happens in Luke from this point through his arrival in chapter 19 happens as Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem:  he is going to his death.  In these brief encounters, he offers parables about the way spoken on the way.

First, someone volunteers for the mission, in the most grandiose terms:  “I will follow you wherever you go.”  No limits, no exceptions, no fine print.  Wherever you go, whatever you do, I will follow.  I suspect he saw Jesus as a rising star, a gifted religious leader, maybe even the long-awaited Messiah, and wanted to go along for the ride.  This as Jesus was literally on the road to Skull Hill.  Would this guy have said this if he’d known it would mean suffering, rejection, and the cross?  I doubt it.

So does Jesus, clearly, because he doesn’t welcome this would-be disciple; instead, he says, “Foxes have their dens, and the birds of the air have roosts, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”  It’s a powerful picture of poverty and rejection:  even the animals and the birds have someplace to rest, but Jesus has nothing.  This man would have to give up his social position and all assurance of comfort and safety for the uncomfortable, risky life of a vagabond.

Jesus’ rebuke must have come as a shock.  How could the Messiah be a homeless wanderer?  And yet, he had to be, for the reason Rich Mullins captured in his song “You Did Not Have a Home”:  if he’d had a home, a wife, a formal position in society, he would have been part of the system.  The world would have owned a piece of him, and that would have given it leverage.  Instead, he was outside the economic and political system, a free radical with no handles for anyone to grab.  The only thing the authorities could take from him was his life, and that was part of his plan.  Jesus’ powerlessness was necessary to his power.

We don’t know how this unnamed volunteer responded; as with other parables, we’re left hanging.  As Kenneth Bailey puts it, “We do not know whether the volunteer tightened his belt, ‘set his face steadfast,’ and stepped into line with the others, or whether, stunned at the price to be paid and at the shocking prospect of a rejected leader, he fell back . . . and watched them pass.”  Either way, the point is clear:  following Jesus costs.  Are we truly willing to pay the price?

That question hits us from another angle as Jesus continues on his way.  This time, he calls out someone along the road:  “Follow me!”  The man responds, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father, and then I’ll follow you.”  To us, that sounds reasonable; if his father has just died, shouldn’t he stick around for the funeral?  But that’s not what’s going on.  This man wouldn’t be hanging out by the side of the road if his father had died, he’d be with his family keeping vigil over the body.  The twelfth-century Arabic scholar Ibn al-Ṣalibi tells us the real story:  “‘Let me go and bury’ means:  let me go and serve my father while he is alive and after he dies I will bury him and come.”

What we have here is a clash of competing authorities.  Jesus has issued a com­mand:  “Follow me!”  The person he’s called, however, has a duty to take care of his parents, and he knows it—and what’s more, so does his community, which expects him to fulfill that duty.  Even into recent times, Dr. Bailey tells us, young men in the Near East who wanted to emigrate would be asked, “Are you not going to bury your father first?”  In other words, “Aren’t you going to do your duty to care for your parents until their death before you go off and do what you want to do?”  So it was for this recruit, and so he responds, “I have a duty to my parents which my community is counting on me to fulfill.  Surely you don’t expect me to set aside their requirements in order to follow you?”

But that’s exactly what Jesus does expect, and in fact, demand.  He replies, “Let the dead bury their own dead.  You go proclaim the kingdom of God.”  The expectations of those around you—your family, your friends, your company, your community—are not sufficient reason to set aside the call of Christ to follow him.  Let the spiritually dead, who don’t care about Jesus’ mission and don’t have kingdom priorities, fulfill society’s expectations.  His command to go proclaim the coming of the kingdom of God must take precedence.  He accepts no authority as higher and no claim as stronger than his own.

This becomes even clearer in the third encounter.  Here again someone volunteers to follow Jesus, but in this case the offer is dishonest.  You see, he isn’t just asking to say goodbye to his parents, he’s asking to take leave of them.  That might seem like nothing, but the difference is critical.  In that culture, the one leaving would ask permission to go from those who were staying; this was “taking leave,” and it was those who were staying who would say goodbye.  Thus, for instance, a dinner guest who desired to go home would say, “With your permission?”  The hosts would respond, “May you go in peace.”

This supposed volunteer tells Jesus, “I’ll follow you—just as soon as I go home and get permission from my parents.”  They of course will refuse to allow him to do any such crazy thing.  He can then claim that he wants to follow Jesus—like the first guy, he no doubt sees a bright future ahead—without actually having to do so.  After all, his father’s authority over him was obviously higher than Jesus’ authority, so of course he would have to have his father’s permission in order to follow Jesus.

Again, Jesus responds with a brief parable.  Plowing was done with a light plow worked with the left hand; the right held the goad to keep the oxen moving.  With that left hand, one kept the plow upright, held it at the proper depth, lifted it over stones in the field, and—above all—kept it straight.  This needed careful attention and skill; with a moment’s distraction, the plow might catch on a rock, cut back into previously-plowed ground (destroying work already done), or veer the other way, making the next furrows more difficult.  A mistake could damage the field’s drainage, or leave seeds exposed for birds to eat.  Plowing took intense focus to work in harmony with the oxen, with the work already done, and with the work that remained to be done.  A distracted plowman could not maintain this harmony, and in fact could destroy it, ruining an entire year’s work.

Jesus’ point is clear:  there’s no room for divided loyalties in the kingdom.  Anyone who would follow him must accept his authority absolutely, above all other authorities and loyalties—even family.  This was a shocking demand in that culture, where parental authority was absolute, family loyalty was of ultimate importance, and calling God “Father” was giving him a promotion.  Dr. Bailey recalls a class of Middle Eastern seminary students turning pale when they realized what Jesus was saying—the idea that he was claiming a greater authority than their fathers was that shocking and disturbing.