March 6, 2016
We tried letting our cat, Pippin, be an indoor and outdoor cat. He loved to step out into the fresh air and explore the yard. Our neighbor feeds all of the stray cats that wander through the neighborhood, so there are always plenty of other potential friends beckoning him to come and play. For a while, it seemed that Pippin going outside was going to be a good thing. I could let him out first thing in the morning. When it was time to leave for school and work, I would call and he would come running. No problem; until one morning when he didn't return. I called and I called and I called. No Pippin. I wasn't too worried. I figured by the time I came home for lunch he'd be waiting for me at the back door. Lunch came. No Pippin. I called and called again. I walked all around the back yard and the front yard looking for him. No Pippin. When the kids came home from school, they went looking for him. There is an overgrown wooded area just across the side street from our house where there used to be a neighborhood pool. Phoebe and Zach walked down that path and Phoebe heard Pippin. He had been scared up into a tree by some dogs, and he was meowing and crying pitifully. We tried to coax him down. It didn’t work. We put food out for him, and that didn’t bring him down. I put out a plea on Facebook. No one's ideas or suggestions helped. In fact, some people seemed to think I was just foolish for worrying. A cat can go up a tree, and a cat can come down a tree. I called the fire department. They basically said the same thing. Pippin stayed in that tree all night and well into the next day. I kept waking up during the night thinking I heard him at the door. Finally, a friend and her husband came over to help us. They put a ladder against the tree, which was covered in overgrown brambles. She climbed up the ladder and almost fell a couple of times. But she managed to reach Pippin, and got our very hungry and scared cat out of the tree. We all rejoiced. The cat was lost, but then he was found.
Jesus understood the joy at finding what was lost. He told three parables about being lost and found. As so often happened, tax collectors and sinners were coming to be near to Jesus and to listen to him. The Pharisees and the scribes who were also near Jesus weren't happy about that. They were grumbling and grousing.
"This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them."
Jesus responded to their grumbling with these three parables. The first was about a lost sheep. There were 100 sheep but one had wandered away and was lost. The shepherd left the other 99, not in the safety of the fold but in the wilderness, to go looking for the one. When the shepherd found the lost sheep, he laid it across his shoulders and rejoiced. When he had gotten the sheep safely home, he called together his friends and his neighbors, and they all rejoiced. Jesus said “that there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 who were righteous and needed no repentance.”
The second thing to be lost was a thing: a coin. A woman had ten coins, but she lost one. She did not shrug her shoulders and say, "Oh well. It's just a coin." No, she lit the lamp and swept the house. She searched every corner until she found the coin. Then she called together her friends and neighbors and said, "Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost." Again, Jesus told them, "Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the Angels of God over one sinner who repents."
The third parable was about a son who was lost. He was his father's youngest son. He went to his father and asked him for his share of the inheritance. Now. Why should I wait till you're dead, Dad. So the father divided his property between the two sons and gave the youngest his share. The minute the money was his, the son took off. He went to a far country, and proceeded to have a very good time. Until the money ran out; then the good times ran out as well. Now what would he do? He had wasted his fortune. A terrible famine had taken over the land. The only means the younger son had to survive was to become a hired hand, feeding pigs in the fields. He was so hungry and desperate that even the pig food looked good. Then he came to himself. He thought about the hired hands that worked for his father and had plenty of bread to eat and more. He rehearsed what he would say to his dad when he saw him.
"Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands."
With these words in his mind, the son got up and went home. But he never got to give the full speech he had prepared. While he was still far off, his father saw him. He ran to him. His father pulled him into his arms and hugged him. The son started to say what he had practiced. But his father didn't seem to hear his words. He just called to his slaves to bring out the best robe and put a ring on his son's finger. Put sandals on his feet. Kill the fatted calf. Let us eat and celebrate! My son was dead, but he is alive! My son was lost, but he is found.
If Jesus had stuck with the formula of the first two parables, this would have been the ending. But this third parable takes a different and unexpected twist. This was a father with two sons. The younger was home again, no longer dead but alive; no longer lost but found. But there was an elder brother. The elder brother came in from working in the fields, and he heard the music and dancing. He asked a slave what was going on, why the celebration? When the slave told him, the older brother was furious. He refused to go inside and join the party His father came out to him and begged him to come inside. But the son answered his father's pleas with bitterness.
"Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!"
But his father would not be deterred. "Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 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."
By all accounts, the eldest son has a valid point. The youngest son was selfish, not a good son, and not a very nice person. And the father was foolish. When his youngest son came demanding his inheritance, which was as good as saying, "Drop dead, Dad,” the foolish father gave it to him anyway. When the youngest son wasted everything he had been given and returned, tail between his legs, he should have been greeted with anger and disappointment. The father should have at least demanded that the son pay back all that he owed him. But that foolish father threw a party instead. Well of course the older son was angry. What reward did he receive for being the good kid? What parties were thrown in his honor because he did what was expected of him? This was a foolish father indeed. Had I been sitting with the others, Pharisees and tax collectors, scribes and sinners, I imagine I would have shaken my head at this foolish, foolish father.
But remember how Jesus ended the first two parables? When a sheep was found, they all rejoiced. When a coin was reclaimed, they all rejoiced. But when this son, this father's child, was found, there was only anger and bitterness. The eldest son could hear the music and celebration, but he wouldn't, he couldn’t join the party.
Jesus didn't tell parables as bedtime stories. He didn't tell parables to make those listening feel happy and warm. He told them to make a point. He told parables to surprise and shock and even dismay. This third parable, the one we most often call The Prodigal Son, is really about as shocking as they come. But we have heard it so many times that its shock value has become dulled. We've domesticated it to a nice story about a father forgiving a son.
Yet how foolish was that father? He not only welcomed back this wasteful son with open arms, he gave him the means to be wasteful in the first place! He was foolish. He was as foolish as a shepherd who leaves 99 sheep in the wilderness to look for the lost one. He was as foolish as a woman who had nine coins accounted for, but went through the entire house looking for the lost one. He was as foolish as a God who becomes human to gather up his lost people. He was as foolish as a savior who was willing to die on a cross.
That's the thing about grace. It's not only unfair, it seems downright foolish. Yet how grateful we are for such foolishness when we are on the receiving end of grace. What I've learned in my life is that the line between prodigal and eldest son is a fine one. I have been that prodigal, astounded at being welcomed home with open arms. I have been that youngest son, celebrating and rejoicing at the grace and forgiveness that's been given me. I have been lost and I have been found. But almost in the same breath, I can easily become the eldest brother; angry and insulted that foolish grace is shown to someone else so undeserving of it. In fact, I think I've been the eldest brother more often than I've been the prodigal. I know there are places and circumstances in my life now where the eldest brother reigns.
Here's the thing. The father welcomed his lost son home with open arms, whether it was foolish or not. It was his choice. The eldest son also had a choice. He could forgive his younger brother. He could forgive his father's foolishness. He could join the party. The only thing keeping him out of the celebration was him.
Of the three parables, this one is left unresolved. We don't know what choice the older brother made. We don't know what happened next. It seems to me that that was the point. Jesus told this parable and left it unresolved and unfinished because it was up to his listeners to finish it for themselves. What choice would the Pharisees and the scribes and all of the other so-called righteous people make? What choice will we make? Will we show others the foolish grace shown us? Or will we refuse to forgive the wrongs done to us? Will we hold onto the bitterness and anger we feel? We can hear the music, we know there is dancing, but will we join the party?
Let all of God's children say, "Amen."