This parable can stir up many visual images in our lives. That is the main reason I wanted us to watch the parable acted out in video. To hear the words and to see one instance of it being acted out is moving.
If we were to apply these verses to our own lives, which of the characters would we most identify with? I ask this question because that is the intent of story. Stories are told to incite emotional responses of either positive or negative intent. As humans we have a long history of story telling. From the ancient bards, to the Victorian playwrights, from the novelist to the screenplay writers, from the comic book artist to the lyricist basically all forms of entertainment can draw their roots deep into history back to the oral tradition of story telling. Jesus was a masterful storyteller. His stories were humorous, thrilling, mysterious, and filled with inspiration. Probably of all the scripture we could quote from memory, I would guess that the vast majority would be a parable of some sort. And in these stories Jesus is asking us to identify with a character walk around in their clothing and consider their point of view.
Just as with any story we can more easily identify with certain characters than others. In the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet who is it that we identify with? More often than not we identify with either Romeo or Juliet, rarely do we identify with the parents of the two main cheaters, I doubt any of us have ever identified with the priest that performed the secret wedding of this tragic couple. Yet there are times where you might happen upon a random showing of the movie playing on the classic movie channel and maybe the situation of your life at that time would lead you to identify with someone different than usual, in High school you were sure to think the story was about love, but as an adult and as your children begin the courtship rituals of our culture you may think something totally different. As a teen you see love flourishing against all odds, as an adult you identify with the tragedy of the story more easily.
How do we identify with this parable? Which of the characters do we identify with? As you listen to the words were you thinking more about the younger son, if you were what might that mean? Do you identify with the desire to get away from the family that seems to be limiting your potential? Maybe you in the course of your current course of life can really identify with the father of the children. Your family is in a place where your children are moving away (or you wish they’d move away), and they are rejecting the ideas you have tried so hard to teach. Maybe you listened to these words and you seem to side with the older son. You have spent your life working along side your parents and you may feel like you were overlooked because the sibling that moved away has just come home and suddenly everything is revolving around them and the consistency of your service to the family is seemingly forgotten.
I can honestly say that I have read this passage countless times. I have had so many different experiences with this passage at various stages of my life that to me, it seems to be on of the most moving parables that Jesus spoke. Though I am not the most experienced of pastors in the terms of length of service, my life has had many twists and turns. I have been on the side of the elder brother, I have been jealous of the attention my siblings have had. I am the middle child, I have been rather healthy and I rarely got into trouble so at times I felt neglected and overlooked. As I have matured I realized that that was a feeling that was not supported in anyway by facts, the truth is I was loved deeply by my parents. I have been the younger son that rejected the teachings of my parents and went out on my own to blaze my own trail, as a result I have also been the younger son that came back home to beg forgiveness of my lifestyle and had to face the consequences of my actions. I have been the son embraced by the loving parent. I have been the parent that has seen my child in the distance longing just to hold them in my arms. I have also been the one filled with anger.
If each of us were to examine our spiritual journeys and were to compose a spiritual autobiography we would probably notice areas in our lives where we more closely identified with each of these characters. I encourage each of you to just consider that at some point. But for right now let us look at this story not through the eyes of our own personal journey with Christ. Instead I would like us to look at this story through the eyes of our Meeting or Church.
I think that this is a very proper way to approach this parable as a community of faith because it was spoken not in a personal context but in a community. It was spoken to a community of people with a common heritage that connected them together. When I was meditating on this parable this week the old song kept playing in my head: “I’m so glad I’m a part of the family of God, I’ve been washed in the fountain cleansed by the blood, Joint heirs with Jesus as we travel this sod, I am part of a family the family of God.” The reason this song kept playing in my head is because this parable speaks beyond a nuclear family but stretches into the realm of a community. In a community there can be a closeness that extends beyond the tradition family. The church is that type of community or family.
Let us consider who we are as a church as a Friends Meeting in this parable. We could be one of four different types of personalities as a church. We could be a rebellious meeting rejecting the time-honored traditions of the past. We could be a judgmental meeting that is so bound up in the legalistic aspects of the church that we become angry when things do not go the way we want. We can be Meeting driven by guilt over our past. Or we can be a church driven by repentance and grace.
The rebellious meeting is actually a very interesting concept. To be honest if we look at church history most denominations were once started in one way or another in this rebellious manner. I say this not because I reject the protestant reformation, but there was a rebellious spirit involved that prompted these religious protests. We divide because we feel that we have some greater understanding of the teachings of Christ that is better than the group we were once part of. So we gather a following and we go our own way, at times our parent meetings willingly release the rebellious order and at other times the divide is less than harmonious. The rebellious church can rebel against morality, ethics, piety, interpretations, or many other different reasons. Rebellion can also be present even without formal divides.
The guilt driven church is one that is continuously focused on the past. It constantly reminds everyone present that they are sinners deserving the wrath of God for their conduct. I say that it is a personality but this particular personality is bipolar. It can be accompanied with either grace or judgment. This personality is one that moves from one extreme to the other but leaves those present wanting. They are not lifted out of their current state and are left feeding the pigs. They know that there is grace available but they sit. They feel they need to do something to make them better but they bound by the responsibility of paying for their past. Many churches are caught in this bipolar guilt driven personality. We remain where we are afraid to reach out because we know our failings and we know our weaknesses.
Then there is the Church of the Elder son, or the judgmental church. These churches are focused on being right. It is easy to be trapped by this type of personality. They have a holiness aspect that do the right things and say the right words. They can become very legalistic and those outside of their community are not acceptable. They have rigid standards for membership and if you have failed you are often shamed. These churches do not do wrong in their eyes, if you do not agree then you must leave. Often times this idea provide the fuel for rebellion.
Then there is the repentant church. A repentant church is one that recognizes that they are an assembly of humans that often times can be caught up. They seek the spirit of God to direct their paths and they move forward with confidence. The repentant church is filled with grace because they know they have been given grace. They embrace a hope for the future instead of dwelling on the failings of the past. They see a hurting person and they open their arms to them, they accept them into the community and gently encourage them to change, instead of focusing on the errors. They do not judge but they allow the consequences of past actions to play though while they walk along side them carrying them into the celebration of the lost being found and the dead coming to life.
Which church are we? In many cases the story of Christianity has been a bipolar guilt driven church. The guilt driven church can control the masses by offering an escape from the wrath of God. We have preached the sacrifice of Christ to appease the wrath of an angry father. Within this framework lives can change yet many are left in the exact place they were little or no change, grace and love are not fruit in their lives because all they have experienced is a substitution their life for that of Christ. This is not the total gospel. Jesus did not preach substitutionary atonement but the Kingdom of God being at hand.
The rebellious church and judgmental church also leaves the community without. Those driven away from the judgmental church either flee completely or they enter rebellion. People begin living a life of hypocrisy. It promotes social changes and moral legislation but it also divides people into the haves and the have-nots. They may change lives today but ultimately leave the spirit longing for relationship. This social gospel was something that Jesus promoted but it was not the totality of his message. Jesus calls us to abide with him, and in that abiding we will be more than servants but friends of God.
Both sons in the parable are products of the misguided ideologies the truth of the gospel is not found in the control of the guilty conscience or the social engineering of a culture. It is found in the grace and turning of the rebellious into a community. It is found in the turning of the judgmental to the forgiving accepting community. Do not hear incorrectly there is only one way the way of Christ. Jesus preached a total change, a turning of the mind, body, and spirit. This total change is one built on grace, forgiveness, redemption, and discipline.
The father ran to greet the rebellious younger son and in the same day he offered the same grace to the rebellious elder son. The elder often forgotten son has all the abundance of the father around him, yet unwilling to join in. Both sons are equally rebellious, both have equally fallen short of the blessing and joy that the father has to offer. We are often more like that elder son than the younger. Our rebellion is not in the form of out right immorality, but it is just as dangerous. We stand in the doorway holding onto our devotion as being good enough yet we keep ourselves from experiencing the joy of the heavenly celebration.
The judgmental church knows the lifestyle that will provide the abundant life, yet they do not join in. The rebellious son runs from the disciplined life seeking to fill its life with pleasure but soon realizes that pleasure is not abundant life either. Both miss out. God is the father; the father’s joy comes from the relationship. It is not found in control, it is not found in rebellion, joy is not found in judgment but in relationship.
The church is to be reflective of the father of this parable, though often we instead reflect the sons. The father does not control, but he loves. He allows the experience of rebellion to happen even though he knows the lifestyle will cause pain, and he waits with open arms. We are called to love. We are called to welcome and celebrate the return of any person back into the fold of God. We do not say their actions are acceptable, but we offer a different lifestyle. A lifestyle of Loving God, Embracing the Holy Spirit, and Living the Love of Christ with others. Which son are you? Which church are we?