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Sermon: Alive and Found

March 12, 2010

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Today’s scripture about the so-called prodigal son is a story that begs to be fixed.  In fact, one person did fix it.  Here is her version:

There was a man who had two sons.  The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.”

The father said, “No.”  And that was the end of that nonsense.  (This story is supposed to have been written by a woman at a humor writing workshop led by Garrison Keillor.  I do not have a reference.  In any case, it isn’t my original work.  Damn.)

The original version of the story, found only in Luke’s gospel, has some serious problems.  As many of you have already told me, it is just plain bad parenting.  The father has fallen asleep at the switch.  The younger son has behaved abominably.  What sort of world would we have if the slackers were always bailed out by indulgent parents and the hard working, decent citizens were never rewarded?

That’s one reason why I love this story.  It provokes such strong reactions in us.  We want to say to the father in the story, “What are you doing?  Why aren’t you letting him experience the full consequences of his actions?  How is that kid of yours going to learn his lesson?”  This is not the kind of parenting lesson we expect to read in our book of wisdom.

Bible scholar Robert Capon, however, would tell us that this is not a story about parenting, even though it says right at the beginning, “There was a man who had two sons.”  In fact, Capon says this is instead a story about death and resurrection.  (The Capon material about death and grace comes from two sources.  The first is from his collection Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus [(Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2002), 285-301.].  The second is a sermon [“The Father Who Lost Two Sons”] and interview Capon did for 30 Good Minutes.)  Now I’ve read this story more than a few times, and I don’t recall any death in the text, with the exception of the fatted calf, and he didn’t get resurrected—just digested.

But Capon says there is death everywhere here, and it started at the very beginning, when the younger son said “Hey Dad, I want you to drop dead.  Not really, Dad, I mean no disrespect, but legally.  I want you to be dead legally so that I can have my share of the inheritance right now.  I don’t want to wait until you kick off for real.  What do you think, Dad?”

So the first death took place when the father said “okay” and divided his property between his two sons.  The father was dead.  He no longer had any property of his own.

A few days later, the younger son got everything together and hit the road.  It was his journey of self-discovery or whatever he called it.  He went away to a distant land like some kid bicycling around Europe for the summer, except he had his inheritance in his pocket.

It didn’t stay in his pocket very long, though.  He burned through that money lickety-split.  He spent his money in a hurry.  The younger son squandered his entire inheritance.  Now, he had nothing, just like his father.  We might be tempted to say that here is the second death of the story.  The foolish kid is dead broke, but he isn’t dead yet.  He has a ways to go.

After the son spent his wad of money, there was a famine.  So now, the boy was stuck in a foreign country—a long way from his older brother’s home (because it belonged to the older brother at this point) without any means of support.  Now, he’s really hungry and broke, but he still wasn’t dead.  The young man finally hit rock bottom when he got the only job he could find: slopping pigs.  That killed him.  Pigs were unclean animals, and the people who took care of them were just as bad.  He came to himself—he found himself—when he discovered that he was feeding pigs a long way from home, and he would have been happy enough to eat the food the pigs ate.  That’s bad.  He was lower on the totem pole than pigs.  He was as good as dead.

While he was sitting in his coffin, the younger son came up with a plan.  He said, “Aha!  My father has employees, and they have things pretty good—at least compared to my situation.  I will go home, I will tell my father I have sinned against him and I am no longer worthy to be called son.  ‘Please treat me like one of your hired hands.’”  The son got back on the road and took the long trip home.

And while the son was still a long way from home—“far off” from home—the father was sitting on the porch that didn’t belong to him anymore, attached to the house that didn’t belong to him any more (Capon, “The Man Who Lost Two Sons.”), and the father saw the son in the distance coming toward the house.  He recognized the figure as his younger son, and he ran to meet him.  He wrapped his arm around the wayward boy and he kissed him.  There had been no apology from the son, no admission of guilt, no “I am no longer worthy to be called your son,” only the love of a parent for a child, relief that the child was alive and home, and not dead and gone.

That is the first resurrection.  The son, who wanted his father dead for the inheritance, who died himself while feeding pigs in a foreign land, was in the arms of a father who didn’t care about inheritances or property or porches.  The father only cared that the son that might as well have been dead was now alive.  Then, the son said, “Father, I have sinned.  I am not worthy to be called your son.”

The father then made sure the son got good, clean clothes.  He gave the son rings and sandals.  He told the staff to get a good banquet, including the aforementioned fatted calf.  Why?  “This son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!”  If there is resurrection, there should be a celebration.  That’s what Easter is all about.  If the father had a choir on retainer, he would have had them sing the “Hallelujah Chorus”.

If you want to ignore the fact that the father gave the younger son more than enough rope to hang himself by dividing the inheritance early, and that he also rewarded the child’s bad behavior by throwing him a party, this has been a nice story so far.  It could be a heartwarming tale of a parent who restored a relationship with a headstrong, disobedient child.

The only problem is that there was still another brother.  This is the one who took over ownership of the farm.  He stayed put and worked his fingers to the bone to keep things running.  This older brother didn’t think this was such a heartwarming story.  No, it was an outrage.  He wouldn’t even go in to the party even though it was happening at his own house with his own fatted calf.

Somebody told the father that his other son was lurking outside.  The dad went out to the older boy, who said, “Come on, dad!  I’ve been working for you for years, and did I ever once disappoint you?  No.  You never even gave me a goat so I could celebrate with my friends.  But that son of yours “devoured your property with prostitutes,” and when he came back, you give him this party?  It’s not right.  It’s not fair.”

Robert Capon has invented a speech for the old man to explain just what he thinks is happening in the story.  Capon thinks that the older son was dead, too.  Just as dead as the younger brother.  So the father went out to plead with the older son so that he also could be raised from the dead.  Here’s the speech Capon puts in the father’s mouth:

“Look, Arthur…what do you mean I never gave you a goat for a party?  If you wanted to have a great veal dinner for all your friends every week in the year, you had the money and the resources.  You owned this place, Arthur.  You have the money and the resources to have built 52 stalls and kept the oxen fattening…but you didn’t.  Why didn’t you do that, Arthur?  Because you’re a bean counter, because you’re always keeping track of everybody else.  That’s your problem, Arthur, and I have one recipe for you.  I have one recipe for you, Arthur.  That is, go in, kiss your brother, and have a drink.  Just shut up about all this stuff because, Arthur, you came in here already in hell, and I came out here in this courtyard to visit you in the hell in which you were.”  (Capon, “The Father Who Lost Two Sons.”)

The boy was dead, and the father knew it.  The boy was a bean counter, measuring out his life teaspoon by teaspoon, keeping track of every right and wrong, every credit and every misdeed.  The whole family farm was his to do with as he pleased, and he never enjoyed it.  Even now he isn’t going to enjoy it.  That’s his wine they’re drinking, and his fatted calf, but he won’t eat and drink because it means he has to eat and drink with him, the profligate spender who was welcomed back with open arms.  The older son would much rather stay out in the courtyard in the hell of his own making.  Surely, he was as dead as his younger brother had been.  Both brothers had been dead, but only one of them wanted to be resurrected.

But nevertheless, the father pleaded.  “We had to celebrate.  Your brother had been dead and lost, but now he is alive and found.  Celebrate with us.  You don’t have to be dead.”

Capon reminds us that the parable doesn’t really end.  We leave the scene with the father pleading with the elder brother in the courtyard.  Did he finally go in to celebrate?  We don’t know.  Did the younger brother really turn his life around, or did he find a way to talk a few bucks out of the father and then hit the road again?  We don’t know.  (Capon, “The Father Who Lost Two Sons.”)

We don’t know, because it really doesn’t matter what the two sons did.  This isn’t a story about the sons.  It is about the father who doesn’t want any of his children to be dead and lost.  It is a story about a father who gives us freedom to live our lives, who mourns when we are lost and celebrates with us when we are found, who pleads with us to come in to the party.

This may not be a story about good parenting.  It might be lousy advice for raising strong, independent, respectful children.  But I can’t help but think that this world wouldn’t be such a bad place if all of us, when we see the lost ones heading for home and while they are still a long way off, get up and run to them, run to them and throw our arms around them, kiss them and rejoice with them because they were dead, but are now alive, were lost and now are found.

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