Sunday, October 18, 2020
What’s your favorite story about Jesus? If I just said, what’s your favorite Bible story, you might say, Noah and the Ark, or, David and Goliath, or Paul on the Damascus Road. These are excellent stories, but for this morning, let’s narrow it down. What’s your favorite Jesus story? If you’re watching on Facebook Live, type your favorite Jesus story into the comments. If you’re here in person, just shout out your favorite Jesus story.
When I was starting out in ministry, I heard a professor of preaching say the passage from the Bible preached more than any other is Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son. The professor did not offer data to support this claim, so I don’t know if what he said is accurate.
I do know that the story is extremely popular, even among people who have never read the Bible. Some might know the story and not even know it’s in the Bible. It is! And Miroslav Volf, the theology professor from Yale Divinity School I mentioned last week, cites the Prodigal Son in his explanation of his idea of Exclusion and Embrace.
Volf uses the term ‘exclusion’ to encompass all the ways human beings hurt and objectify each other. Racism; genocide; betrayal; unfaithfulness; deception; bullying; in countless we dehumanize our neighbors and ourselves. We offend God with each injury we cause, including injuries to ourselves, because each person is made in God’s image and is loved by God.
If ‘exclusion’ is the summation of humanity’s sin against itself and individuals’ sins against one another, ‘embrace’ is the posture of love. Embrace is when we make space in ourselves for the other, and we simultaneously enter the space the other opens in themselves for us. It is a literal hug; it is also more than that. Embrace means, ‘I see you.’ ‘I care for you.’ ‘I love you’; and, ‘I receive the love and care you extend me. In embrace, we obey what Jesus calls the greatest commandment – to love our neighbor. In loving our neighbors, we love God.
Take a close look at Jesus’ story, the Prodigal son. First, we see exclusion.
The son requests his portion of inheritance, normally to be received upon the Father’s death. In the ancient near east, this young man’s identity would be tied to his family; he was known by whose son he was. “Younger brother;” that title told us part of his story. He severed this identity, turning his back on his family.
A father receiving such an audacious and disrespectful request would have been in his rights to offer his son a backhanded slap. But in Jesus’ story the father simply complies. Where discipline might be called for, he just goes along with the younger sons’s outlandish plan. What kind of father it this?
The son then earns his name, ‘prodigal.’ He goes to a distant country where he has no support system. Sometimes people, especially during the season of young adulthood, can be a little irresponsible with money; or a lot irresponsible. I know I was at times. This young man spent everything. His savings were gone when the famine hit.
A famine hits everyone, like a hurricane striking all residents on the coast, or a wildfire consuming all in its path, or a global pandemic with a virus anyone can catch. This young man, with no savings and no support system wasn’t ready. Verse 16 says no one helped him.
We have seen, in the current crisis, the Coronavirus pandemic, the layered, devastating effects. First of course is health and possibly even death if you contract the disease. Second, fear of spread has closed down the economy and cost people jobs. If someone was barely making it before they lost their job, they’d be like this young man, hungry and desperate. A lot of people find themselves in this situation.
The catastrophes humans face are worsened by our tendency to cut ourselves off. Famines were common in ancient life, something to prepare for. And that preparation is communal. You don’t prepare by yourself but as a part of a community. The same is true today. We know hurricanes hit the Gulf Coast where millions and millions of people live. When they come, if we prepare and cooperate with one another as neighbors who care about one another, even the worst storms aren’t as bad as those we try to face on our own. The lost son’s fall was directly tied to his cutting himself off from his foundation.
He excluded himself from the family that gave him name, identity, and wealth. Volf says he “un-sonned” himself. [i] If you read the genealogies in the Bible, you see people are named by who their family is. Luke 3:23 tells us Jesus was (as was thought) the son of Joseph, son of Heli, son of Matthat,” on the genealogy goes all the way back to “Enos, son of Seth, son of Adam, son of God” (v.38). How do we know who Joseph was? He was the son of Heli?
We do it differently, but we do this too. How do you know who Igor is? He’s a Tennant. And Henry, what of him? He’s a Tennant. Who is this young woman, Merone? She’s a Tennant. Much more could be said of each of us, but we start with a name. The name says we are part of a family. We belong. The Prodigal cut himself off. He un-sonned himself.
Where in life have we seen this, or ourselves, done it? Where have we been cut off, or intentionally cut ourselves off from God, friends, and family? And having been cut-off, have you faced the desperation he faced, or desperation within your own experience? Do you know what it’s like to take stock of your own life and feel like all is lost? What do you do? He remembered the character of his father.
Jesus says he “came to himself” (v.17). Despairing, starving, longing to eat pig slop – the refuse humans reject and feed to animals who will literally eat anything, he remembered. My father. My father’s heart is so big, his servants eat and live well. Embarrassing as it will be, serving there will be better than dying here.
In his mind, he’s still excluded. He remembers his father, but only now will he understand the depth of grace, the fullness of embrace. He thought his name, ‘son’ was done. He had ‘un-sonned’ himself. But, with the true father, we don’t choose our name. We don’t tell God who we are. He tells us who we are.
Think about someone you know who is deeply wounded. It might be you, or someone close to you, or someone you’ve observed. Maybe the injury is the person’s own fault. The injury results from a series of mistakes that beget more mistakes. Maybe the injury is something that happened to the person. He’s a victim of terrible acts. Most of time, it’s a combination. The longer he has lived as one injured, lived in a far country away from support with savings gone and disasters piling up, the harder it is to remember. ‘Broken,’ becomes his name, ‘lost’ his identity.
This is why hurt people cause so much pain and why it is so hard to come back. It’s a failure of memory. We forget who tells who we are. We forget our names: ‘son;’ ‘daughter;’ ‘beloved.’
What happened when he went back? While he was still far off, the father who never accepted exclusion and never believed his son was completely lost, saw him. He saw him because he never stopped looking. He saw him and ran to him and then the literal embrace enveloped the one not worthy of it.
Give me inheritance; you are dead to me. Embrace!
I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Embrace!
No longer worthy? It was never a question of worthiness. The day we look into the loving eyes of Jesus, the Holy Spirit awakening our hearts, we are called ‘son’ and ‘daughter’ not for our worthiness but out of God’s grace and love.
“He ran and put his arms around him and kissed him” (v.20). As the Father is pouring his love onto the son, the prodigal is stumbling through his lame exclusion speech. The father doesn’t even acknowledge the young man’s words. “Quickly, bring out a robe – the best one! Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Kill the fatted calf. We must celebrate.”
It’s not that the father ignore the son so much as they are telling and living two different stories. The father determines his story of embrace is the one that will win out. The son, ‘un-sonned,’ comes with a story of a desperate man willing to live as a servant, even a slave, but the father reconstructs his identity.
Do actions speak louder than words? The son is delivering his prepared remarks. The father is weeping, hugging, kissing, robing, instructing, and celebrating. The identity he gave that this son rejected, is still there, given again, with even more love and passion.
As we walk through Jesus’ well-known story and see what embrace looks like, I have to ask. Have you experienced embrace? It’s as wonderful as Jesus depicts it.
Do you need to experience it? Do you need Jesus to reconstruct your identity? Do you need help remembering that you are loved? You are made in the image of God? You are a blessed child of God. There’s no country so far that God will stop looking, ready to run to you kissing, hugging, robing, celebrating, and naming.
Bask in the joy, remembering a time you received God’s embrace.
Or, are you hurting, and in that far country? Turn to God now, confessing your sins with bare naked honesty; turn into the arms of the loving God.
Or, you’re walking with God, you know your name, but you also see into the world. With patience and an abundance of grace, help a lost soul find her way to the arms of the father.
Jesus began the parable saying, “There was a man who had two sons.” We will look at the older brother as we continue learning about embrace next week.
[i] M.Volf (2019), Exclusion & Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation: Revised and Update, Abingdon Press (Nashville), p.164.