Sunday, March 27, 2022

“God’s First Love” — Rev. Brent Gundlah

There’s an old adage in journalism that says a report about a dog biting a man will generate far less interest than one about a man biting a dog. The point is that a story tends to be more compelling if there is something atypical about it, and that seems about right; the commonplace just attracts less of our limited attention.

This is probably one of the reasons the tale of the Prodigal Son from Luke’s Gospel has continued to draw in readers for a couple of thousand years now. To be fair, though, perhaps a bigger reason for its lasting appeal is that it manages to depict the essence of God and of humanity in about twenty verses.

“There was a man who had two sons,” is how it begins. And there’s nothing terribly unusual or interesting about that. Honestly, his two sons aren’t really all that unique either.

One of them is feckless and greedy, as many people are. He comes to his father asking that he be given right now the inheritance he’s entitled to receive at some point in the future — and his father obliges. This son blows through all his money in fairly short order; he then comes back home with his tail between his legs and throws himself upon his father’s mercy.

The other son is jealous, as many people are. When his brother comes home and is greeted by their father with open arms and a big old party, this son gets angry and refuses to attend the celebration.

It kind of seems like a classic case of sibling rivalry, and we’ve all heard stories like this before; it’s a dog bites man situation.

At this point, it might be helpful to locate this particular story in its larger context. As this chapter of Luke’s Gospel gets underway, Jesus is dining with sinners and tax collectors — which is the kind of thing he tends to do.

And the Pharisees and scribes who are observing all this are none too happy about it because it doesn’t adhere to their strict understanding about rituals of purity and exclusion, about the rules governing who’s in and who’s out, about the policies dictating the way things are supposed to be.

As Luke tells us, they “were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow [meaning Jesus] welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” In their way of seeing things, sinners simply aren’t worth anyone’s time — including, but not limited to God’s.

Jesus responds to their criticism by sharing a series of three parables: the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin and, finally, this parable of the prodigal son. 

Parables are, of course, stories with a lesson that use human characters to make their point (as opposed to fables which use plants and animals and other things to do that). Jesus frequently uses parables throughout the gospels to teach his followers, though Jesus’s stories, interestingly enough, are often a hybrid of parable and fable. Then again, Jesus generally wasn’t one for abiding by rules.

Because the characters in these stories are symbols for things from real life (generally, people), the reader has to figure out who (or what) represents whom; sometimes this is easy and sometimes this is challenging. In the case of today’s story, it’s actually pretty easy.

The so-called “prodigal” son — the one who takes his father’s money and squanders it on a fast lifestyle before returning home penniless — represents the tax collectors and sinners. The other son — the one fixated on right conduct and receiving the reward he believes he has earned and deserves — represents the Pharisees and scribes. In the middle of these two squabbling brothers is the father who, of course, represents God. And the conduct of this father is the “man bites dog” part of this story.

The society in which these characters lived — and in which Jesus and his listeners lived too — was governed by all sorts of rules and expectations, as any society is. And these rules and expectations extended into family life as well.

When it came to matters of inheritance, these rules and expectations were really clear. In that world in those days, a son wasn’t entitled to receive anything from his father’s estate until his father died. So when the one we call the Prodigal shows up with his hand out and says, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me,” he’s not simply looking for some dough; he’s effectively saying, “Dad, you’re as good as dead to me.” And that one had to hurt.

But the really weird thing is that, in spite of this, the father grants the son’s demand. He hasn’t earned it, he doesn’t deserve it, but the father gives it to him anyway. Who in their right mind would ever do such a thing?

And when that son returns home broke and smelling like he’s been living in a pig pen (because he’s been living in a pig pen), the father not only takes him in, but also throws him a huge party. His son has insulted him and dishonored him; his son has been engaging in “dissolute living”; his son is ritually unclean because he’s been residing among swine, but the father welcomes him extravagantly. Who in their right mind would ever do such a thing?

And when the other son gets angry and starts complaining about how unfair all of this is; when he declines to attend the celebration that his father has put together for his brother, we’re told that “His father came out and began to plead with him.”  

Now it might not sound like much to our twenty-first century ears, but this was kind of a big deal back then. It would have been incredibly disrespectful for a son to refuse to attend a banquet that his father had staged, and to challenge the ways in which his father chose to spend his wealth. But it would have been absolutely unheard of for a father to debase himself by pleading with his recalcitrant son to show love for his brother and for him. Who in their right mind would ever do such a thing?

It’s kind of interesting to me that the first son is the one who is typically described as being “prodigal.” It’s not a word that tends to be in our vocabulary – I, for one, don’t recall ever having used it in reference to anything outside of this story.

The word “prodigal,” when used as an adjective, is defined as that which is “characterized by profuse or wasteful expenditure.” And, when used as a noun, a “prodigal” is defined as “one who spends or gives lavishly and foolishly.” Either way, it is a word that seems to first son like the proverbial glove. But it kind of fits the father too.

After all, he sells a part of what he owns in order to fund his son’s desire for a lavish lifestyle (in those days you couldn’t simply Venmo someone cash, or write them a check after liquidating some mutual funds in your brokerage account).

And then he spends even more money in welcoming the little ingrate home. If all that doesn’t qualify as profuse or wasteful or lavish or foolish by the standards of this world, than I don’t know what does. Who in their right mind would ever do such a thing?

Well, if you haven’t figured it out by now, God would do such a thing — because God isn’t governed by the standards of this world.

When we base our entire existence on concepts such as fear and scarcity; who wins and who loses; who earned what; who deserves what; and who gets what, we tend to produce the kind of behavior shown by these two brothers. This should be no surprise because we see it and experience it every single day; it’s a dog bites man kind of story.

But God’s foundational premise is fundamentally different — and that premise is love. And because love is not a finite resource to be hoarded and fought over — because love is not something that can be deserved or earned — the father’s man-bites-dog kind behavior, which finds it entire basis in love, makes a whole lot more sense.

Last year, as the concept of equality for all continued to dominate the public discourse (though I have to wonder why equality for all is not yet our reality), a post came across my Facebook feed that made me want to laugh and cry at the same time (I can’t say for sure, but it was probably from Kate); and it read as follows: “Equal rights for others does not mean less rights for you. It’s not pie.”

This story of the Prodigal shows that, in God’s reign, the same can be said of love: Love for others does not mean less love for you. It’s not pie. That’s the whole point.

Maybe someday we’ll actually come to understand that, and live our lives accordingly.

Maybe someday this father’s behavior towards his sons — and thus God’s behavior towards us — won’t seem strange at all.

May it be so.