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The Parable of the Loving Father

March 11, 2013

Note: The modern retelling of the parable in this sermon is a work of imagination. The characters are fictional, and no identification with any person, living or dead, is intended or should be inferred. When actual names of persons, places, brands, businesses or institutions appear, they are used fictionally.

“The Parable of the Loving Father” Luke 15:1-3, 11-32 © 3/10/13 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

The parable usually called the “the prodigal son” is beloved and well-known. Someone has even called it “well-worn” (David Henson, www.patheos.com). And that presents a problem for a preacher, just like Christmas and Easter do. What can be said about this text that offers new insights? An ordination exam I read last week referred to the elder brother as Judaism and the younger as Christianity, though more properly those would be sisters rather than brothers. Way back in the day, I did a monologue from the point of view of the older son. Anybody who is firstborn and/or has a ne’er-do-well sibling will read the story through that lens, perhaps, as will the younger or youngest child or the “clown” of the family. I even heard of a pastor who did a sermon from the perspective of the fatted calf!

For this morning, I’m going to be fairly straightforward, nothing to be too concerned about. Let’s begin by setting the scene. Picture crowds gathering around Jesus, mostly composed of those labeled “sinners” by the religious leaders. They were so called because they didn’t keep the Torah in the strict manner of the Pharisees or maybe they didn’t pay attention to religious rules and rituals much at all. Jesus, on the other hand, regarded them with compassion, as lost sheep who needed a devoted shepherd, as valuable coins buried by the dust on a dirt floor. Their salvation was worth risking for, working hard for. When even one was found, that was cause for rejoicing in heaven. In the meantime, they were suitable meal and conversation companions, even men and women who might join Jesus in his mission.

Now we come to the morning’s parable. Here’s the twist: let’s suppose the family in the story lives in the Mississippi Delta, in Greenwood. A widowed father has two sons whose mother was killed in a car accident on Highway 82 when they were younger. Robert—not Bob or Rob and certainly not Bobby—Robert is the older. He and his wife Rebecca met at Rhodes College in Memphis and got married soon after graduation. They have two great kids, who do well at Pillow Academy, have lots of friends, and are well-behaved and polite. Robert works with his father, managing the family’s investments, both the inherited money and that which he and his dad have made by shrewd business deals. They have interests in farming, timber, rental properties, and land. Rebecca has been a top producer for several years in a row for Dubard Realty, working with only the best, most qualified clients.

Robert and his family live on several acres outside of town in a lovely historic home with all the amenities, including high-end Viking appliances made right there in Greenwood. He’s a ruling elder in First Presbyterian Church, the current chair of the session’s Benevolence Committee. He delights in grilling Greg, the presbytery exec, about why the church should give to the higher council’s work. Robert also was a driving force in the renovation of the office and classroom wing of the main building. He prides himself on being faithful, sensible, businesslike, and reasonable.

And he doesn’t much care for his brother Randy. Not Randall. Randy. Bless his heart, Randy is not the sharpest tool in the shed. He could not be more unlike his brother. Randy went to Mississippi State and partied the whole time. He barely graduated a few years ago. He’s supposed to be part of the family business, too, but mostly he spends his time at the family vacation home at Gulf Shores, chases women, eats too many ribs and drinks too many Coronas, and doesn’t give any hint of ever settling down. He’s a restless young man who had more than one scrape with the law when he was younger. Robert suspects Randy might in fact be doing some drugs other than alcohol. His Facebook page photos are embarrassing, but for some reason their daddy loves him and lets him get away with all sorts of outrageous things.

One day Randy went to their daddy and out of the blue asked for money equivalent to his inheritance. In essence, Randy was saying: “I’m tired of waiting on you to die. I’m bored with this town. I want to leave and get out from under your thumb and having to even pretend to work for a living. I want to be free to live life the way I want, away from you and Robert, who’s never has a kind word for me.”

Daddy had his attorney figure out how to do what Randy wanted, and in the end, Randy got a check for $500,000, the deed to a piece of timberland, and the pick of whatever car in the garage he wanted, transferred into his name. Without saying goodbye to Robert, Randy packed up his expensive clothes in the black Range Rover and left for New Orleans, where he had already booked a hotel room long-term while he looked for an apartment.

Randy knew all the clubs on Bourbon Street, and that’s where he could usually be found. Everybody liked Randy. Charming. Big spender. A favorite with the ladies. Also a target for the unscrupulous, those more than happy to help a young man flush with cash find ways to, shall we say, “invest” it.

This went on for a couple of years. Every day Dad looked for a text or Facebook message from Randy, listened for a phone call. And Randy never replied to Daddy’s texts or voicemails. Was he really gone?

Robert was incensed. How could Daddy be so foolish, so weak? Good riddance. That boy was nothing but dead weight. Let him go. But even if Robert could, their father couldn’t. He was becoming more and more withdrawn and depressed. As if Randy were dead, not just gone off to the French Quarter to carouse with cheap bimbos.

Meanwhile, due to his over-the-top lifestyle and non-stop spending, Randy was beginning to run low on money, even that he got from the sale of the timber property. The “investments” his newfound friends had convinced him to buy into were not panning out. He lost his shirt on a couple. His Visa bill was astronomical, the insurance on the Range Rover was ridiculous, and he could barely put $3.59/gallon gas in it anyway. He was young and strong, so he ended up getting a laboring job, but got laid off because of the economy. A string of jobs later, none of which he could keep, he was living in the Range Rover, eating out of the dumpster behind Brennan’s. Maybe it was time to go home, if his father would have him back.

When he got home late one night, the Range Rover on fumes, his dad rushed out to greet him. He wouldn’t even let him finish his carefully prepared confession speech. Instead he invited Randy to go on in the house, take a good hot shower, and get some rest. Tomorrow there was going to be a party.

When Robert came over after a long day at the office the next day, he saw the Range Rover back in the driveway and heard blues wailing from the backyard, the sort you’d hear at Morgan Freeman’s Ground Zero in Clarksdale. Why hadn’t he been told there was going to be a party? And what was the occasion?

He saw a parking attendant hired for the event and asked what was going on. “Mr. Randy has come back,” he said. Robert could barely contain his rage. As he was fuming, and about to go find his father to give him a piece of his mind, Dad came out to meet Robert and invited him to come in and join the fun. Dad just stood there while Robert unloaded all his frustrations and anger, boiling down to “You never even gave me a gift card to Taco Bell, but when this son of yours comes home after living la vida loca, you throw a big barbeque and invite the town!”

Dad’s only response was: “Son, whatever I have has always been yours. But your brother was dead and has come back to life. He was lost, and now he’s found.”

There the story ends, without a real conclusion. We don’t know if Robert came in or how long Randy stayed home before wanderlust took hold of his heart again. But it’s clear this is really a story about two lost sons: the one who went away and the one who stayed home. The hero of the story is the father who loved them both.

One son, who went to the big city, was greedy, wasteful, and foolish. He was willing to separate himself from a father who loved him in order to gain what he thought was freedom. It’s a testimony to the father’s love that he allowed his son to say “no” to him. He suffered rejection, being regarded as dead, if that’s what it took for the younger son to say “yes” freely to the father’s care.

But Randy made a mess of the freedom he gained. He suffered in the end not only from lack of food and shelter, but from lack of real friendship and affection. The people he met in the bars didn’t really care about him, only what he could do for them. He was alienated from anything that gave lasting meaning to life: family, friends, love. But his desperation finally impressed on him his sin and became the key to a spiritual awakening that led him home.

He came to himself in his need. And as someone has said, he was only truly himself when he was on his way home, when there were in his life relationships that make us truly human. He began to appreciate his father not just for the money he could give, but for the love he offered.

Robert was what we would call a “good” son. He did all the right things. Yet he was lost to his father as well. He saw his dad as a taskmaster, demanding hard work in exchange for love and acceptance. He was afraid of his father’s disapproval, and hardened himself against hurt. He saw his life as nothing but “have to,” as the movie line (Parenthood) puts it, and he secretly envied his brother’s freedom. I don’t think I can improve on what someone said years ago about the elder brother: “He did all his chores, but he was angry. He kept the rules, but he lost his temper. He never sowed a wild oat, but he exaggerated his brother’s ills. He did his duty, but he lived in envy. He never wasted a dime, but he was prejudiced. He was a self-centered, self-righteous snob.”

Reaching out to both these lost men was a loving father. Yes, indeed, he is the hero of the story. This tale has traditionally been called the parable of the prodigal son because the younger son was thought of as wasteful and reckless, the first definition of “prodigal.” But to focus on him or even on the older son misses the point. It was the father who was prodigal, in the second sense of the word: “lavish.” Maybe it’s simpler to call this story something that doesn’t send us running to the dictionary. We could follow one writer who named it “the parable of the waiting father” (Henri Nouwen). But that’s a little too passive for my tastes. How about the parable of the loving father?

The emphasis here is not on the sin of the younger or the hardness of the older, but on a father’s affection and openness to both. It’s an ever-searching love that looks beyond loss and hurt and sees the person. The father accepted again the son who went away, who wanted nothing to do with him. Even if Dad were dead to Randy, Randy was never dead to Dad. When the father forgave, he held no grudges. Randy could know that his stupidity and wrongdoing would not be brought up at a suitable time to humiliate him. The father granted forgiveness that restored the dignity of his son.

In a different way, Dad reached out to Robert, who had padlocked his heart, refused to be vulnerable. He went out and begged him to come in. He spoke tenderly to him. Dad continued to love Robert, who in another way had hurt him. The father longed for this son to risk a relationship, to open up his heart in trust, but that’s what Robert wouldn’t do.

This is really a story about God and you and me. It reminds us that God loves and accepts us whoever we are. But it also invites us to reflection, to more tough Lenten questions. Do we accept the love of God freely offered us or do we try to perform for him? Do we think of loving God as “pleasing” him, measuring our morality by checking off a list of do’s and don’ts, shoulds and oughts? Or is living as a child of God about response, openness, and acceptance? Are our hearts padlocked or have we flung wide their doors?

We don’t commend what Randy or anyone like him did or does. But the story presents him as an example of someone who ultimately lets the good news of the gospel get inside. He is the tax collectors and sinners who knew they had sinned and so flocked to Jesus for acceptance and healing by grace.

The Pharisees of Jesus’ day or ours were and are elder brothers: moral, obedient, decent, but without the experience of grace, favor that is given without being deserved. They aren’t left out, either. They are welcomed, invited to come to the party.

Parables ask us to identify with one of the characters, to enter into the story. Whoever we are, however we see ourselves, God loves us and seeks us as his children. In Christ, he reaches out to all and says “Come in! Rejoice!” Whether in Lent or any season, the question is always and ever our response to this God who loves, welcomes, and accepts all his lost children, those who run away and those who stay at home.

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