Top of Page ILLUMINATING AND THINKING ABOUT THE SERMON
Sometimes after preaching for many many years you face the same parable and say to yourself maybe something else. But when it comes to the Parable of the Prodigal Son there is so much to discuss and celebrate about this famous parable that even a dozen sermons are not going to completely cover the subject.
Without a doubt, most Christians recognize this story as the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Yet that title that we have assigned to Jesus' tale reveals our tendency to misunderstand what he was really trying to say. After all, this is a parable that involves not just one character-a prodigal son. Rather, as the story begins, we are told: "There was a man who had two sons." In other words, if we want to appreciate fully what Jesus is trying to convey through this narrative, we need to pay attention to all three of the characters-the father, the "prodigal son" and the "good son."
Many of the sermons that we have heard across the years undoubtedly focused on the return of the wayward child. Most certainly that is a scene that has been etched into our collective religious memory. We picture the father sitting on a rocking chair on his front porch, worrying and fretting about his rebellious son, when all of a sudden, he catches a glimpse of the boy coming over the crest of the hill. Immediately the father leaps to his feet and races down the path to greet him and welcome him home.
The shocking and extreme nature of the father's welcome-especially considering the circumstances of the son's departure-is highlighted in the fact that we are told that the father ran to his son. Especially back in biblical times, men did not run. It was not considered a dignified thing to do. Even today, can you imagine President Bush running and leaping across the White House Lawn to hug some foreign dignitary? The President might very well be pleased that that official has come. But running to welcome that person is definitely out of the question. However, that is precisely what the father did in the parable that Jesus told.
Then, instead of chastising and punishing his free-spirited offspring for all the grief he had caused him, the father threw a huge party for his son! And the party didn't involve just a few Domino's pizzas and a couple of close friends. No, for this party the father ordered that the fatted calf be slaughtered and prepared, implying that the hastily prepared guest list probably numbered near a hundred or more.
That image of a lavish party quickly catches our attention. Most of us enjoy a good party. We like birthday parties and anniversary parties and retirement parties and Christmas parties-and the list goes on. Whenever there's a good reason to have a party-and sometimes even if there's not a good reason to have a party-we're there.
But is this a party that we would want to attend? Are we really interested in celebrating the return of some disrespectful, self-centered brat of a kid who decides to wander home because he wants a free meal ticket from his dad? Is that a good reason to have a party?
Yet as we read on in the parable, we discover that maybe we have another option. As we read on, we are reminded that there is another son, and it sounds like he might end up organizing an entirely separate party. That older son isn't exactly thrilled about the gala banquet that his father is throwing for his brother. So, the older son ponders having his own get-together with his own friends. From the older son's perspective, he might have to tolerate his brother's presence, but he shouldn't be compelled to celebrate with him.
Unfortunately, toleration seems to be the main banner that Christians march under today. For instance, when it comes to racial issues, most of our church members have learned to tolerate those who are different than themselves. Most of our church members are not burning crosses on people's lawns or throwing rocks through their windows. Yet at the same time, 11:00 Sunday morning continues to be one of the most segregated hours out of the entire week. We tolerate each other, but we do not actively seek to join together with each other in worship and celebration.
In a somewhat similar way, many churches have come to tolerate various styles of worship-often referred to as contemporary and traditional. Many churches tolerate contemporary music, but they do so at a distance, setting up a separate worship time so that those who are more traditional don't have to come into contact with those other people.
Is toleration for each other all that God wants from us? Or does God hope for something more? Just like the parable leaves us with the hope that the father and his two sons might eventually find some way to re-unite as one family, God also has a hope that we will eventually find ways to bridge the differences we have-in our communities, in our churches, and in our denominations-so that we might re-unite as one family with our God and Father.
I expressed essentially that hope in an essay in Presbyterian Outlook this past year. I was somewhat amused, but also somewhat disheartened, by one of the Letters to the Editor that was printed in response. The writer opined: "There is room for everyone in the household of faith, but it is the genius of American Protestantism that nearly every Christian believer can find and affiliate himself with a religious community that is congenial to his cast of mind. The important thing is that we should all respect these differences, not that we should try to bridge over them."
Is that the genius of American Protestantism-that we all search for the "party" that best matches with our own personal likes and preferences? Or, as the parable suggests, are we willing to set aside our personal likes and preferences in order to pursue something more important-the unity, the one "party," where there is not just toleration, but where there is love?
Does God go way beyond toleration? Of course, God goes well beyond toleration and so did Jesus. After all the audience for this parable had several people in despised occupations. In fact, in the present political climate there is less and less toleration for being different. We preach diversity in the public arena but do not practice it. That is very, very true of both sides. As an example of this look at the political battles in the United Kingdom and the United States. We only want as our friends those who think and believe as we do. However, the real hope is the more and more individuals seem tolerant of differences and often embrace those differences.
Moreover, the introduction indicates that Jesus was speaking to the Pharisees and scribes, but the immediately following parable assumes that the audience included herdsmen; herdsmen, however, belonged to a despised occupation, and would not be included in Pharisaic circles. Hence the parable and the introduction were originally separate, and the linking of them was done by a non-Palestinian who did not understand the social set-up. Finally, while the introduction refers only to one parable (v. 3; but see note there), it is in fact followed by three parables.
Of all the parables this one is perhaps the easiest to interpret in broad outline and yet the most open to a variety of interpretation, dependent on where the main emphasis is thought to lie. In its present context it is meant to illustrate the pardoning love of God that cares for the outcasts; the sinful son is welcomed home by the father and his former status is restored. The central figure is the father, just as in the previous parables the shepherd and the housewife stand at the center, and H. Thielicke’s famous description of the parable as being concerned with ‘the waiting Father’ is correct. But at the same time the figure of the son is developed; we see his sin and his need, his repentance and his return, and so the parable is also concerned with ‘the joy of repentance’ (J. Schniewind’s phrase). Nevertheless, in the end it is not so much the repentance of the son as the communal joy of the restored and reunited family which is the culminating note in the parable. What, then, is the place of the other son? It would not be inapt to regard the story as ‘the parable of the lost sons’ (cf. Jüngel, 160–164), since it emerges that the elder son’s relationship to his father is not what it should be. But this is a subordinate detail, and the question of the elder brother’s relationship to his younger brother is more important: will the elder brother share the father’s joy at the return of the prodigal? —this is the unanswered question which is addressed to the hearers of the parable. So, the parable is ultimately concerned to justify the attitude of God to sinners. In this way it justifies the attitude of Jesus himself, since he is able to defend himself and his attitude to sinners by appeal to the attitude of God. Implicit, therefore, in the parable is the claim that Jesus acts as the representative of God in pardoning sinners. (Marshall, I. H. The Gospel Of Luke: A Commentary On The Greek Text [1978, Exeter] p604–605)
People often assume that the story is simply about the wonderful love and forgiving grace of God, ready to welcome back sinners at the first sign of repentance. That is indeed its greatest theme, which is to be enjoyed and celebrated. But the story itself goes deeper than we often assume. Let’s be sure we’ve understood how families like this worked. When the father divided the property between the two sons, and the younger son turned his share into cash, this must have meant that the land the father owned had been split into two, with the younger boy selling off his share to someone else. The shame that this would bring on the family would be added to the shame the son had already brought on the father by asking for his share before the father’s death; it was the equivalent of saying ‘I wish you were dead’. The father bears these two blows without recrimination.
To this day, there are people in traditional cultures, like that of Jesus’ day, who find the story at this point quite incredible. Fathers just don’t behave like that; he should (they think) have beaten him or thrown him out. There is a depth of mystery already built in to the story before the son even leaves home. Again, in modern Western culture children routinely leave homes in the country to pursue their future and their fortune in big cities, or even abroad; but in Jesus’ culture this would likewise be seen as shameful, with the younger son abandoning his obligation to care for his father in his old age. When the son reaches the foreign country, runs through the money, and finds himself in trouble, his degradation reaches a further low point. For a Jew to have anything to do with pigs is bad enough; for him to be feeding them, and hungry enough to share their food, is worse.
But of course, the most remarkable character in the story is the father himself. One might even call this ‘the parable of the Running Father’: in a culture where senior figures are far too dignified to run anywhere, this man takes to his heels as soon as he sees his young son dragging himself home. His lavish welcome is of course the point of the story: Jesus is explaining why there is a party, why it’s something to celebrate when people turn from going their own way and begin to go God’s way. Because the young man’s degradation is more or less complete, there can be no question of anything in him commending him to his father, or to any other onlookers; but the father’s closing line says it all. ‘This my son was dead and is alive; he was lost and now is found.’ How could this not be a cause of celebration?
For Jesus to tell a story about a wicked son, lost in a foreign land, who was welcomed back with a lavish party—this was bound to be heard as a reference to the hope of Israel. ‘This my son was dead and is alive’; ever since Ezekiel 37 the idea of resurrection had been used as picture-language for the true return from exile.
Yes, says Jesus, and it’s happening right here. When people repent and turn back to God—which, as we’ve seen, meant for Jesus that they responded positively to his gospel message—then and there the ‘return from exile’ is happening, whether or not it looks like what people expected. His answer to the Pharisees and other critics is simple: if God is fulfilling his promises before your very eyes, you can’t object if I throw a party to celebrate. It’s only right and proper.
There is a danger in splitting the story into two, as we’ve done. The second half is vital, and closely interwoven with the first. But in this first section the emphasis is on the father’s costly love. From the moment he generously gives the younger son what he wanted, through to the wonderful homecoming welcome, we have as vivid a picture as anywhere in Jesus’ teaching of what God’s love is like, and of what Jesus himself took as the model for his own ministry of welcome to the outcast and the sinner. (Wright, T. Luke for Everyone [2004, London] p186–189)
NOT without reason this has been called the greatest short story in the world. Under Jewish law a father was not free to leave his property as he liked. The elder son must get two-thirds and the younger one-third (Deuteronomy 21:17). It was by no means unusual for a father to distribute his estate before he died, if he wished to retire from the actual management of affairs. But there is a certain heartless callousness in the request of the younger son. He said in effect, ‘Give me now the part of the estate I will get anyway when you are dead and let me get out of this.’ The father did not argue. He knew that if the son was ever to learn he must learn the hard way; and he granted his request. Without delay the son realized his share of the property and left home.
He soon ran through the money; and he finished up feeding pigs, a task that was forbidden to a Jew because the law said, ‘Cursed is he who feeds swine.’ Then Jesus paid sinning humanity the greatest compliment it has ever been paid. ‘When he came to himself’, he said. Jesus believed that being away from God prevented people from being truly themselves. That was only possible once they were on their way home. Beyond a doubt Jesus did not believe in total depravity. He never believed that you could glorify God by denigrating human beings; he believed that we are never essentially ourselves until we come home to God.
So, the son decided to come home and plead to be taken back not as a son but in the lowest rank of slaves, the hired servants, the men who were only day laborer. The ordinary slave was in some sense a member of the family, but the hired servant could be dismissed at a day’s notice. He was not one of the family at all. He came home; and, according to the best Greek text, his father never gave him the chance to ask to be a servant. He broke in before that. The robe stands for honor; the ring for authority, for if a man gave to another his signet ring it was the same as giving him the power of attorney; the shoes for a son as opposed to a slave, for children of the family wore shoes and slaves did not. (The slave’s dream in the words of the spiritual is of the time when ‘all God’s chillun got shoes’, for shoes were the sign of freedom.) And a feast was made that all might rejoice at the wanderer’s return.
That is not the end of the story. There enters the elder brother who was actually sorry that his brother had come home. He stands for the self-righteous Pharisees who would rather see a sinner destroyed than saved. Certain things stand out about him.
Once again we have the amazing truth that it is easier to confess to God than it is to another person; that God is more merciful in his judgments than many orthodox people; that God’s love is far broader than human love; and that God can forgive when we refuse to forgive. In face of a love like that we cannot be other than lost in wonder, love and praise.
We must finally note that these three parables are not simply three ways of stating the same thing. There is a difference. The sheep went lost through sheer foolishness. It did not think; and many of us would escape sin if we thought in time. The coin was lost through no fault of its own. Many are led astray; and God will not hold anyone guiltless who has taught another to sin. The son deliberately went lost, callously turning his back on his father. The love of God can defeat human folly, the seduction of the tempting voices, and even the deliberate rebellion of the heart. (Barclay, W. The Gospel of Luke [2001, Louisville, KY] p242–245)
The positions of the two sons would, in a structural analysis, be considered binary opposites, the lost son rises and the elder brother falls in moral state. The central figure, the father, remains constant in his love for both. As in v. 2 (cf. comment), by telling the story Jesus identifies himself with God in his loving attitude to the lost. He represents God in his mission, the accomplishment of which should elicit joy from those who share the Father’s compassion. The parable is one of the world’s supreme masterpieces of storytelling. Its details are vivid; they reflect actual customs and legal procedures and build up the story’s emotional and spiritual impact. But the expositor must resist the tendency to allegorize the wealth of detail that gives the story its remarkable verisimilitude. The main point of the parable—that God gladly receives repentant sinners—must not be obscured.
Two issues, one literary and one theological, are often raised concerning this parable. Because the first part of the parable revolves around the younger brother and the latter around the older (and also for other reasons), some have found the parable’s literary structure complex—i.e., originally consisting of two independent stories. If so, the resultant unit is well edited; for the older son appears from the very beginning, the two parts complement each other, and the latter part fits as well as the former into the context of vv. 1–2. But this view cannot be sustained (cf. Marshall, Gospel of Luke, p. 605).
The theological issue centers in the absence of any hint of anything more than repentance and returning to God as Father being involved in salvation. It must, however, be kept in mind that this is a parable and thus is intended to portray only one aspect of the gospel—God’s willingness to receive “sinners” and his joy over their return. Elsewhere in Luke’s presentation of Christ as Savior, the Cross has its place (see Hanson, Sayings of Jesus, p 286; cf. Marshall, Luke: Historian and Theologian, pp. 170–75). (Liefeld, W. L. Luke. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew, Mark, Luke [1984, Grand Rapids, MI] Vol. 8, pp. 983-5)
The wonderful example of the father is to be held up to the congregation. Since in this parable God is the father, we see how God forgives. When we join the church, we admit we are sinners and that we need God’s forgiveness. The media’s understanding of the followers of Christ is so far removed from the reality that we can hardly recognize ourselves. However, as people who follow the example of the father in this wonderful parable we always need to forgive.
Top of Page ILLUSTRATING THE SERMON
The White House has seen a lot of big parties, but nothing compares to March 4, 1829, when Andrew Jackson’s open house sparked a mob scene that almost destroyed the White House. The party was so big that the courageous, battle-tested President Jackson fled the scene (out a back door or through a window) as a huge crowd drank heavily, destroyed furniture and china, and even ground cheese into the carpets with their boots on the White House carpet.
Only the promise of more free liquor drew the rabble out of the executive mansion.
That’s the popular myth surrounding the open house at the White House on that inauguration day in 1829, and while key parts seem true (based on contemporary accounts), the “wildness” part could be exaggerated.
To set the scene, President Jackson had been involved in two nasty presidential campaigns against John Quincy Adams. Jackson lost the 1824 race in a runoff election in the House; he won the 1828 presidential campaign in one of the dirtiest, meanest campaigns in American history.
Both sides were ruthless in the campaign, including charges from Adams’ side (which weren’t new) about the character of Jackson’s wife, Rachel. A month after the election, Rachel Jackson died, and the president blamed his political enemies and their rumors for her death.
Jackson had a huge, popular following, and his inauguration was a sea change for American politics.
A crowd of 10,000 to 20,000 people showed up at the Capitol for the inauguration, some traveling from 500 miles away for the event. The sight stunned Washington society and Jackson’s political enemies, who already feared “mob rule” under Jackson.
The 61-year-old Jackson gave his inaugural address and promised to do the best job for the people. But the first crowd control problem happened after his speech. A cable snapped that held back the crowd in front of the president, who was on the Capitol’s steps.
His team ushered President Jackson back inside the Capitol for his own protection. But then the president mounted his own horse, and he rode through the crowd to the White House.
Another crowd was already outside and inside the mansion, as the tradition of the day made inauguration day an “open house” for the White House. In theory, anyone could show up, shake the president’s hand, and maybe have some punch and dessert.
The popular story is that Jackson entered the White House, and a mob scene broke out, with the rabble ransacking the White House and Jackson fleeing for safety.
One source for that story was a memoir written by Margaret Bayard Smith, a Washington society figure.
“But what a scene did we witness! The Majesty of the People had disappeared, and a rabble, a mob, of boys, women, children, scrambling fighting, romping. What a pity what a pity! No arrangements had been made no police officers placed on duty and the whole house had been inundated by the rabble mob. We came too late,” Smith wrote in her later years. She also thought the reported figure of 20,000 at the inauguration scene was exaggerated.
James Hamilton Jr., a representative from South Carolina, wrote the next day to Martin Van Buren and called the event a “Saturnalia.”
But two historians, David and Jeanne Heidler, accounts that play down the drunken-brawl aspects of the open house. The Heidlers point out that Hamilton, the Jackson supporter from South Carolina, called the damage from the event “trivial.” The crowd at the White House was mixed. The first arrivals were the people who made up Washington society. The second crowd that showed up at the mansion was made up of Jackson supporters who were dressed in their best clothes.
What happened next doesn’t seem to be disputed: The White House wasn’t prepared for the crowd as it pressed in through the front door and sought out Jackson, along with the food and whiskey-laced punch. Jackson found himself pressed into a situation with his back to a wall until his people were able to get him away from the crowd, and back to his hotel. The sheer number of people inside the White House led to collisions with furniture and food. After Jackson left, the Heidlers say Antoine Michel Giusta, the White House steward, moved the party outside by taking the punch outside. Other reports indicated that staffers passed punch and ice cream through the White House’s windows to the crowd outside.
As for the image of a riot of drunken Jackson supporters, the Heidlers believed that the incident was used as a metaphor by Washington society and Jackson’s enemies, who feared the new regime and its lower-class roots. “Most witnesses, however, mentioned little real damage, and newspapers reported only incidental break-age. Niles’ Weekly Register, in fact, merely observed that Jackson had ‘received the salutations of a vast number of persons, who came to congratulate him upon his induction to the presidency’,” said the Heidlers.
The story about the cheese actually happened at the end of Jackson’s eight years in office. The president was given a 1,400-pound cheese wheel as a gift, and it sat in the White House for several years. Finally, Jackson allowed the public into the East Room to eat the cheese, which it consumed over several days in 1837. The odors lingered for days after the event.
Jackson’s cheese incident later inspired a fictional presidential tradition in the TV show West Wing, where White House staffers were required to meet with and listen to the less powerful interest groups, such as a group who wanted to fund a highway exclusively for wolves.
In the end, Jackson seemed unfazed by the open house incident in 1829. He had planned on redecorating the White House anyway and was able to get $50,000 from Congress for his project. (https://constitutioncenter.org/blog/the-story-of-the-wildest-party-in-white-house-history/)
Once Abraham Lincoln was asked how he was going to treat the rebellious southerners when they had finally been defeated and had returned to the Union of the United States. The questioner expected that Lincoln would take a dire vengeance, but he answered, ‘I will treat them as if they had never been away.’ It is the wonder of the love of God that he treats us like that. (Barclay, W. The Gospel of Luke [2001, Louisville, KY] p242–245)
There are even more Yucky Jobs today than when Jesus talked about the prodigal son. For instance there is the Stand-In Bridesmaid Imagine the collection of fluffy dresses you could accumulate as a professional bridesmaid! It would be like a real-life 27 Dresses, only you'll get paid to be a bridesmaid. Whether a bridesmaid has backed out at the last minute, or a bride just doesn't have another person to ask to be in her wedding party, professional bridesmaids are here to help... For anywhere from a few hundred, to a few thousand dollars! You can rent them by the hour to stand in for your wedding photos with you and the rest of the bridal party, and they will even walk down the aisle and stand beside you at the alter. A little impersonal to hire someone for this, sure, but desperate times call for desperate measures!
Professional Mourner Most of us would likely prefer to never have to mourn, but some people actually mourn for a living. Professional mourners can be hired for all sorts of sad occasions including funerals and wakes. One professional mourner company based in Essex, UK describes their services: "Rent A Mourner can supply professional, discreet people to attend funerals and wakes. If you simply need to increase visitor numbers or introduce new faces, we can help." For about two hours of professional mourning, you can earn $68. That equals a pretty decent hourly wage, but mourners don't tend to attend funerals for eight hours of each day. This job has been around for centuries and is even more popular in Asia and parts of Africa. In Ivory Coast, women can even earn several hundreds of dollars a day for mourning at these services.
Dog Food Tester Fido LOVES it, but most humans cringe at the thought of eating dog food. Not only do many dog foods contain nasty ingredients like animal by-products from all sorts of animals, kibble doesn't have the most appetizing texture. Luckily, most pet food tasters can spit out the sample once they've chewed it. When they aren't mowing down on kibble, pet food tasters also do the important work of evaluating the nutritional quality of the food. During a taste test, you'll look for flavor, texture, and consistency and for your services, you can earn between $34,000-$117,000 a year! That makes kibble seem a little more appealing, doesn't it?
Human Scarecrow If standing in a farm all day scaring off birds doesn't sound like a nightmare, you might be interested in becoming a human scarecrow. Apparently, scarecrows of the human variety are more effective than the straw kind. Some human scarecrows are even required to play music to keep the birds away. Talk about multi-talented! If you're able to wave your arms in the arm and scream like you just don't care, this is one job you're definitely qualified for. That means, no more singing "if I only had a job..."
If standing in a farm all day scaring off birds doesn't sound like a nightmare, you might be interested in becoming a human scarecrow. Apparently, scarecrows of the human variety are more effective than the straw kind. Some human scarecrows are even required to play music to keep the birds away. Talk about multi-talented! If you're able to wave your arms in the arm and scream like you just don't care, this is one job you're definitely qualified for. That means, no more singing "if I only had a job..."
Oshiya (People Onto Train Pushers) The Japanese transit system is a bustling and busy one, and it takes hired attendants to keep it running smoothly at all times. These attendants don't just work on the vehicles, either. Oshiyas (people onto train pushers) do exactly what their job title says: they push people onto trains in an effort to speed things up and make sure trains are as full as they can be. It sounds pushy (no pun intended) but it seems like a good alternative to having random citizens pushing and shoving. When oshiyas aren't packing humans onto trains, they also help seniors get on and off the train. This isn't a new profession either; oshiyas have been around since at least the 1930s.
The Japanese transit system is a bustling and busy one, and it takes hired attendants to keep it running smoothly at all times. These attendants don't just work on the vehicles, either. Oshiyas (people onto train pushers) do exactly what their job title says: they push people onto trains in an effort to speed things up and make sure trains are as full as they can be. It sounds pushy (no pun intended) but it seems like a good alternative to having random citizens pushing and shoving. When oshiyas aren't packing humans onto trains, they also help seniors get on and off the train. This isn't a new profession either; oshiyas have been around since at least the 1930s. (https://www.thetalko.com/15-jobs-that-sound-too-weird-to-be-true/)
When the younger son traveled to a distant land, he was forced to take one of the least esteemed jobs of his day-a pig farming. As ABC News (1/29/03) reported, there are equally distasteful lines of work in our day. For more than 35 years Betty Lyon has been sniffing people's armpits at the Hilltop Labs in Cincinnati. She works as an odor judge, where it is her responsibility to determine if various deodorants are doing their job or not. In addition to armpits, Lyon smells diapers, cat litter and other consumer products. Another job that would be considered unpleasant by many people is a career in outdoor toilet maintenance. Those are the people who maintain and clean the Porta-Potties that are often found at carnivals, concerts, and many other outdoor events. Another fellow is a golf ball diver. Every day he puts on 25 pounds of scuba gear and searches the ponds at Falcon's Fire Golf Course in Kissimmee, Florida. On an average day, he retrieves 5,000 golf balls, for which he is paid about 10 cents each. Yet Peter Chase, who works as an earthworm farmer, holds one more unusual occupation. He raises earthworms in 20 beds of soil that he has in his garage in Trinidad, Colorado. He sells his herd to purchasers around the country for about $15 a pound, with people primarily using the worms for composting.
Although the elder son thought about skipping his brother's party, one party that was hard to resist was held in the spring of 2002. According to Reuters (5/23/02), Hans Rausing, who is the second richest man in Great Britain, spent $17.5 million to entertain 600 guests aboard his luxury liner. Although Rausing, who is estimated to be worth about $6.5 billion, is supposedly known for watching his pennies, he splurged and provided his guests with a week of luxury living and first-rate entertainment, including a performance by Elton John. The reason for the party was not immediately apparent. The billionaire's birthday was two months before then. Rausing made his fortune when he sold his stake in the food processing giant Tetra Pak nine years ago.
If the elder son continued to dawdle about whether he was going to attend the party or not, he'd end up being late for it. According to CNN (9/17/03), Singapore recently began a drive to encourage citizens to be more punctual, especially for wedding celebrations. The government-sponsored Singapore Kindness Movement announced that it would make 400,000 cards available for couples to include in their wedding invitations as gentle reminders for their guests to be punctual. The Kindness Movement noted that many wedding couples are held back from starting their wedding dinners because a majority of their guests fail to appear on time. In order to nudge people to be more prompt, each month hotels in Singapore are being asked to report wedding dinners that begin on schedule. Those couples whose meals start at the appointed hour then become eligible to win cruise tickets. Critics of the program contend that the Kindness Movement is a modern-day Orwellian Big Brother tactic and that it is condescending toward Singapore citizens.
Are there some wrongs that go beyond the ability to be forgiven? The Christian Science Monitor (10/29/03) commented on how Arthur Seale is serving a sentence of life plus 125 years, without the possibility for parole, for kidnapping the son of a top Exxon executive outside the family's New Jersey home in 1992. He demanded $18 million in ransom money as he kept the boy shackled, gagged, and confined inside a wooden box during a seven-week period before the police finally apprehended him. At the time of the kidnapping, Seale was 46 years old. Since his incarceration began, Seale has taken steps to rehabilitate himself. He completed an undergraduate degree, and then went on to obtain a master's and a Ph.D. in psychological counseling through correspondence courses. He regularly tutors other prisoners, writes articles for the local newspaper, participates in Quaker seminars on alternatives to violence, and actively takes part in restorative justice programs. Although Seale realizes that he will never be let out of prison, he still hopes that in some way those whom he wronged will eventually forgive him. Even on a number of university campuses there is an increased interest in forgiveness, with several institutions of higher education now having departments of "forgiveness studies" to consider the benefits of forgiveness for both society and individuals. But Seale is still waiting to experience forgiveness. The birthday cards he sends to his sister go unanswered. He does not know where his son is. His daughter is perhaps homeless in Denver, but he's not entirely sure about her situation. Each month he is given 24 hours to receive visitors, yet no one ever comes to see him.
Paul Tillich once preached a sermon titled "You Are Accepted." His goal was to describe justification by grace through faith without using theological jargon. To a large extent, that theme is present in this parable. Tillich delineated three basic ideas in his message: (1) You are certainly not acceptable
(2) You are accepted, though unacceptable (grace) (3) Accept the reality of your acceptance (faith)
The Beer Church was formed about seven years ago. According to the Associated Press (11/18/03), the founding principles of the group is be kind and giving, love one another, and drink beer. The "church" was formed when some college friends from Western Washington University got together every Friday night to drink. They joked that it was almost like going to church. Since that time, the Beer Church has posted a web site and now has 40,000 members in 26 countries. If you would like to become an ordained Beer Church minister, all you have to do is send $15 and vow to "promote the goodness of Beer." Is that the kind of church that the younger son might have joined?
It always seems to be rather easy to see the sins in other people, yet we have a more difficult time recognizing our own shortcomings. For instance, even if you are in good health and fairly diligent about personal hygiene, you have somewhere around one trillion bacteria on your skin right now-about a hundred thousand bacteria on every square centimeter (Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything [New York: Broadway Books, 2003], p. 302)
Experience tends to indicate that we find it easier to disparage those who are different from us rather than try to find common ground. In Evil: An Investigation, Lance Morrow points out that researchers have found "Polish jokes" in virtually every society. In Belgium for instance, the Flemings tell jokes about the Walloons. The English tell jokes about the Irish, and vice versa. In Rwanda, the Hutus have jokes about the Tutsis, and the Tutsis likewise have jokes about the Hutus. In Japan, people from Tokyo tell jokes about people from Osaka. Even on Grenada, which measures just 133 square miles, people on one side of the island tell vicious jokes about the people on the other side of the island, and vice versa.
"Reconciliation is not weakness or cowardice. It demands courage, nobility, generosity, sometimes heroism, an overcoming of oneself rather than of one's adversary." (Pope Paul VI)
Some time after being released in November of 1991 from captivity in Beirut, Lebanon, hostage Tom Sutherland returned and met with the leaders of the group who had held him captive. While in captivity, though he had argued with his guards, and asked them why they didn't work as hard at getting an education to improve the lot of their people as they did keeping him, he also gained some insight into the problems that made them desperate. Tom moved beyond forgiveness to an effort at reconciliation and deeper understanding with the very people who had held him prisoner.
Sometimes we say we have forgiven someone, when in fact, the forgiveness only exists at a formal level. Truly, we still harbor a grudge, a lingering mistrust. I had an outspoken critic in the first congregation I served. Hard as I tried to forgive and understand him, deep down I harbored a deep mistrust. In this small town, I would walk down the other side of the street if I saw his car, to avoid running into him. While I yearned for relief from the tension, my deep mistrust prevented reconciliation, and made our relationship strained and difficult.
Alan Miller, a UCC Conference Minister, regularly gives out a poster with the following words on it to churches in conflict. "In times of disagreement: as long as my need to be right is more important than my desire to be in relationship with you, there is no hope for reconciliation."
Here is what passes for forgiveness and reconciliation in today's culture. Responding to charges he "exhibited some loutish behavior, asking one woman to bend over and remove his boots and then getting overly flirtatious with other women in a hot tub," brought a further examination of For Love or Money star Rob Campos' expulsion from the Marine Corps Judge Advocate General training program for groping a female officer. He issued this apology to NBC through a statement saying, "I had believed that it was a private matter that had been resolved…I have acknowledged that I behaved inappropriately." (Scoop, "This Week's Disgraced Reality Star" [New York: People, June 6, 2003], pg. 20)
Sometimes the 15th chapter of Luke is called "Lost and Found," a theme that runs throughout literature, and even found its way into a very dramatic episode of the television series E.R. Entitled "The Lost," this was rerun on the night of Thursday, January 2. Dr. John Carter, who has drifted away from his lover, R.N. Abby Lockhart, decides to set out for Africa after receiving word that his friend Dr. Luka Kovac has been killed there. Luka, almost a burnt-out case because of the slaughter of his family back in his native Croatia, had gone to the Congo to help relieve the suffering of the people, victimized by a civil war going on there that is every bit as brutal as the one that had wracked the Balkans. Carter becomes consumed by the desire to go and find the body of his colleague. When he arrives in the Congo, he is rebuffed at first by the woman Red Cross field rep. But then, as his medical skills can be of service, she agrees that he can accompany her party into the bush to retrieve some wounded villagers. Thus he might be able to pick up word as to the fate of his friend.
As they pass through devastated villages, we see in flashbacks what has been happening to Lukas during the past two weeks. He is almost overcome with malarial chills when his African colleague brings news that the rebel force that has been slaughtering villagers are approaching their hospital. Carrying a young wounded boy, Luka and the staff set off into the jungle. A heavy rain adds to the misery of the shivering Lucas, but he refuses the plea of his colleague to take a dose of the medicine on the grounds that they will need it for the boy.
Back to the present, as Carter's party arrives at the wrecked hospital where they can see blood still on the floor, the doctor's rage and grief explode as he asks why they would do this. Earlier, we see that Lukas and his party are captured by the guerillas, who tie their hands to a rafter of a hut while they await the arrival of an officer to tell them what to do with the captives. A Belgian geologist, the only other white captive, anxiously asks about their fate. The guerilla leader arrives, and we soon learn his decision. A captive is dragged away into another hut, and we hear a shot ring out. The remaining captives are led out into the yard, where their wallets and possessions are seized, and one by one they are shot. Lukas' friend asks if he believes in God, and Lukas replies that he had been raised Catholic. To the question about his still attending mass, he replies that he no longer does, because he cannot believe in a God who would allow such slaughter of innocents. The Belgian pleads for his life, but to no avail.
The African colleague of Lukas says something in French to a soldier, and then the man shoots him in the head. Lukas is about to meet the same fate when one of the village women shouts, "You cannot kill a priest!" Apparently, this is what the colleague had said before he was killed. The soldier looks at the small cross Lukas wears around his neck, and then kneels down in reverence. Other soldiers follow his example, and ethereal music swells up on the soundtrack. The soldiers leave Lukas alone, and he looks up at the sky. We can see by his expression that something is happening inside his soul, not just the newfound appreciation of life of the reprieved, but perhaps also a rekindling of his lost faith.
Meanwhile, as Carter travels with the Red Cross worker, she asks him why he decided to come. The doctor gives a vague, tentative answer about being of help but not knowing what direction his life should take. When they arrive at the village where Lukas had last been seen, they are able to enter the main hut only after tying handkerchiefs around their nostrils, the stench from decaying bodies is so terrible. They find a pile of corpses. Carter sees a white wrist protruding from the stack, but it is not that of his friend.
In another part of the hut he finds Lukas, still alive. Overjoyed, he accompanies his friend to a medvac helicopter, where he lays into the stretcher-bound man a letter for Abby. When Lukas asks what he is going to do, Carter replies by saying that he thinks he will stay, and, quoting from Isaac Watts' great hymn, itself a reference to the father's words in Jesus' great parable, "I was lost, but now am found."
Omer Westendorf's "You Satisfy the Hungry Heart" could be regarded as a direct affirmation of the invitation extended in Isaiah 55. With its refrain, "You satisfy the hungry heart with gift of finest wheat; Come give us, O saving Lord, the bread of life to eat," each of the five stanzas celebrates the love and joy to be found in the bread and the cup freely given at the Lord's Table." Probably no one in the 20th Century affected the hymnody of the Roman Catholic Church as much as has this Cincinnati musician. Having discovered some joyful Dutch music during WW 2, Westendorf founded the World Library of Sacred Music to distribute the music of modern European composers to the American churches, and then folk masses and hymns by Americans. Sometimes writing under a pseudonym, Westendorf wrote the texts of hymns, including some of them in the various hymnals he published. His The People's Mass Book, selling over two million copies, was found in almost every Catholic Church after the reforms of Vatican 2. He wrote the text for "You Satisfy the Hungry Heart" and invited a friend Robert E. Kreutze to compose the tune. It became the official hymn of the 41st Eucharistic Congress, after which it won an international competition. It is fitting that the hymn of the man who once revised the text of Martin Luther's "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" to make it more suitable for Catholic use should now be found in several Protestant hymnals.
Back in the early centuries of the Christian faith, a fellow traveled into the Egyptian desert to consult with the respected hermit named Poemen. The man said, "I have committed a great sin, and I will do penance for three years." Poemen answered him, "That is a long time." The man said, "Are you telling me to do penance for one year then?" Again Poemen said, "That is a long time." Some of the people standing nearby suggested, "A penance of forty days?" Again Poemen replied, "That is a long time." He added, "I think that if someone is wholeheartedly penitent, and determined not to sin that sin again, God will accept a penance of even three days."
World War I was primarily a conflict among family members who refused to be reconciled to each other. The war pitted King George V of Great Britain, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia against one another. They were all grandchildren of England's Queen Victoria. The conflict resulted in King George V changing the royal family name from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to the name of his castle, Windsor, in order to renounce any relationship he shared with the German ruler.
About fifty years ago anthropologist K. E. Read studied the Gahuku-Gama people of New Guinea. He concluded that they had no innate respect for human life. Rather they assigned respect only to those people with whom they had familial or social ties. Whoever fell outside the bounds of those relationships was afforded no protection. In a very real sense, the elder son in the parable was attempting to ignore the familial bonds with his brother and thus justify breaking off the relationship that societal norms would otherwise require of him.
We often find it easier to be reconciled to someone if that other people is able to be kept at a distance from us. During the early part of the nineteenth century, one branch of the Abolitionist movement promoted the idea of colonizing the black slaves. The thinking was that that was the ideal way of bringing freedom to the slaves, while at the same time not causing slave-owning whites to have to struggle with how to interact socially with their former servants. The original plan was to send the freed blacks to a colony that would be established either in the southwestern American desert or else in Africa. The Abolitionists who proposed the colonization plan touted it as the most loving way to deal with the slaves. Among the critics of colonization, however, was William Lloyd Garrison. In the early 1830s he inquired why it was necessary to send the slaves 4,000 miles away in order to love them. Why can't they be loved and treated fairly right here in our midst, he asked. The truth is that we often find it easier to be reconciled to people that we don't have to see eye to eye. Meeting face to face and working through our differences can be hard work-hard work that we often prefer not to undertake.
In Rumors of Another World: What On Earth Are We Missing?, Philip Yancey tells about an event that took place during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission proceedings in South Africa. One particular hearing involved a policeman named van de Broek. He confessed that he and other officers had shot an eighteen-year-old boy and burned the body, turning it over a fire like a piece of meat, until it was finally destroyed. Eight years after that, van de Broek returned and seized the murdered boy's father. The wife was forced to watch helplessly as policemen took her husband, bound him to a woodpile, poured gasoline on him, and ignited him. After van de Broek recounted his evil deeds, the judge turned to the elderly widow and asked, "What do you want from Mr. van de Broek?" She indicated that she wanted him to go to the place where he had burned her husband's body and gather up the dust so that she could give him a decent burial. The policeman silently nodded his head. Then the woman proceeded to add: "Mr. van de Broek took all my family away from me, and I still have a lot of love to give. Twice a month, I would like for him to come to the ghetto and spend a day with me so I can be a mother to him. And I would like Mr. van de Broek to know that he is forgiven by God, and that I forgive him too. I would like to embrace him so he can know my forgiveness is real." Immediately some of those in the courtroom gallery began singing "Amazing Grace." But van de Broek never heard the hymn; he had fainted, overwhelmed by what she had said.
C. S. Lewis commented that repentance is "not something God demands of you before He will take you back and which He could let you off if He chose; it is simply a description of what going back is like."
"All men desire peace, but very few desire those things that make for peace" (Thomas a Kempis)
"Mercy imitates God and disappoints Satan" (John Chrysostom)
"The grace of God does not find men fit for salvation, but makes them so" (Augustine)
Top of Page prayers (WorshipAid)
Leader: Rejoice that our sin is forgiven! Rejoice that our transgressions are blotted out!
People: Rejoice that God sets aside our guilt! Rejoice that the Lord is our Savior!
Leader: Therefore, come and lay the burden of your sin before God. Come and receive the mercy that God offers.
People: Let us be glad and sing for joy! God's steadfast love is upon us now and forevermore!
God of mercy, Your forgiveness toward us is more than we can comprehend. Even when we do not deserve Your kindness, You embrace us in Your loving arms and welcome us back. But we confess that we are not always so merciful toward those who sin against us. We hold grudges, and we allow resentments to fester. We permit bitter divisions to keep us separated from those who have wronged us. Faithful Lord, fill us with Your grace, so that we may act with grace to those around us. Even when it is not easy, empower us to forgive and to seek reconciliation. We pray in the name of Jesus. Amen.
Generous Lord, You give to us far beyond what we deserve. You shower Your blessings upon us without counting the cost. Teach us to give freely as well. Show us how to share all that we have, so that the glory of Your name might be spread throughout all the earth. In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ we pray. Amen.
Creator God, as we look around us, we see that we are a world that is filled with bitter divisions. We witness conflict among the races, with long-standing bigotries persisting from generation to generation. We are deeply aware of the animosity between various political groups, especially during this presidential election year We know of armed conflict in so many nations around the globe-between Jews and Palestinians in Israel, between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. And we are conscious of the ways that we ourselves have become separated and estranged from friends, neighbors, family members, and co-workers.
Heavenly Father break down the walls that divide us. Bring us together, so that we may embrace one another as brothers and sisters. Unite us in the bond of peace, so that we may live as one community. Show us the way that will lead to reconciliation. Take away our inclination to associate with only like-minded people. Rather, give us the ability to look beyond the differences in order that we may find the ultimate unity that we share, which is our faith in You. We ask all this in Your holy name. Amen.