Lent 4 – Year C – March 13, 2016
A middle aged professor has been living alone for the past 10 years. He was withdrawn, lifeless and rather crotchety. But, it is hard to say when you began to notice the changes in the good professor – he doesn’t look down walking across campus – he smiles more – is uncharacteristically chatty – he starts wearing ties made in the past decade – he was even heard laughing out loud. Suddenly, to everyone’s astonishment, a wedding announcement arrives, along with an invitation to the reception at the Faculty Club. No one knows the woman, but word circulates from the graduate assistants that until just a couple of years ago she made her living dancing on tables wearing not much more than a smile. It’s a celebration! They’re so happy after so many unhappy years. It’s a celebration! You are invite. Will you go to that party? What will we do about the next year’s Christmas party? What if the children hear of it? That reception will cost something, not only for the happy bride and groom, but also for friends attending.
Let’s face it, parties are expensive. Parties cost you something. While I could be referring to the cost of food, I’m thinking beyond physical expenses. The cost that most concerns Jesus is not the cost of the party itself, but what it will cost people to come. And that has been true throughout the ages. Just look to the gospel story that …. read.
For the writer of the gospel of Luke, this is how the Kingdom of God invades the world – as an invitation to a celebration. A few verses before, Jesus told another parable about a banquet where invited guests were too busy to attend. But now, in our story, people refuse the invitation because they don’t like the guest list – “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them”. Horror of Horrors! Is that a reason to include them in the guest list?
The father is the heart and centre of this story. Although he had been rejected by his sons, he transcends. He embraces the one who is undeserving and calls for an extravagant celebration. Equally he went out to the one who believed himself to be more deserving and offered him words of affectionate endearment. “My dear son.”
It truly is an amazing tale. The grace of acceptance and the extravagance of feasting surprise us and in the process also reveals how God’s reign expands our vision. The great party thrown to celebrate the younger son’s return would have included the entire village in a feast of reconciliation.
As part of that village, you and I are included in the invitation. Will you come to the party? Will you embrace the young son? Will you encourage the elder son to be part of the festivities? Will you accept the invitation if you are the miss-fit – the sinner – the righteous – the ordinary?
It is fitting, Jesus explains, appropriate that we should celebrate. Our story pleads that the invitation not be rejected. Come to the party, because it won’t be the same without you. Jesus explains himself to those who sneer at his hospitality.
Through this tale we see the difficulty the 2 sons had responding to the father’s unusual response to both of them. Reprimand is noticeably absent. The father reaches out with amazing grace, interrupting the younger son’s confession and offering reconciliation far beyond expectation. Similarly, the father goes out to the son who stayed home but who also embarrasses the father by breaking the communal expectation of family solidarity when he refuses to participate in the celebration.
Being part of a family is sometimes difficult. A number of years ago, a friend and I shared a home and made the decision to care for her then 16 year old niece. Like the young son in Jesus’ story, this gal had run away from our home a number of times. She threw away more years of schooling than I can count, in spite of being an amazingly bright young woman. In her own words “She had messed up badly.” Staying at her parents home was not a safe or healthy option for her, so living with us gave her healthy boundaries, rules and consistent love for the first time in her life. However, for the first time in my life I learned what the inside of the police station looked like, met most of the troubled teens of the community, learned where the favorite hangouts for young people were and the list goes on. Perhaps you can relate. But, we also threw a party to welcome her into our home. That is what forgiveness and love is all about.
In the musical “Fiddler on the Roof” Tevya says to his wife, Golda, do you love me?
She’s too busy for such frivolities. All the housework to do and he’s getting mushey. “Go lie down” she says. ‘You’ll feel better after awhile.
But he persists. “The first time I met you was on our wedding day.” Tevya tells Golda how frightened he was, but his own mother and father had said to him that over the years they would grow to love each other. “So now I ask you. Do you love me?”
Golda begins to think out loud. “For 25 years I’ve lived with him, fought with him, starved with him. If that isn’t love, what is?
Tevya brightens, “Then you love me?”
“I suppose I do” she acknowledges.
Together they sing “It doesn’t change a thing. But after 25 years, it’s nice to know.
Fiddler on the Roof is about Tevya and Golda, who are the older brothers in the prodigal parable, and about their daughters who are all “younger sons” in one way or another. All of them move outside the norms and conventions, and during a period of history when everything was in flux, kept pushing at the edges of the tradition Tevya and Golda value so deeply, a tradition that “Tells us who we are and what God expects us to do.”
But Tevya and Golda are also God in the parable. Because in the end, against their own instincts, against the conventions of the community and the power of the tradition, they finally act on their love.
Returning to the gospel, a close examination reveals some interesting insights. Do you remember how the story opens? The passage begins with some tax collectors and sinners drawing near to listen to Jesus. The phrase tax collectors and sinners refers to a group of people so destitute they were forced to engage in dishonourable professions in order to survive. Just like the younger son in the story, the tax collectors and sinners had lost their community – their status – and in many cases their self-respect.
The tale includes the account of a family consisting of a father and 2 sons. The young son receives his inheritance and squanders it. After a time of frivolous living, the young man returns home.
The story does not end with the father embracing and welcoming the younger son. Even though we would expect a detailed account of the homecoming, our attention is diverted to the reaction of the other brother. The older son refused to join the celebration banquet, complaining that he has always been dutiful and yet was never so well treated. In a sense, he was acting like his brother did – rejecting the home that his father had provided. This is where the sub-text of the story lies. It is not only the outcasts who have a choice about whether or not they will accept God’s welcome. The dutiful – like the privileged elder son, or the Pharisees and scribes listening to this story – also have a choice. They can stubbornly hold on to their own understanding of true righteousness and refuse to join God’s banquet, or they can choose to accept God’s welcoming, overturning, inclusive love.
There is a story of a man in Italy whose son was estranged from him after a big fight. A few months passed without word. Finally, the father posted a notice all around Rome. It said, “Palo, I forgive you. I’m sorry. I love you. Please meet me at the square, on Saturday at 3 p.m.
That Saturday, 800 young men named Palo appeared at the square at 3 p.m.
Those who can find the strength to forgive themselves and others know the joy when forgiveness is given and received, when hurt is past, when new life is real, and the music from the celebration can be heard by everyone.
The message of forgiveness and acceptance is timeless. There are many reasons for not forgiving. There is the fear of being hurt again. The fear of being seen as foolish. There is the fear of being taken in. Again. And then there is guilt when forgiveness is just too hard. Does our God love us this much? Could the accepting Parent love the child so much to forgive the son or daughter even when they don’t deserve it? And how could a party possibly be thrown?
A powerful story comes from the church in New Zealand. It is about 2 brothers named Sam and Simon who were once convicted of stealing sheep, and, in accordance with the brutal punishment of the day, were branded on the forehead with the letters ST which stood for Sheep Thief. One of the brothers, unable to bear the stigma, tried to bury himself in a foreign land. But people would ask him about the letters on his brow and what they meant. Thus he wandered from land to land, full of bitterness, he died and was buried in a forgotten grave.
But the other brother, who repented of his mistake, did not go away from his home. He said to himself: “I can’t run away from the fact that I stole sheep and here I will remain until I turn it around and win back the respect of my neighbours and myself”.
As the years passed he established a reputation for respectability and integrity. One day a stranger in the town saw the old man with the letters ST branded on his forehead and asked a local person what they signified. After thinking for awhile the villager said: “It all happened a great while ago, and I have forgotten the particulars, but I think the letters are an abbreviation of Saint.”
To all of us who are saints, let the celebration begin! What a party it will be! Amen.