Hitting Rock Bottom

Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church
March 31, 2019

Luke 15: 1-3, 11b-32 (CEB)
All the tax collectors and sinners were gathering around Jesus to listen to him.2The Pharisees and legal experts were grumbling, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3Jesus told them this parable:
“A certain man had two sons. 12The younger son said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the inheritance.’ Then the father divided his estate between them. 13Soon afterward, the younger son gathered everything together and took a trip to a land far away. There, he wasted his wealth through extravagant living.
14“When he had used up his resources, a severe food shortage arose in that country and he began to be in need. 15He hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. 16He longed to eat his fill from what the pigs ate, but no one gave him anything. 17When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have more than enough food, but I’m starving to death! 18I will get up and go to my father, and say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19I no longer deserve to be called your son. Take me on as one of your hired hands.”’ 20So he got up and went to his father.
“While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with compassion. His father ran to him, hugged him, and kissed him. 21Then his son said, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his servants, ‘Quickly, bring out the best robe and put it on him! Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet! 23Fetch the fattened calf and slaughter it. We must celebrate with feasting24 because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life! He was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
25“Now his older son was in the field. Coming in from the field, he approached the house and heard music and dancing. 26He called one of the servants and asked what was going on. 27The servant replied, ‘Your brother has arrived, and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he received his son back safe and sound.’ 28Then the older son was furious and didn’t want to enter in, but his father came out and begged him. 29He answered his father, ‘Look, I’ve served you all these years, and I never disobeyed your instruction. Yet you’ve never given me as much as a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30But when this son of yours returned, after gobbling up your estate on prostitutes, you slaughtered the fattened calf for him.’ 31Then his father said, ‘Son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32But we had to celebrate and be glad because this brother of yours was dead and is alive. He was lost and is found.’”

A prosperous landowner has two sons. We know this parable well. Aside from maybe the parable of the Good Samaritan, this is probably the most well-known parable that Jesus told. And the depth of the parable is revealed from the very beginning. You see, we often get focused on the younger son, who goes and squanders away his inheritance, returning in shame. But the landowner had two sons, and this parable is about both of them. Our journey to new life requires that each of us, wherever we are in life, see our deep need for the Father’s generous, gracious, forgiving love in our lives.

So, a prosperous landowner has two sons. The younger cannot wait until Daddy dies before he get his inheritance. Despite the deep insult, the father gives the younger son his share of the family property. The youngest runs off to some first-century Las Vegas, squanders it all, and ends up eating beans and mush alongside the hogs he is reduced to feeding. Then he decides that he would probably be better off to return home—even if his father will not take him back as a son, but treat him like a hired hand, it will be better than this.

So home he goes. He’s prepared for complete humiliation. And yet, as he tops the hill in sight of his home place, his father comes running toward him with open arms. The prodigal son cannot even launch into his groveling speech about how he deserves nothing more than hired-hand status—the speech his has likely rehearsed over many days and many miles—before the old man is wrapping his son in the household’s finest robe and putting a ring on his finger. This licentious son is literally getting the royal treatment. Before he can blink the tears out of his eyes, the fatted calf has been killed and most of the town has been invited into a spectacular party.

For most of us, this story would be absolutely satisfying if it ended right there. It would seem that Jesus is telling us that the kingdom of God is like a big party. You or I or he or she comes back to God, and God celebrates a return for each of us. Sounds like a pretty good deal. But the story doesn’t end there, you see. At this point, Jesus brings the elder son back into the picture—and big brother is ticked. He has not insulted his father. He has not shot his inheritance on prostitutes and good times. He has only slaved away, day after day, year after year, and his father has never even tossed a goat party for him and a few of his buddies. He is mad. No way will he even step foot in that big, raucous, rich bash now going on around his lazy, disrespectful, and ungrateful brother.

So we have the two brothers. The younger, who has squandered his life away and come crawling back home hoping for nothing more than the barest of sustenance to carry him through his days, but who now has been received again as the son and offered new life. Then there is the older, who has faithfully executed his duties and supported his family through the years, but who now stands outside in a funk, missing out on the great celebration of new life. What about you? Where do you fall in this story? Give that a little bit of thought as we continue to consider this story.

Understanding the full implication of this parable means knowing the context in which Jesus told it. Luke sets the stage in the first few passages: “All the tax collectors and sinners were gathering around Jesus to listen to him. The Pharisees and legal experts were grumbling, saying, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” Through nearly his entire ministry, Jesus has heard the grumbling of the Pharisees and legal experts. They’re mad that he’s healing people on the Sabbath. They’re mad that he’s not following the cleanliness code. They’re mad because he teaches as one with authority. And now they’re mad because Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with them! But wait a minute…the father welcomed his prodigal, sinful son, and not only ate with him, but threw him a big, lavish party. While outside, stewing and grumbling, was the older son. It wasn’t just the riotous son who nearly missed out on life; Jesus wants us to know that the pious legalists are missing out too.

Yet it doesn’t have to be that way. Not for any of us. Because no matter who we are or what we have done, the Father comes to us with open arms to welcome us, to invite us in, even to beg us to join the great celebration of new life. First, the father welcomed home his wayward son with lavish gifts and an immense party. Then, while all the guests were enjoying themselves, the father looked around and realized something was missing; his eldest son. So, again, the father goes out to greet his son, this time to beg the eldest to set aside his jealousy and judgmentalism, and to come and celebrate his brother who was “dead and is alive” again, who was lost and now is found. Do you see the grace of the father? The father went to his oldest son and begged him, begged him to come to the party. He said to his oldest child, “Son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad….” The man knew that this elder son was standing outside raging. The father knew even in that moment that the man was judging his younger brother. Still, the father offered him grace and an invitation to new life.

We don’t know whether the elder brother accepted his father’s invitation and joined in the party. I sort of doubt it. I think before he could have accepted such an invitation, he, too would have needed to realize what a miserable son of a gun he was. He, too, needed to hit rock bottom; to find himself wallowing in the slop of his own self-righteousness. Only when he understood just how unworthy he was of the generous grace of such a loving father, would he know that he was really missing out on something if he didn’t get himself in to that party.

Here’s the thing: I know that each of us can place ourselves in this story. Maybe we’ve made some major mistakes in our lives. Maybe we’ve really gone off the deep-end, turned away from our “home”, and done just whatever felt good in the moment. Then reality hit, we grasped the depth of our mistake, and by the grace of God, we are where we are today. Or maybe we relate better to the older brother. We are responsible. We behave well. We follow the rules and maintain security. And, of course, when little brother goes off sinning recklessly and returns to a “punishment” of the biggest party of the year, do we not rightfully feel a bit of resentment?

As much as I would like to think I’m like that little brother who went off track for a while and then found my way home again. What I really know about myself is that I am an older brother, through and through. I am a rule follower. I get resentful and “judgy” of people who don’t follow “the rules.” Sometimes, I even get SO resentful, and SO judgy that I exclude myself from the community because I am so angry. And here’s what I know. I’m not the only one. In fact, if we’re sitting here in this church this morning, chances are at this point in our lives, we’re a bit more like the older brother than the younger. I honestly think that’s part of the reason the church is in decline across the U.S. right now; because we’re a little too resentful and a little too judgmental, and maybe even a little too angry at the people who haven’t lived their lives as “piously” as we have. So we must heed the caution of this parable. We don’t want to miss out on the work God the Father is doing in this world. We don’t want to miss out on new life.

Still, there’s good news. Because every time Jesus stretches our thinking just a little bit, he also offers a bit of good news. Here it is: the father is coming after us, no matter what. He is looking for us on the horizon. He is running to us, begging and pleading. He comes with open arms, an invitation, and lavish love. Not because we deserve it—we may even still be stuck at rock bottom, unaware of the depth of our sorry state. But God the Father doesn’t care. The Father loves us so much that he will give us his richest robe and heaviest ring, even when we have stolen from him. The Father loves us so much that he will come and beg us to join the celebration, even when we are mired in our own resentment of that very community.

In this story, both of the young men have hit rock bottom. The only difference between the two of them in this story is that one of them realized it, and the other one didn’t. But the more important point of this parable is made evident by the father. As Jesus tells it, the father does not get all critical with the elder brother. Neither, though, does he defend the younger brother. Instead, he offers to both his boys his own love and bounty. “There is plenty to go around,” he says in so many words. “No one will run short”—“all that is mine is yours.” “This is not your younger brother’s party so much as it is MY party, the party I throw for many. I am on the lookout for ALL of my loved ones, near or far; the sinner, the pious, the self-righteous. I am working for them and ready to celebrate with them before they even think of responding to me or giving anything back.”

Oh to be a child of this Loving Father…

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