Number Your Days…A Few Days Later
Today is the fourth Sunday of Lent, and as you recall, we’ve been making our way through the Gospel passages assigned by the lectionary each week, trying to answer their invitations to think deeply and carefully about how we spend our lives. Each week’s Gospel passage has within it a reference to time, a reminder that our human lives are finite and that how we choose to live them matters.
We’re too busy, too distracted, too overwhelmed, to be thoughtful most of the time. Before we know it, the days we’re allotted slip through our fingers and we’re left looking back, very often with regret. So, this Lent it’s worth asking, “How do we live each moment with intention and care, so that we can look back on a life well-lived?”
This is our Lenten challenge.
Last week we talked about the common human understanding of God that applies a cause and effect rubric to God’s actions in the world. The truth we learned is that God is not predictable, that God doesn’t see the world—or us human beings—in the same way we do.
That understanding of God is underscored again today, with one of the longest and most beloved parables in all of scripture: the parable of the prodigal son.
When I began working with this parable preparing for this morning, I thought back to a day a few weeks ago when two of my kids and I went driving. As most of you know, I have two teenagers living in my house, both of whom are quickly approaching driving age. One free Saturday we decided to take the car down to a big, open parking lot and let each one of them get behind the wheel—that’s what you have to do when you start to learn how to drive, right?
They did great—both of them! But the whole day was a learning experience for me. Since they are both just learning the mechanics of driving a car, I had to go over everything in detail. Things that I don’t even think about anymore I had to go back and review carefully so I would remember to tell them how the process works.
I realized pretty quickly that I rarely think very much about how to drive. It’s automatic to me, for example, to put on my seatbelt, put my foot on the brake, release the parking brake, use my blinker, ease my foot down on the brake as I approach an intersection, etc. I guess since I’ve been driving for almost thirty years I drive, largely, on automatic pilot.
I thought about that automatic instinct when I opened my bible to Luke chapter 15 and started to look at this parable again. Reading the parable of the prodigal son one more time and finding its meaning, see, is something that many of us do automatically. We’ve heard this parable over and over and over again; it can become a lesson we don’t think all that much about when we read or hear it.
So, today our challenge is to look again, carefully and with fresh eyes at Jesus’ words in the parable of the prodigal son and try as much as we can to learn its message one more time. Ready?
I don’t know if Jesus’ audience was especially dense that day, but if you look at Luke chapter fifteen you can see that Jesus seemed to be struggling just a little bit to get his message across on that particular day.
He begins his teaching that day by telling a lost and found story about a sheep—something all the men in that pastoral and agrarian crowd could certainly understand. A farmer has a herd (?) of 100 sheep. One day he’s counting and he notices one is missing. So he leaves the 99 who are all still there, together, and goes out looking for that one missing sheep. When he finds the sheep that was lost, he celebrates.
When Jesus told that story I’ll bet he looked around and saw that people were engaged, nodding their heads, really understanding how a really committed shepherd might go out into the wilderness, search for that one missing sheep, and celebrate upon finding it. And isn’t it nice that God loves us enough to search for us like that when we get lost?
But something wasn’t quite getting across to the crowd. Yes, the sheep was missing. Yes, the shepherd went to look for the sheep. Yes, he rejoiced when he found it. Isn’t God great??!
But that’s not all, you see…so Jesus tried again.
There was a woman who had ten coins. One day she noticed one was lost, so she turned her house upside down and inside out, looking in every nook and cranny until she found the coin that had been missing. All of the women in the crowd, who spent their days tending to homes and caring for families and keeping track of important family property, would know what Jesus meant. And they would feel how happy that woman was when she finally, after much effort, found the coin! She rejoiced and had a party, just like God would do upon finding one of us, right?
They heard Jesus’ story about the coin and they got it.
But Jesus looked out at the crowd again and he must have known, somehow, that they just didn’t see the whole picture. So, he tried again. This time things got personal, because it’s one thing to talk about a sheep that gets lost or a coin that gets misplaced, but it’s another thing altogether to talk about people being lost, isn’t it?
Because these parables about lost things are not just parables about God finding and loving us; Jesus would never let us off that easy.
These parables are also about us loving each other. Because don’t forget that God’s way with us should always be our way with each other. And if you’re not going to get Jesus’ drift when he uses a sheep to illustrate his point…or a coin…well then, he’s going to jump right in and stop pulling punches. Let’s talk about human relationships, you might imagine he would say, and let’s talk about the times when they get ugly and horrible. And let’s talk about how we love each other THEN…shall we?
So, there was a father who had two sons. This was a good thing, since back in Jesus’ day it was imperative that you have at least one son to continue your blood line. The oldest son is the most important, of course, the second son less so—but a good backup.
As the story goes, one day, the second son comes to the father and says he wants his inheritance. As we try to hear the parable again, we need to understand the Middle Eastern culture of the time to get the outrage that begins to creep into the story at this point.
The outrage of the story continues, because after he’s given his share of the family’s assets, the younger son rushes off to seek his fortune in the big, wide world. His rash, disrespectful behavior is symbolized by our numeric phrase of the week: “A few days later…”. He doesn’t stick around; he can’t wait to get as far away as he possibly can from his father and from everything his father represents. Gone. Out of here. See ya. It’s the ultimate betrayal.
Lost sheep are one thing. Lost coins another. But this—this story is insulting.
The people listening to Jesus would have been rapt with horror, trying hard not to imagine anything like this ever, ever happening to them. The situation was shame-filled, embarrassing, hurtful…you name it.
And I’ll bet Jesus had finally gotten their attention by that point in the story. This was not like someone cutting you off in traffic or idly gossiping about you behind your back. No, this was the worst slap in the face you could think of, and the father’s only recourse in the society in which they lived was to write that second son off as dead, to forget he ever existed. His affront to his father was that bad.
And this was not just the father’s opinion—the whole family and the entire town would have been shamed by the behavior of the second son. In fact, according to the custom of the day, if that younger son ever dared to set foot in his village again, the townspeople would do everything they could to make sure he wouldn’t even get as far as an audience with this father. The entire village would gather for a ceremony in which jars filled with corn and nuts are broken by the villagers, symbolizing the broken and completely irreparable nature of that person’s relationship with his family and with the whole village. They all understood, perhaps in ways we do not, that their lives were interdependent. When you behave as the second son behaved, you don’t just hurt your family, you put the whole entire community at risk.
Well, you know what happens next in Jesus’ story. The father, strangely, is out on the road every single day scanning the horizon for that lost son, that son who had done just about everything a son could possibly do to hurt and betray his father and who, I think we can all agree, didn’t deserve that kind of treatment from his Dad.
And one day, after such a long time of hoping and praying and looking, the father sees the son, who’s coming back home because, frankly, he doesn’t have much of a choice—he’s wasted his inheritance in dissolute living and he’s going to starve otherwise.
And the father? What does he do?
The father picks up his robes and runs—runs!—sandals flapping, dust blowing, all the way down the road to greet that son. He pulls him close and hugs him tight. He puts a robe on him and calls for refreshment. He brings him into the house and gives him new clothes and throws a party—the biggest party that little town had ever seen. That father’s love is so limitless and lavish that he pours it out all over this son who has finally, finally come home.
Okay, sheep, we get. A coin? Sure. But I am not too sure about this. What kind of Middle Eastern father runs down the road to engulf in his arms the one who has brought him grief, pain, and endless shame and embarrassment? What kind of ANY kind of father, or mother, or spouse, or child, or friend…would ever behave like this?
God? Can God love us in this way? There in that Jewish society of rules and consequences for breaking rules, Jesus tells the people yes. God loves you this much. God loves you so much that no matter how far you’ve gone away or how much you’ve hurt him or how little remorse you actually show in your desperation to return…you are welcomed and loved by God.
But we’re not listening very hard to Jesus if we think he’s going to let us off the hook that easy. And here it is: here’s Jesus’ hard, hard word for us today.
Jesus wanted them to see that God’s love for us is a model of what our love for each other should be. We cannot say we love God and dismiss each other. And it costs: there’s a high, high price for the kind of reckless reconciliation Jesus is asking us to live out. It’s hard and it hurts. No wonder they didn’t get it the first two times around!
So we’ve heard the parable again. Now that you’ve heard it, put yourself for just a moment in the place of the second son, and think of a way in which you have done to God what that son did to his father.
God loves you and welcomes you back.
Now, think of the person in your life who is the second son, who has done to you what that son did to his father, who has betrayed and hurt and disrespected and embarrassed you, who never said he was sorry, or even made much of an attempt to change his behavior. Think of that person who has treated her relationship with you like a piece of garbage, who without even much thought at all—just a few days later—is willing to throw you under the bus and walk away without another thought…
No way, Jesus. No, no, no, no way.
Please…seriously? You can’t mean it…
Human relationships are messy things. There’s not much about our interactions with each other that are unfailingly fair or loyal or loving. The question Jesus wants to ask us today when he’s talking about all these lost things is whether we can look at those people in our lives who have been the second son to us, and think of them like we would something incredibly valuable that has somehow become lost to us.
Could we think about them as if we would do anything…anything…to find that lost thing and when we did we would engulf it with every ounce of gratitude and welcome that we possibly could, because we feel so very lucky that relationship could possibly be restored?
Personally, I can understand why it took Jesus several rounds to make his point on this one. It’s going to take us our whole lives, if not longer, to get this one right, wouldn’t you say?
But today, as we number our days and think deeply about how we spend our lives, we’re invited by Jesus to put loving first—always—in every opportunity that presents itself, even the very hardest. We won’t always get it right—not all of us will be like that father who ran down the road with abandon.
But today we’re invited to wonder: what kind of lives could we live, what kind of world could make, if the kind of gracious forgiveness God extends to us could be offered just as freely by us…to each other?