March 6, 2016 | Luke 15: 11-32 | Rev. Nancy Talbot-
One of my favourite television shows, now in its 9th season, is The Big Bang Theory. It’s a show about two nerdy physicists named Sheldon and Leonard who live across the hall from a very attractive waitress named Penny. Sheldon and Leonard, like many blessed with above average intelligence are hopelessly awkward when it comes to social situations. Penny with her good looks and outgoing personality, thrives on the kind of social interactions that make people popular among their peers. The show essentially revolves around the pitfalls and faux pas the highly intelligent physicists experience as they try to navigate everyday life in general and relationships in particular.
The other night I caught a rerun of an early episode from the 2nd season of the show in which Penny announces to Sheldon and Leonard that she has bought them each a Christmas present and she’s wondering if they are going to have a Christmas tree for her to put the gifts under.
In addition to giving her a lecture about the pagan roots of Christmas, Sheldon goes into a tailspin when he hears that Penny has bought him a gift. “You have not bought me a gift” he tells her “you have given me and obligation. If you give me a gift” he says to her “I will have to give you something of equal value based on your perceived level of our friendship.” In Sheldon’s black and white, tit for tat, logical way of viewing the world, gift giving can only be an obligation. Penny doesn’t care what Sheldon thinks, she has bought him a present and she intends to give it to him whether he wants a gift or not.
So Sheldon devises what he thinks is a fail proof plan a plan to deal with this socially awkward situation. He goes out and buys several different sizes of gift baskets from very small to very large. His intent is to excuse himself as soon as he opens Penny’s gift so he can retrieve the appropriately priced gift basket which he will have assessed depending on the value of the gift she has given him. Later on he can just return the unused gift baskets to the store
The only problem is that when Penny gives Sheldon her gift, an autographed copy of a napkin once used by Leonard Nimoy, Sheldon’s favourite actor from Star Trek, who happened to be in the restaurant where Penny works one day, Sheldon becomes completely unglued.
The gift, of little or no monetary value, means the world to Sheldon and he realizes no gift basket no matter how large or small could ever match the sentiment expressed in Penny’s gift to him. He runs to his bedroom, brings out every gift basket he has, dumps them on Penny and then performs his own gesture of extravagance. He puts his arms awkwardly around Penny and hugs her.
You see, up until this point in his life, for Sheldon, the giving of gifts was a transactional expression in which what you give is what you get. But for Penny, the giving of gifts was a relational expression, an expression of love, in which keeping count simply does not work.
This morning we are exploring the well known story of the Prodigal Son. To set the story in context, it helps to remember that this is actually one of 3 stories the writer of Luke’s gospel has Jesus tell in response to the Pharisees and scribes who were grumbling because he was welcoming and eating with sinners. The first story is about a shepherd who leaves 99 sheep in the wilderness to go and search out one lost sheep and when he finds it puts it on his shoulder, carries it home rejoicing. The second is about a woman who sweeps her house clean in search of one lost coin and rejoices when she has found it and the third story is about a father who had two sons.
Now in the classic retelling of this third story the focus is almost always on the younger son who basically wishes his father dead, so he can scoop up his portion of the family inheritance and skip town. Too impatient to wait for dear old dad to actually bite the dust, the younger son decides to ask for an advance on his share of the property to which his father obliges.
The son heads off into the world, wastes his money on dissolute living, ends up eating out of a pig trough but eventually comes to his senses. He returns home repentant, only to be greeted with a robe and a fat calf by dear old dad and with scorn and anger by his older brother who probably thought he was rid of that cad of a brother forever.
The moral of the story as it has been passed down to us through the ages is that God rejoices when sinners repent and come back home, when the lost are found and the dead revived. We the church, often cast in the role of the duty bound older brother, receive the message that we too should celebrate each time a lost soul returns to the fold or enters our doors for the very first time and not be so resentful of God’s love so wastefully showered upon the last and the least.
That’s the usual way we have come to understand this story. And that in many ways fits with our transactional way of understanding the world in which you get something in return for what you give. In this way of viewing the story, the son deserves to be welcomed home by the father because he has given something namely his repentance, in order to receive his father’s forgiveness. It’s a kind of a tit for tat way of understanding the gospel, unless of course you are the older brother and it seems like the younger brother is getting a better deal than you ever got but even so we can rationalize the transaction between the father and the younger son and agree with the father that the older son has always had his portion of the property so he still gets something out of the deal which is the way we like things to be in the world in which we live. We like it when everybody gets their fair share.
But what if there’s more to the story than this? What if there’s more lost people in the story than just the younger son. What if there’s more that has been squandered than property and money? And what if it’s more than the younger son who has done the squandering?
The way I see it this isn’t just a story about a younger son who is lost. It’s also a story about a father who is lost and an older brother who is lost as well. Think about it, why did the younger son want to leave home in the first place? Why is it he wished his father dead? Was he just going through the usual developmental stage of trying to exert his independence or was there some other reason he couldn’t wait to get away from home? And what was it about the younger son that made the father describe him not only as lost to him but dead? Don’t you want to read between the lines to find out what really happened that day the younger son asked the father for his share of the property? Did the father kick him out of the house and say good riddance to you – you’re as good as dead to me?
And what about the father’s relationship with the older son? What about the bitter exchange between the two of them as they stood outside the party, the father begging the older son to come in? Was that the first time harsh words had passed between the older son and the father or was this a pattern between the two?
It’s heartbreaking to think that the father who has finally had one son return home to him, now has another outside the fold. The way I see this story, none of these relationships in this family are healthy or strong. In one way or another, all three of these people are lost to one another.
And that brings us to the question of what really has been squandered in this story. Is it just the money he inherited that the younger son has spent and spent and spent? Or has some other kind of inheritance been lost and wasted?
Is it possible that what’s really been lost in this story is not just the heart and soul of the younger brother and the cash he recklessly throws away, but more importantly the precious bond of family , the kinship of loving and caring relationships and the value we place on each other’s worth that have been overlooked and undervalued.
Irish theologian Peter Rollins suggests that when the younger son comes to himself and decides to return to the family home, nothing about his character has changed. His decision to tell his father he has had a change of heart and is sorry for his unfaithful behaviour is nothing more than a ruse to get his father to take him back home where he will be fed and cared for once again. In this way of interpreting the story the older brother is right to be upset with his father who he believes is being taken for granted once again by the younger son.
If this is the case, then it isn’t the younger son who has had a change of heart in the story, it is the father whose heart has changed having come to realize the true value of his son who once was lost to him but who now is found. The son who perhaps he never realized when he was with him growing up meant more to him now that he was gone than any financial inheritance could ever mean.
Peter Rollins refers to this as the truly radical nature of the gospel because the father doesn’t need the son to change or be repentant or for any transaction to take place in order to love and celebrate him for what he is really worth. The father rushes out to greet him on the road rejoicing before the son can even get the well rehearsed words of confession out of his mouth because the father realizes he loves his son simply because he is his son and there’s nothing the son ever had to do or ever has to do to earn that love.
Perhaps the father’s heart is full of compassion when he sees the son returning because he realizes what was really lost when his son walked out the door was the opportunity for him to be a father and the opportunity for his son to be a son. If that’s the case then no wonder he so desperately wants the older son to join the party because he realizes that what’s really been lost and squandered in this story is that which is most important of all in life, the opportunity to love and to be loved, no matter what the cost.
If the Father, like the older son had been keeping track of all the ways the younger son had wronged him or all the ways he had wronged his sons what would really have been squandered would have been any chance for love and grace to take hold and bring them all back home again.
In the same way if Jesus counted all the sins of those with whom he shared a meal and used that as the measure of their worthiness for his presence with them, his would have been a very lonely table to sit at.
Love doesn’t keep score when it comes to measuring up what’s of greatest value in life. Love doesn’t keep count when it comes to measuring out grace.
So today when we gather around our annual report and measure up how well we have spent our money this year (which I think is pretty well) and how carefully we have stewarded our property, (which I think is pretty well) may the greatest measurement we take be the measure of our love for one another and the grace by which we have first been loved.