A Shameful Welcome and Love
A sermon based on Luke 15: 1-3, 11b-32
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on March 31, 2018*
by Rev. Scott Elliott
I thought about focusing on the fatted calf part of the lesson by uddering puns that steer us all toward having a steak in that meaty vein of humor. But I decided I didn’t have friends to spare. Rib me if you will, but to keep friends I decided instead to beef the sermon up with Jesus’ theological points. My hope now is that I haven’t butchered the start of the sermon with too many puns, forgive me I wrote it heavily calf-finated.
Okay, okay enough puns. Lets get to Jesus’ theology, which relates in a way to the fatted calf, because his story of the Prodigal Son has many meal references: a meal for swine; a dreamed of meal with swine; a dreamed of meal with family, and a meal for the entire family – with the prized food of the 1st Century Palestine– a fatted calf being served.
It should not surprise us too much that Jesus has meals in this story. Earlier this month I preached about his meal ministry. Rome had elite meals that the poor could only dream of being invited to. Jesus had the very opposite sort of meals open to all where Jesus offered food and community, and most of all love, to absolutely everyone who wanted to come. Jesus’ meals were the dreamed of meal for the entire family of God that we discussed last week in Isaiah 55. The story of the Prodigal Son is a metaphor for God’s dream meals for everyone and the radical love they require and provide and symbolize.
Most of us probably gathered the lesson today is about love, but modern Americans tend not to fully appreciate that the love at the center of the story is unconventional, topsy-turvy, wild, unchecked, and outrageous in Jesus’ original telling. Jesus told The Prodigal Son in response to complaints by religious folks that Jesus is hanging out with tax collectors and sinners, the culturally dishonorable and shameful. In Jesus’ day YOU’d be a fool and a sinner to hang out with them–it’d be shameful to do so. 2
Jesus’ opponents are refusing to validate His efforts at stretching God’s commandment to “love your neighbor” as far as it can go. He pushed it to the maximum point of loving the entire spectrum of humankind. That sort of all encompassing love has long been opposed by many in religions, including Christianity. Nonetheless Jesus’ Way was, and still is, very much about EVERYONE who wants in, getting in. And what’s more they sit at the table as equals and are loved with no strings attached. That’s radical even today.
Jesus’ table ministry, and the rest of his Way are where DOING justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with God gets played out. It’s where the rubber meets the road. And it’s not just at the table, we don’t just eat the fatted calf and play nice and then go home and be mean or do nothing or just love a select few until we return to the table again. It’s supposed to be loving everyone as best we can all the time. It’s supposed to be doing justice for everyone as best we can all the time. It’s supposed to be loving kindness for everyone as best we can all the time. It’s supposed to be walking humbly with God as best we can all the time. Since Jesus took very seriously the commandments to love God and neighbor his followers are called to take them very seriously too.
Jesus’ story of the Prodigal Son shows what that means. It is layered so thick with the meaning of radical unconditional love, it’s absolutely brilliant. The result is unlike anything Fundamentalists and other religious leaders liked to hear back then, or for that matter now. It’s a story where shameful sinful acts of the worse kind keep no one from the Father’s table or love. Indeed, God as Father runs to greet the sinner and lovingly welcomes him to the table with open arms. Everyone can come to that table, Everyone. The only ones who don’t come are those who choose not to.
When Jesus told this story land in Israel was considered a gift from God that fathers passed on to sons. Those sons had an obligation to honor their fathers, family, and the land. A part of that was staying with the father to work the family property and take care of parents in their old age. For a son to ask for his inheritance from a still living parent was shameful. 3 For a son to sell inherited family property was shameful. For a son to abandon the father and family was shameful. 4 For a son to travel to another place and squander the property to Gentiles in scandalous living was shameful. 5
The Prodigal Son does all of those shameful acts in first two sentences of the story demanding “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” Then the son “gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and . . . squandered his property in dissolute living.” To do these things in first century Palestine was terrible. It was shameful and dishonoring to the son, but also to the father and family. The father is culturally shamed by the son’s lack of honoring him, but also by the father’s own reckless handing over of land to an irresponsible rascal.
But it gets worse, the son piles on more dishonor and shame. He works with unclean pigs striving to be a swine-herder in the Gentile world, perhaps the worse possible thing for a son to do. 7 Well, there is something worse, the son actually wanting to eat pig food, is a sign of willingness to be swine-like. 8 That’s as low as you can get. Unless you are a dying pig. And sure enough the son is starving.
This was a very shameful man to Jesus’ audience. You could do nothing worse or become anything worse than that son. The tax collectors and sinners that the religious elite objected to had nothing on this guy– Jesus intentionally made him a bottom of the barrel scoundrel. And there at the bottom of life Jesus has the son repent. Repent is a word we hear a lot at Lent. It means to turn around, to get back on track toward God. Jesus tells us this son bottomed out and then:
when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”
The son knows he is no longer an elite, his shameful acts made him a nobody to the culture. His hope is to return and be treated like a peasant hired to work for the family. Ironically the elite landowner’s son will be happy to move from dying swine to a living nobody to the culture.
That may not seem like much of a step up, but it’s a dream that would allow the son to live, because, as it is, he is just a dying pig of a man. So Jesus tells us the son
set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe– the best one– and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
The father did not wait for the culturally shameful son to come to him, but rushed to him enveloping him with extravagant extraordinary love. To the culture the father’s conduct was shameful. He should not even speak to the son who has shamed himself, and the father and the family. But this father does not care about cultural shaming, shunning or mores that would keep love from anyone. This Father’s love is unconventional. It’s unconditional. It’s topsy turvy. It’s wild. It’s unfair. It’s outrageous. It knows no shame. The Father has shameless love.
The Father is a shameless fool for love and we love this story for exactly that reason! We all want love like that. Don’t we? We want God to love us regardless of whether the culture or anyone else (including us) thinks we are shameful, unfit, unworthy, nobody. And God does indeed love us just like that. This is a story about that love for someone as unfit as possible, a shameful unworthy nobody– so worthless is he, that the story’s original audience would not have guessed the Prodigal Son could ever be loved or in a place of honor again . . . even if he apologized. Yet, before the son even apologized the Father ran to the son and hugged and kissed him and made him the guest of honor at a feast.
Jesus’ theological point in the story is that wayward people only have to turn – repent– and head toward love and there is love waiting unconditionally; and it is a love that has always been there. The Father never stopped loving the Prodigal Son! Unlike Rome where the elite alone get to feast, at Jesus’ table, at God’s table the most wayward are also at the feast, extravagantly loved and celebrated and brought to the table by the Father just as the elite are. Jesus’ meal ministry was about providing a love so wide and expansive that he refused to recognize shame, tax collectors and sinners were as welcome as religious elite. Jesus’ theology is that real and perceived shame never keeps us from God’s love. Never! Good news does not get better than that!
Today’s Lectionary reading is a parable that was told in response to Jesus opponents’ grumbling that he “welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Jesus takes their criticism and makes a hero out of the Father who loves and lets in even the worse-of-the-worse sinner: a parent-dishonoring, land-losing, swine-herding, pig-wanna-be. Jesus’s lesson is God’s love stretches as far as it can go. God loves enemies and the cultural worthless and the shameful, All are welcomed as guests of honor along side of everyone else. Jesus’ primary point is that any one taking steps toward God’s feast of love will find themselves enveloped by love–love that was, and always is, there.
We can hear that in the teaching today, but also in other acts and teachings of Jesus. Jesus sides with the outcasts, the rejected and the ne’er-do-wells. Tax collectors. Adulteresses. Lepers. Poor, and, yes, he loves the rich, elite, religious, Romans and Gentiles too. Even those who come at him with swords and those who crucified him. Even the criminal on the cross beside him. Nothing can keep us –you and me and anyone else– who turns toward love from Jesus’ table or God’s love. NOTHING. Not shame, not shamelessness. Not beliefs or non beliefs. Not Biblical or cultural mores.
For Jesus, love washes away whatever it is that the world thinks – or we ourselves think– is unlovable filth. No dirt can keeps us from the table, from Christ’s community or from God’s love. 9. That’s just what we all need to hear. What everyone needs to hear. We don’t have to do anything to get love its there always, but, to participate in it we need to turn toward it. What great news! All can come to the table and be loved and celebrated and treated as equals. The only ones who don’t come are those who choose not to.
At the end of the story the elder son stands in the field wanting a lesser feast of goat meat for himself, when a fatted calf awaits his feasting at a dream meal with the entire family. The elder son, like the Prodigal Son, has a choice to make, he needs to repent, turn and get on the path to love to be a part of it. He needs to chose to come to the shameless feast of the Lord his Father. So do the religious elite in the story. It is the same choice we have to make. God loves us just as we are, whether we like it or not, and that sounds great. But God loves everyone else too– just as they are. Whether we like it or not. That’s the radical part. We can choose to reject that and stand in the field lamenting that we didn’t get a goat feast with just our friends. Or we can choose to celebrate that God – the Father– loves everyone and join in the feast with the primo fatted calf and be a part of that love. May we choose wisely. May we choose Jesus’ Way of love.
* Based in part on a sermon I first wrote in 2013
2. Patterson. Stephen, The God of Jesus, 157 (this brilliant work –along with Jesus and the Holy Spirit– inspired much of this sermon , especially pages 73-80, 152-158)
3. Hultgren, Arland, The Parable s of Jesus, 73, Feasting on the Word, Year 3, Vol 2 at 117.
4. Hultgren at 73.
5. Feasting on the Word, at 119.
6. Patterson at 154-155.
7. Hultgren at 75.
8. Patterson at 156.
9. Ibid at 77.
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