“A Journey of Reunion”
a message by Dr. Bruce Havens
based on the theme: “Lent – a Journey of Hope, Faith, and Love”
Arlington Congregational Church, U.C.C.
March 31, 2019
11Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons.
12The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them.
13A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living.
14When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need.
15So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs.
16He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything.
17But 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!
18I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you;
19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’
20So he 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.
Does your family do “reunions?” I know a lot of families have that as a tradition. I know a lot of families who don’t. Maybe because they would all kill each other off if they did it too often. My wife’s family used to do theirs in a state park in Indiana. One year it fell around the time of my birthday. There was a “bikini” cake involved, but that is a story for another day.
I think this morning’s Scripture is a bit of a family reunion story. It is not one of those well-planned, every-year, let’s-all-get-matching-T-shirts [ which by the way I am SO jealous of ] family reunions. It’s more spontaneous than that. It takes place when one family member shows up unannounced, and it turns into a party to end all parties. So we all know this story right? Anyone here hearing this for the first time? Younger son gets father to give him his inheritance, takes off for the wild side of life, ends up broke, comes home. Father is so delighted to have him back he throws a huge party for him. Meanwhile older son, who stayed home and did all the work comes in from the fields, hears the music, sees the dancing, smells the BBQ and is I – RATE. Father comes out, tries to get older son to come in… and the story ends unfinished.
When it comes down to it this whole story could be sub-titled, “Getting What You Deserve – Godstyle.” Let me explain what I mean. I would suggest that most of us think of “getting what you deserve” is maybe more like, “getting what you have coming,” and that definitely doesn’t mean winning the lottery. It usually means “comeuppance,” right? It usually means what we might think of as justice – as in punishment for whatever sins I may think you have committed and deserve to suffer for. That’s what I think most of us think of when it comes to “getting what you deserve.” It is a form of justice, but only in the punitive sense.
That’s why I think it is hard to get people to understand what we mean when we talk about Biblical justice. I think that is why not everyone gets what we do in ICARE as “justice.” We live in a culture where the narrative is everyone has the same equal opportunity to be “successful,” and so anyone who doesn’t – well, it’s your own fault. And most of those who believe this the most, believe they got what they have by themselves without any help. They usually ignore the fact that just by the fact they were born in the richest nation in the history of the world they already have an advantage over 90% of the world, at least. Then if you happen to have been born with a certain level of wealth, and if you were born white, male, and heterosexual, you are by definition of what is considered the norm, the standard of what is normal, you are steps ahead of the other 10%. Now, are there those who overcome not being born with any of those advantages? Sure. But they are the exception to the rule, not the examples of what everyone can do.
So back to our Biblical narrative. Here is a privileged son, born to a landowner father. He is probably in the top 1% of those in his nation just by that fact. His privileges have perhaps spoiled him, as he call someone “spoiled” today who thinks the world owes them something, who thinks that nothing is more important than what they want. He goes to his father and demands his share of the inheritance of his father’s wealth. It’s kinda like saying, “Hey, old man, you’re as good as dead to me already, give me my share of the estate so I can take off. I don’t want to have to work the farm, help around the house, all those boring things older bro does. Pay up. It’s time for me to hit the road.”
So Dad pays him off and waves as he heads down the road. Those hearing this story for the first time know the outcome of this as well as those of us who have heard it a hundred times. Money goes fast, son finds himself broke, hungry and out of options. He goes back to the old homestead and recites his well-rehearsed speech, hoping for a “get-out-of-jail-free card.” It goes better than he could have expected! Dad not only welcomes him back he runs down the road to meet him, shushes him before he can finish his well-practiced speech, and has the servants bring him a fresh robe, slippers, and oh, by the way, go kill the fatted calf we are going to P-A-R-T-Y, this son who was lost is found, this son who was dead is alive. No justice there, right? If you are like me you probably suspect that the little speech was just words, that there was no real repentance, that tomorrow he’ll beg off from having to go out to the fields and work the family business. Too hung-over most likely. And nothing will have changed and he suffers no consequences for his not-so little disappearing- with- the- money act.
Frustrating right? Make ya’ angry? Does me! I was always the good son, at least outwardly. I always did my chores, did my homework, obeyed my mom, followed the acceptable route to school, career, family, house in the suburbs and no one ever gave me anything. I earned it all. Oh, except there were those scholarships from my church that helped with school. And there was the fact that I wasn’t black or gay or a woman when I applied for those positions in churches, because believe me back thirty years ago, that would have made a difference in getting those calls I got. Oh, and I, yeah I did have a pretty good education, at least as good as a certain unnamed Ivy League school could give me. We usually define justice as getting what you deserve.
This Scripture disrupts this narrative. The prodigal did not get what I figure he deserved. Now, the older bro does not get any less if you take note. Father “went out” to younger son. Father “went out” to older son when he would not come in to the reunion with his brother. Father threw a party to show his love for his younger son, would have thrown a party for his older son any time. Why didn’t I ever ask for a party? Was it because I never believed I deserved it, and if I didn’t deserve it that useless other son of yours certainly doesn’t deserve it. What he deserves is to have his “hide tanned” as my mother used to say about someone getting a whipping when I was a boy. But as long as we figure justice means a judgment of guilty deserving punishment we will miss the meaning of Biblical justice.
Biblical justice is less about punishment and more about equality of blessing. Biblical justice, despite our fascination with passages that speak of eternal punishment for “others”, is defined by the prophets, the Psalm writers, the writer of Proverbs, and by Jesus, as doing what is right for those who are at-risk, powerless, the most vulnerable. And usually getting what they deserve means an equal share of the blessings the rest of us often take for granted, or at the least assume “others” don’t deserve. So as we stand on the eve of our Nehemiah Assembly and look forward to how we will ask city officials to stand up and say yes or no to questions of whether they will make changes so that those who are less powerful, less privileged, less able to make large campaign contributions get treated with love and respect. We will ask for our sisters and brothers to be treated fairly.
So in that sense, what Jesus shows us is that God’s measure of “what we deserve” isn’t punishment and suffering for our failures, it is rejoicing when we have chosen to take part in the reunion. It is rejoicing when we are found, when we are returned to the family and the same joy awaits the older brothers who never left as it does the younger bros who hit the road to find themselves only to waste everything and come back smelly and dirty and grinning their goofy grins of maddening lovableness. For those of us accountants that can seem awfully unfair.
The accounting system of Christian theology thinks that God is just and loving, and we act in ways that demand God punish us. So because God loves us God has to pay off our bail, our sins, our foolishness by making someone suffer. In Anselm’s theology that was Jesus. In his theology, Anselm believed God had to be appeased, like other ancient gods who – people thought – wanted human sacrifices to make it rain when there was a drought, or to stop raining when there was a flood. But Anselm considered it an improvement on that accounting system to say Jesus was the sacrifice provided by God. That somehow that was a sign of great love to kill his own son for us. Some even took the story of Abraham and Isaac, and the fact that God said God would provide the sacrifice to mean God meant Jesus. I believe it meant God did not want human sacrifices even if it was his own son. I think we got that whole “holy accounting system” wrong, and I think this story tells us why.
There is no payoff here. There is no penalty, there is no tit-for-tat. No, “you sinned you must pay.” No measuring whether that was a real speech of repentance – just forgiveness. And more than a grudging forgiveness it was a whoop-it-up, party-down time, my son was lost is found, my son was dead is a live, forgiveness. And for all of us older bro types that are offended by God’s accounting system God comes out to us and says, “Come on in. The party is for you too. But you decide, I’m not going to force you to come into the reunion with your brother.” And Jesus doesn’t end the story, because the same invitation is there for you and for me too, right now, and it will evidently continue to be there for the rest of time. The story is left hanging for us to write our own ending for our own lives.
There are a lot of paths to reunion but they all start with the forgiving love of God which is all the justice God evidently needs. No punishment necessary. The bottom line for this ledger is there is no bottom line where the numbers equal out. And that is okay with God. The question is, is it okay with us or are we going to continue to stand outside and judge our brothers and sisters as unworthy of God’s love, unworthy of equal treatment? Will we go to the Nehemiah Assembly and demand that our public servants remember they are there to serve the public not their own reelection plans. Will they stand with those who want to know if they will treat all the citizens of Jacksonville fairly, not just the rich and powerful and well-connected? The path to reunion begins when we choose to go in to the party and embrace our brother who may be very different from us, but is still our brother.