Home is Where God Wants You to Be
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, September 22, 2019
Reading: Luke 15:11-32
It was one of the darkest days I remember. I arrived in London after a long night flight and took a cab from Paddington Station to my hotel. When I finally got to the check-in with my suitcase, they asked me for my credit card and passport. Only then did I realise that I’d left my bag in the cab with those things in it! For a moment I thought I’d died. My whole life flashed before me. What am I going to do? I have nothing, nothing at all. I explained this to the concierge, who was delightful and said, “Well, it is Friday, and the lost and found at the cab company doesn’t open until Monday, so I guess you're going to be on your own.”
Fortunately, they had my credit card number from the booking, and they said, “At least tonight, if you’d like a meal, we can make sure that you're fed.” So, I had what I thought of as the last supper, and prayed, “Lord, please return the bag”.
Later in the evening, a cab driver arrived in the lobby, and announced to the concierge that he had a bag that had been left in his cab. He said that a passenger got in the cab and found it. The driver had to go and make other deliveries and pickups, but he said, “I remembered that guy from Canada. And I remembered where I’d dropped him off. I looked in the bag and saw the picture of him in his passport, so I am returning it.”
Never in the history of cab drivers in London has one received the embrace that he got from me. I felt my life had been returned to me, and I gave him a significant tip in English pounds. I couldn’t give him enough. He had given me life again.
If that’s how I felt after a piece of luggage and identification, can you imagine what a father feels like when he thinks his son is dead, and discovers that he’s alive? Can you imagine the embrace that he’d give him? That’s the only way you can understand the parable this morning. It’s one of those parables, along with perhaps the good Samaritan, that is etched into human history and imagination. It is in the paintings of Rembrandt. It is even copied on a television show called the Prodigal Son, which I have yet to see. Isn't it fascinating that theme, that notion of what was dead now comes alive, what was lost is now found, seems to have woven its way into Western culture. It’s almost a part of who we are. But do we take it seriously? Do we take it to heart? Does that parable live in our hearts?
This morning I want it to, because it is the simplest of stories imaginable. Jesus conveys the essence of his ministry. I can't think of anything that encapsulates the notion of good news and gospel more than the parable of the prodigal son. What’s brilliant about it is that it appears to us in three vignettes, three individual parts of the story, which make up the whole, but have a power all of their own.
The first part is simple; we read of the young man demanding what he thought was his right. He goes to his father and he says, “I want you to give me my portion of the estate now.” It’s a demand. He makes it what they call in law in Latin, ante mortem, before the father’s death. He wants his portion of the estate while his father is still living, while there are other family members still living. He’s interested only in himself and the part of the estate owed to him.
It is unclear, in law whether that is a viable thing – it probably was. It was probably a right and a just demand, according to the law. But it took into no consideration the fact that in so doing, he was treating his father as if he was dead to him. He made his demand and exercised his freedom. His father acceded to the freedom of the son to ask for this – this is the remarkable thing; the father said, “All right, if you want your portion of the estate, you can have it. You can have your freedom.” The problem is that whenever one exercises one’s freedom in any form it has an impact on others.
We have debated in philosophy and in law, the nature of freedom from Socrates to Isaiah Berlin. The notion of what is freedom, and whether it is a good thing or not. Immanuel Kant was the one who introduced freedom as autonomy. In other words, being a free, self-sustaining person, making your own decisions; that being the most important thing that you can possibly have.
John Locke made a similar comment when he said, “Freedom is a human and a natural right.” The freedom to choose is part of being human and is really, in many ways, an inalienable right.
In our parable today the son exercised his freedom but gave no thought to what the impact might be, how it would affect the estate as a whole; his father, the eldest son, and that it might take away resources for the servants, and the maintenance of the farm. No thought of that at all, just “give me my freedom and give it to me now. I want what is mine and I'm going to keep it.” That was what the son was thinking. Is that not often a problem we encounter? The right might be free, and it might be correct, and you might have the freedom to declare it, but with every freedom there is a commensurate responsibility, and the son, as Helmut Thielicke says, treated his father as if he was dead to him. He was only interested in himself.
The second vignette is the son moving away from home. He was a profligate. We don’t know exactly what he did, but he went to a foreign land, there was a famine, and he found himself in deep financial trouble. Clearly there was something else wrong in his life with prostitutes, as we find out later in the story, but we don’t know how he spent his money. We do know that he was in a foreign land, and that is significant.
Last week, for those of you who heard me preach on Isaiah 60 and the return of the people of Israel home to Jerusalem, to see the shining light of God’s redemptive power for those who had been in exile. This notion of being in a foreign land and coming home, is a powerful motif within Jewish thought. Jesus is drawing, I believe, on that. This young man had gone to a foreign land, he had wandered away from home, from his people, and his father. A symbol of that wandering takes you to one of the most egregious things that could have happened to him. He ends up eating the food of pigs, which of course, as we know, is forbidden in Jewish law. He is eating with the pigs. Not the pig itself, but the food of the pigs. He has nothing, he has hit rock bottom, he has no way out of this situation. If there was a symbol that Jesus could have used for those who were listening to him in Palestine at the time of his speaking, it would clearly have been that this young man, in eating the foods of pigs, had actually plummeted to the very depths. He had finally gone to the very bottom of the pit, he was away. Now it was no longer his father who was dead, it was now he who was dead. He had reached the depths and it seemed like there was no return.
Then what happens? He comes home. We’re told that he finally came to himself. More than coming to his senses, he came to the realisation that he had done wrong. He realised his own selfishness, but he did it when he was confronted by his own need. He had done everything that he shouldn’t have done, and he realized the consequences of his sins, looks at those consequences says, “Look at me; the servants are eating better than I am. Even those that are at home who are of the lowest estate, are getting on better than I am. I’ve squandered everything, I have done everything wrong.” He knew it. So, what does he do now? He did the right thing.
There’s the wonderful story that is told by a New York rabbi, of a young man who came to him and asked for guidance. He said to the rabbi,” Rabbi, my life is a mess. It seems that everything I'm doing is wrong. I'm not accomplishing things, I don’t feel at peace within my life, things have just become a wreck, and I really – I really, really need your help. Rabbi, can you give me some words that are going to help me?”
The rabbi says, “I really don’t have any great words to help you right now in your state of trouble. I'm glad you've come to me, but I don’t have any words.”
The young man says, “I'm a failure, Rabbi, I'm a failure. I need you to lift me up.”
The rabbi thought about this for a moment and said, “Okay, I'm telling you what you're going to do: you're going to go back and find the 1970 New York Almanac, and turn to page 993, line 20. Read it and get back to me.”
The young man thought the rabbi had lost his mind, but he went to the library, got the 1970 Almanac, turned to page 993, line 20, and sees batting statistics for baseball, and Ty Cobb with a point three six seven batting average.
He thinks, “This is the help I get from my rabbi!?” He goes back to the rabbi and says, “Rabbi, look, I had a look at this. It is Ty Cobb’s batting average. Now how is that a help for me?”
The rabbi said, “Well, if he is one of the greatest players that there has ever been, and he only hits just over a third of his shots, why are you so concerned about being a failure?”
“That’s not really helpful, is it?” the man said to the rabbi. “So, I'm just a failure?”
The rabbi looked at him and said, “No, you're not. My son, you had the wisdom to come and talk to me and realise the situation you're in. That is the wisdom that will help you.”
The prodigal son had come to the point where he knew his life was a mess, and he finally came home. Before he was able to give a speech to his father saying that I have sinned against you, I have wandered off, and I want to come home, the father sees him in the distance. And here is the power of the grace of Almighty God: God goes out, as the father in this story goes out, and greets the prodigal son, puts a robe on him, and treats him as a king. He demands that there is a party, a killing of the fatted calf, the very best for there is to be a celebration.
Does the father lecture him about all the things he’s done wrong? Does he get angry with him because he’d taken his part of the estate and wandered off? No! as far as the father is concerned, this son, who he thought was dead, is alive. The son he thought was lost in a foreign land, has come home, and that’s all the father was concerned about.
But there’s an elephant in the room. The eldest son. He’d stayed at home the whole time, looked after the farm and taken care of everybody, and he’s angry. He’s mad as mad can be. This son who you gave the portion of the estate to, and who wandered off and spent it recklessly, has come home and you're giving him a party, a robe, and the fatted calf. What about me? I’ve been here all along!
The father’s response was incredible. He didn’t get angry with his eldest son for his overly-zealous self-righteousness or his selfishness. He simply states the just thing: “Everything that you ever had, everything that I have, the whole estate, is yours.” It’s not like you've lost anything here, you have everything. It was always that way, the kingdom was always yours. Let this son who was lost, come home, let the one who seemed dead, live. Let’s have this moment.
I don’t know where you are in this story. At times I don’t know where I am in this story. I sometimes feel, as you may, like you are the son making demands, wanting your own rights, and recompense, glory, or affluence, without a thought to anyone else. Maybe you're at that stage in your life today, and therefore the story of the prodigal going away and demanding his rights might seem real to you. Or maybe you're like the son after he’d gone to the foreign land, where he hit rock bottom, where he was relying on other things to support him, where he was living as if God was dead to him. Maybe you're like that today and maybe you can identify with that son, because you feel just like him, or maybe you feel like the elder son; you've been righteous and done the right things all your life, but things haven't always fallen into your lap. Others seem to receive greater praise, who perhaps don’t deserve the accolades and support they get.
Maybe people who aren’t from around here, getting treated with respect and getting things that you don’t has you feeling bitter. There’s a lot of that older son in all of us if we’re honest. We all feel like that at times, don’t we? Why is it that sometimes the righteous seem not to prosper? Maybe that’s where you are. Or maybe you feel as you should, like the father, like God, who receives graciously, celebrates graciously, and treats justly and humbly those who are lost. Maybe the forgiveness of an enemy, maybe the kindness to the wayward one, maybe the graciousness of it all. There is one last thing, and it’s what we so often forget in this parable: the one who told the story. The great Henri Nouwen, who taught at Harvard and then gave it all up to be part of the L’Arche community that helped those with disabilities and challenges, wrote these words in a book on the prodigal, and I find them deeply touching.
I am touching here the mystery that Jesus himself became the prodigal son for our sake. He left the house of his heavenly Father, came to a foreign country, gave away all that he had, and returned through his cross to his Father’s home. All of this he did, not as a rebellious son, but as the obedient Son, sent out to bring home all the lost children of God.
Jesus, who told the story to those who criticised him for associating with sinners, himself lived the long and painful journey that he describes. So true. The whole of the Gospel is embodied in this truth: it is the Son who in the end bears it all, to bring home the prodigal because home is where God wants us all to be. Amen.