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Synopsis of American Epidemic
We’re about to slice a piece of the bread of life, the word of God. The title of today’s message is …. “American Epidemic” No… I’m not talking a virus as we know it ….. although one definition of virus is…. “moral taint” or “corrupting influence” In other words, we are wasters.
Tax collectors and other notorious sinners often came to listen to Jesus teach. This made the Pharisees and teachers of religious law complain that he was associating with such despicable people – even eating with them! So Jesus used three illustrations: parables of lost sheep, lost coin, prodigal son, to show why it was the right thing to do. And so today’s slice of the bread of life comes from the parable of the prodigal son. So now… for the slice of today’s word.
11 To illustrate the point further, Jesus told them this story: “A man had two sons. The younger son told his father, ‘i want my share of your estate now, instead of waiting until you die.’ so his father agreed to divide his wealth between his sons.”a few days later this younger son packed all his belongings and took a trip to a distant land, and there he wasted all his money on wild living. 14 about the time his money ran out, a great famine swept over the land, and he began to starve. He persuaded a local farmer to hire him to feed his pigs. The boy became so hungry that even the pods he was feeding the pigs looked good to him. But no one gave him anything. 17 “when he finally came to his senses, he said to himself, ‘at home even the hired men have food enough to spare, and here I am, dying of hunger! I will go home to my father and say, “father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son. Please take me on as a hired man.” ‘ 20 “so he returned home to his father. And while he was still a long distance away, his father saw him coming. Filled with love and compassion, he ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him. His son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son.’ 22 “But his father said to the servants, ‘quick! Bring the finest robe in the house and put it on him. Get a ring for his finger, and sandals for his feet. And kill the calf we have been fattening in the pen. We must celebrate with a feast, for this son of mine was dead and has now returned to life. He was lost, but now he is found.’ so the party began. 25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the fields working. When he returned home, he heard music and dancing in the house, and he asked one of the servants what was going on. Your brother is back,’ he was told, ‘and your father has killed the calf we were fattening and has prepared a great feast. We are celebrating because of his safe return.’ 28 “The older brother was angry and wouldn’t go in. His father came out and begged him, but he replied, ‘all these years i’ve worked hard for you and never once refused to do a single thing you told me to. And in all that time you never gave me even one young goat for a feast with my friends. Yet when this son of yours comes back after squandering your money on prostitutes, you celebrate by killing the finest calf we have.’ 31 “His father said to him, ‘look, dear son, you and I are very close, and everything I have is yours. We had to celebrate this happy day. For your brother was dead and has come back to life! He was lost, but now he is found!’ “
Folks, we live in a world where the concept of fairness is nearly elevated to a level of worship. If you live with or work with little children then you’ll recognize that most squabbles erupt from this old emotion of feeling somehow slighted mistreated. “He got a tablespoon more ice cream than I did. Not fair!” – “Why does she get to stay up half-hour later than I do?” – “Not fair!” – “She got to sit in the front seat last time. It’s not fair that I always have to sit in the back.” “Sally’s curfew is 1:30. Why do I have to be home at midnight? “
To be an effective parent in the twenty-first century then you might consider enrolling in law school first. A parent needs the wisdom of a judge and the memory of an elephant. Wisdom to hand down rulings on a moment’s notice and a memory to recall past court cases so that at least a sense of fairness might be distributed to all parties involved. If you think we outgrow this obsession with fairness, think again. It’s as old as eden and so deeply imbedded in our marrow that most people take it to the grave.
I have always enjoyed the story about the high-school student who asked his father to help him write a composition on how wars start. “Well, now, let” suppose we got into a quarrel with Canada,” he father began. “That”s ridiculous,” his mother interrupted. “Why should we quarrel with Canada?” “That’s beside the point,” her husband said, “I was merely using an example…..” “If you had an ounce of brains you wouldn”t make such stupid example” replied the mother. “Who do you think you’re talking to?” Shouted the father. “I want to teach my son….” “Your son!” the mother screamed. “I suppose I had nothing to do with his being here. You just found him someplace…” The boy interrupted…… “Please, folks, forget it. I just figured it out for myself.”
I’ve seen adult strangers argue over their place in line at Walmart. I’ve seen loving family members get in a tiff after a funeral over who gets what in the will. All over issues of fairness. And you might say to yourself, “Oh, I would never do something like that.” Well, I’ll confess first….. I was coming back from the hospital the other day, waiting patiently as interstate traffic funneled down to one lane, and here came a teenager in a sports car, blowing past those in line, looking for a place to sneak in. What did I do? Hey, I tried to cut him off. He wasn’t getting in front of me. It wasn’t fair. And that brings to mind….. A young mother and her little boy were driving down the street. The little boy asked, “Mommy, why do the idiots only come out when daddy drives?”
According to the dictionary, the word “prodigal” is an adjective that means “recklessly wasteful.” “Prodigal” is derived from the Latin word prodigere, which is translated as the verb meaning “to squander.” Therefore, a prodigal son is literally a wasteful son, one who throws away opportunities recklessly and wastefully. The younger son in this famous parable is a waster. He is one of the most famous rogues in the entire bible. In our soap opera imaginations we can read between the lines and pencil in all the sordid ways he must have wasted his inheritance. He had a good case of the “gimmee’s.” “give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” He takes the money and blows it on “degenerate living.” the story actually doesn’t go into detail here about what such immoral living entails but a vast panorama of options stands before a wasteful young man with a pocketful of change.
In 1636, Rembrandt painted a suggestive portrait of a jaunty, saucy, debonair prodigal with a pencil-thin moustache. He wears a hat with enough plumage to take flight while hoisting a large flute of ale, or stein of beer, over a foot tall. There is a young lady on his lap enjoying the fun while (in the original painting) another lass without clothing plays a mandolin in the background. A peacock pie on the table suggests the arrogance of the scene. In the book titled: “Rembrandt and the Bible”, a note says that the great painter used himself as a model for this particular canvas
We know this bible story well. We know all about this prodigal, this waster. And what we don’t know, our imaginations are more than happy to provide. And we know all about the father, too, who takes back his rogue of a son even before the confession gets completely confessed. But even though you may have sown a few wild oats in your past, grateful to be taken back and forgiven, my guess is that you probably identify most with the older brother in this old story. Jesus definitely wants his listeners to see the foolishness in the older brother’s behavior, but……….. Slip into his shoes for just a second and see if you don’t sympathize. What has the older son been doing as the sun is setting in this story? In short, he has been working his rear end off all day. Make that all month, because he’s been doing his own work plus that of his brother for weeks now. He is exhausted, his boots smell of cow manure, and he could certainly use a shower. And then he hears it — music and dancing. The Greek word here for “music” is interesting. The older brother hears the symphonia. Not just a fiddle and a banjo player. He hears a “symphony” of instruments, a veritable orchestra of merriment. It is too much to bear. Robe, ring, and fatted calf — unbelievably excessive of a welcome for someone’s who’s been a royal jerk.
So tell the truth. Had you been in the older brother’s shoes, working double shifts while your younger brother lived it up, would you have gone to the party? Be honest. There is something primitive here that tweaks our sense of moral outrage. I’ll tell you why you probably wouldn’t have gone in: it simply wasn’t fair.
There are many theological nuggets in this old story. But this is perhaps the most basic……. God isn’t fair. ……sorry. God doesn’t play by our rules…. See life the way we see it…… or keep score the way we keep it. ……God isn’t fair. And if we’re honest, we won’t be tickled pink by that. Why? Because it is precisely a sense of fairness that floats most of our ethical boats.
God isn’t fair. And not only that: God has an ongoing love affair with sinners. So let’s step back outside with the older brother, still in need of a shower, arms folded across his chest, the moral high road. “but when this son of yours came back … You killed the fatted calf for him.” he cannot even bring himself to acknowledge his brother with a name — “this son of yours.” a sense of unfairness, as you know, can turn venomous rather quickly.
So where are we at parable’s end? Are we inside the party celebrating? Or are we standing outside with our arms folded, refusing to come in? Jesus will not tell us how this story will end. The father passionately invites the older son inside, “pleads with him” to join in the welcome. Curiously, however, we are never told what the older brother decides to do. The story ends but it doesn’t end.
Will we RSVP to a party thrown by an unfair God who loves sinners? Or will we stubbornly remain inside, in a world where God does not play fair, this parable forces us to make a choice. Who is the real “prodigal” here? Who is the real “waster”? From the beginning Jesus says that this is a story about two brothers. Which one is the authentic prodigal? Which one has yet to come home to the father’s extravagant love? Every Sunday, God throws a party for sinners. Some of us have recently been in a “far country” and we are making our way back home. And others, perhaps working hard in the fields of the lord for years, have slipped into a Christianity that is more about controlling God’s love than celebrating it. An orchestra of voices, a symphonia, a communion of saints, calls everyone to the table. The judge of the world presides. But let me warn you. He is not fair. Will not play favorites. But clearly likes to throw a party.
So who is the real prodigal? It’s not the one with a shady past. It’s the one who stays outside. The one who could not bring himself to forgive.
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