O, Taste and See that the Lord is Good!
Passage: Luke 15:1-3; 11-32
Date: March 18, 2007
Preacher: Rev Laurie M. Newman
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The Sunday school teacher was reading this story from Luke 15, to his class, clearly emphasizing the resentment the older brother expressed at the return of his brother. When he was finished telling the story, he asked the class, "Now who was really sad that the prodigal son had come
home?" After a few minutes of silence, one little boy raised his hand and confidently stated, "The fatted calf." (For the children worshiping with us this morning, I invite you to take a children's worship bulletin and discover another answer to that question!)
No, I'm not going to talk about the taste of the fatted calf. . . But I am going to talk about potato salad. It tasted crunchy and creamy. A little dill, and yummy, slightly sweet red potatoes, with a bit of saltiness of kalamata olives. Her potato salad was worth (not a million)-but $3000 bucks! Really. She was a member of the congregation I served. Not only was she a great cook, but she often volunteered with the youth program, which I staffed. When she entered the recipe contest, she designated our youth ministry as the charitable organization that would receive the prize, if she should win. She placed as a first runner up, and our congregation gratefully accepted the money.
Here was my problem: Before we received the money from her, she was often critical of the youth program. After we received the money, the criticism escalated. Being the "first-born child" that I am, I tried hard to please her, to adjust to the criticisms. I often felt that it wasn't fair-we were doing our best! To make a long story short, within a year of donating the prize money, her frustration with our church overcame her. She had deeply invested herself, but found the church deficient. She and her family left. I was hurt. Many pastors have trouble with situations like this, feeling rejected, even when trying our best! I felt that the church and I had failed her and her children.
I was hurt-and angry when they left. Over time, I began to blame her for what went wrong. I had bent over backwards to hear her, to use her criticism constructively, all for nothing. It wasn't fair, how she blamed the church. . . Though I kept silent about that, in my mind, I made my judgment: She was too demanding. My sense of fairness was violated. Though I knew that I should wish the best for her, there was a hard place in my heart that wouldn't allow that kind of generosity.
Who has hurt you? Who comes to your mind when you think, "It just isn't fair!" Now-think of Jesus, running out like the eager father. Think of Jesus running to that person, throwing his arms around them and kissing them, when it would have been more appropriate for that person to throw themselves at Jesus' feet.
Why is it that it is so much easier for our hearts to demand fairness and justice, than it is to show mercy? That was the situation for the Pharisees in Jesus' time. Before Jesus tells this parable-- the Pharisees were grumbling about Jesus' indiscriminate loving acceptance: He eats with tax collectors and sinners!
According to scholar Wes Howard-Brook, the Pharisees may have been the religious liberals of their day. They were dedicated religious leaders, rigorous in their daily devotion. Like the older son in the parable, it is easy to imagine them angry at the easy way Jesus seemed to cast off what was so important to them. There was increasing outrage among those leaders that Jesus seemed oblivious to the corruption, the sinfulness, the greed and selfishness of those sinners-he broke bread with them, rather than keeping himself pure and apart from them.
This parable shows two types of sin. One is the sin of the law-breaker. The other is the sin of the law-keeper. Each centers on broken relationship. The younger son breaks the relationship by failing to fulfil the expectations of his family and society. The older son breaks his relationship even while fulfilling the same expectations.
The law-breaker and the law-keeper. There is room in this parable for all of us. So where are we in this story? Are we inside the party celebrating? Or are we standing outside with our arms folded, refusing to come in?
Scholars believe that this parable would have been shocking to the first hearers. Shocking in a way that is mostly lost on our modern ears. The younger son's request for his inheritance, was nearly the equivalent of wishing his father's death, so that he could get on with his own life. The father's dividing of the property actually jeopardized the security of the whole family. . . When the younger son left, he was also left the responsibility of caring for his father. In an honor/shame culture, he brought shame on his family. He left in a cloud of disgrace. After completely wasting all the money, the son sunk to a new low, by Jewish purity standards. He fed pigs. His only hope was to be accepted by his father as a servant, where he can at least might get a decent meal.
But the most shocking part of the story wasn't the youngest son's actions. It was the behavior of his father! As the dignified patriarch of the family, the father had every reason to expect that if his son returned, it would be crawling in humility, ready to kiss his father's feet. But this father behaved in a very undignified way. He had been vigilantly looking in the distance for his son to return. When he saw him from far off, rather than righteously waiting for the shame-filled son to come to him, he publically humiliated himself by hiking up his long robes and running through the town streets to his wayward son. He stopped the community from rejecting this prodigal, by throwing his arms around him and receiving him as an honored son, with ring, sandals, robes and a huge party.
Where are we in the story? What if Jesus is calling us to eat with sinners, too? What if following Jesus means that we love recklessly like the father in the parable, seeking out the lost, the immoral, the selfish, the greedy-- running out to meet them, and throwing our arms around them, show loving kindness, even though they've offended?
What would the church be like, if we diligently sought out those who have left? Who would we be looking for? What if we kept a keen watch for their approach, and ran to meet them before they could reach us? What if we embraced them with forgiveness and mercy? What would the world be like? What would our lives be like?
O taste, and see that the Lord is good! Today we break bread and share the cup, in the presence of God.. What if, when tasted of the bread and cup, we tasted with the very people who have wronged us? What then?