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Imagine That

Text: Luke 15:1, 11-32

I know these two brothers. I know them well. Brother One is a prodigal, an ingrate, the child who is a constant source of a parent’s heartburn. He does not come to his father on his knees pleading for a loan. He storms into the room and demands what is coming to him one day, to get what he stands to “inherit,” right now, even though his dad is not dead.

Brother One does not become a more sympathetic son when he hits the road. This big spender closes down the casino every night and leaves with considerably less cash than he had the night before. He treats women in a way that I will not describe in this sermon, but you get the point. When he runs out of money, he mocks his own religious tradition by tending a mess of pigs. While groveling in slop, he thinks up a good penitent angle to ingratiate himself back into his father’s good graces. He is glad now that the old man whom he earlier treated as dead is alive, not because he has had a genuine change of heart; no, so that he can milk good ole dad for more mercy and more cash.

Brother Two is the eldest son of the family, the responsible one, the one the father can always rely on, the child who loves the rules and lives by every last one of them, the teen who never had one too many, the child who never broke curfew. He is the son who has had to clean-up after his worthless younger brother for his entire life. He knows the character of his younger brother long before the young man sets out on his disastrous trip or comes back home groveling to dad.

We meet these two Brothers Grim in this last of three parables told by Jesus in Luke 15. Over the years, I have heard Brother One treated consistently with the most commiseration and latitude. After all, he is just like any adventuresome lad who is doing what a healthy male does before he settles down; sowing some wild oats.

Often the sympathy for Brother One swells as listeners think back on their own tough times in life, especially in younger years. They can relate to this poor guy, who has made some bad mistakes, so who hasn’t? The violins begin to play with gusto and the sympathy kicks into full gear when the misguided lad sucks up his pride and comes home to beg for mercy. Then tambourines play as dad says, “let bygones be bygones,” kills the prized fatted calf, orders a special tofu and hummus dish for all the vegetarians on the farm, and throws a party like one that has never been thrown before.

The only problem with viewing Brother One this way is that Jesus does not. No, Jesus tells the story of a younger son who trashes the commandment to “honor your father and mother” and treats his father as a dead man walking. This wayward son goes far from home where he further dishonors his family and continues his cunning as he rehearses a repentance line to let him come back home. As Balmer Kelly, a wise old professor of mine, once suggested, “Read in full, it’s doubtful that the next day the younger son was substantially different from the day before.”

While going soft on Brother One, tradition has spared no mercy for Brother Two, where, in fact, his father owes him not only a party, but an apology. Brother Two will not put on a tux to celebrate the return of a scandalous brother or the naivete of an easily duped father. He knows exactly what will happen the day after the party and who will be left to clean up the mess. Brother Two is tough on crime and tough on his brother’s crimes and his father’s criminal leniency.

On first glance, you might conclude that the two principal characters in this story are a prodigal and an elder son. Look again. The spotlight in this parable is actually on a mysterious father. Like his two sons, the father is given no name. He is every father, every parent, and yet like no parent that I have ever met, certainly, that I have ever been. Met with ingratitude and greed, the father does not give a lecture or devise a plan to teach a wayward son a lesson. No, he hands over the inheritance without a moment’s hesitation. Greeted by the return of the prodigal after the young man has squandered the entire inheritance, the father does not demand an explanation; he announces a celebration. Rebuffed by an irate elder son, he does not tell him to “grow up.” No, he invites him to “come in.”

Late in his life, Rembrandt painted his memorable, The Return of the Prodigal Son. Though the title for his painting focuses on Brother One, the spotlight is on the father in this painting. The father stoops over to embrace his son. His hands, wrinkled with age, are palms down on the back of the emaciated young man. You do not see the face of the prodigal, but you do see the father, whose gray beard and tired eyes suggest a parent who has prayed for this son on more than this occasion and will do so again. The painting could well have been entitled, “Child of God, welcome home.”

In Luke’s parable and Rembrandt’s painting, there is no hint of conditions laid down by the father. “Look, I’ll give you this money if you promise to handle it responsibly.” “I’ll take you back if you promise never to live so slovenly and stupidly again.” “I’ll forgive your self-righteous pouting if you just come inside and offer a toast for your younger brother.” In this parable, there is not one conditional statement that comes out of the father’s mouth.

I know the two brothers. I know them well. It is the father who stumps me. And, I have not yet mentioned the most outrageous behavior of the father. This is no passive dad, waiting for two stubborn sons to come to their senses. He is a father in motion, in motion toward his errant sons. The father does not wait for his younger son to get back on his turf and beg his forgiveness. The father races like a schoolboy to embrace and to forgive the younger son long before the boy utters his first word. Later in the story, the father does not stay inside when the band is playing and the drinks are flowing; he leaves a party in full swing to invite in his older son who can really use a party.

If I could paint like John Borden Evans, I would paint the father’s worn hands not only blessing the return of the Prodigal Son. In the corner of the canvas, I would paint the same worn hands caressing the stiff shoulders of the other son, blessing him even when he would have none of it. In this parable, Jesus says that our God is something like that mystifying father, searching for us all our lives, even when we think it we who are on the hunt, going out after us, long after we have given up on there being a God or a God who cares at all, blessing us, even when we are seemingly lost beyond finding.

Toward the end of his life, Henri Nouwen, a Catholic priest, Harvard professor, and member of the L’Arche Community for the mentally disabled, ended a book about Luke’s parable in this way: “As I look at my own aging hands, I know that they have been given to me to stretch out toward all who suffer, to rest upon the shoulders of all who come, and to offer the blessing that emerges from the immensity of God’s love” (Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal, p. 139).

I wonder if Nouwen is right. I wonder what difference it would make in our souls, in our daily lives, if we did not imagine ourselves as some version of Brother One or Brother Two, but by God’s grace, as some version of the loving parent who excels in blessing others with extravagant grace and love.

“Take a deep, long breath,” says Jesus as he tells this parable, “and imagine that.”


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