Sunday, March 06, 2016

Sermon; Lent 4C; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Perspective matters.

Here's a question for you:  why did the younger son end up in such dire straits?  A man by the name of Mark Allan Powell asked this same question of people in the U.S., Russia, and parts of Africa.  The Russians primarily answered that it was due to famine.  The Africans said it was because nobody would help him.  People in the U.S. said it was because he was irresponsible.

That's the thing about parables – they can have many interpretations, and often it depends on your perspective at a particular moment as to how you interpret it.  In the parable of the sower, for instance, sometimes I see myself as the sower, doing my best to spread God's word.  Sometimes I see myself as the seed, being thrown hither and yon by God.  And other times I see myself as the growing seed being either productive or choked by weeds.  If you are open to differing perspectives, then you can close the door on “The Bible clearly says” rhetoric, and you can be open to both empathy and new interpretations.

So, what is this parable about?  Is it about famine?  Is it about a refusal to help others?  Is it about self-indulgent appetites?  Is it about the father, the older son, or the younger son?  The answer, of course, is, “Yes.”

“A severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need . . . and no one gave him anything.”  Yes, this parable covers a lot of territory, but what might this part be saying to us?  There are many agencies that will only help people if they can prove they are as poor as they say.  There are some agencies that require drug testing before offering aid.  Might we see this part of the parable as standing in opposition to requiring litmus tests before issuing assistance?  How might this call to offer unconditional help conflict with our ideas of only helping those who are deserving?

The two sons are also worth looking at.  The younger son turns his back on the family and leaves town.  He is like every other young person who has ever said, “As soon as I can, I'm getting out of here.”  Whether “here” means this small town, this awful climate, or away from overbearing parents, the child wants nothing to do with his past.  The only thing he doesn't say is, “You're dead to me.”  But really, in taking his inheritance and leaving, that's exactly what he's doing.

In the end, though, he comes back.  He makes the decision to return to his father and beg forgiveness.  He really has no hope of being restored fully, but he takes the opportunity to get right with dad.  Pulling from Matthew, he left his gift to first be reconciled.  With that act, he just may be the hero of the story.

The older son has other issues.  There is no doubt he is faithful and loyal to his father.  After all, he never took HIS inheritance and ran off to Vegas.  But I have to wonder – is that faithfulness and loyalty based on nothing more than a strong sense of right and wrong, or born out of a call to duty?  Speaking as the eldest, I can easily see this being the case.  And it is that sense of duty that gets projected onto others, holding them to your own personal standards of behavior, your own litmus test.

Those standards, that litmus test, however, may lead us into the cult of purity.  Only those whose lifestyles or behaviors or choices meet our criteria for right living are to be admitted into the group, or family in this case.  We only want the right kind of people.  And if the wrong kind of people are not only allowed in, but actually welcomed in as equals, then we have no choice but to sever our ties with the group, or the family . . . or the church.  In clinging to his purity ideals, the older brother is missing a great party.  What might we miss by following his example?

And then there's the father.  Most typically, we who are parents ourselves like to imagine we are he:  generous, forgiving, and patient.  Generous in that he gives the younger son his inheritance early and tells the older, “All that is mine is yours.”  Forgiving in that he welcomed his son back into the family without a change in status.  Patient in that he waited, and will wait, for both his sons to return to the family.

But this father is also a risk taker.  It was a risk to give the younger son his interpretations early.  It was a risk to welcome him back into the household.  It was a risk to let the older brother choose to stay or go.  God risks much in his relationship with us; are we willing to risk much in our relationship with God?

Perspective matters.

What if you saw the younger son as a victim of famine, or suffering because people refused to help?  What if you saw him as being brave?
What if you saw the older son as a defender of traditional values?  What if you saw him as solely focused on purity?
What if you saw the father as one who lost two sons?  What if you saw him as someone who valued welcome and inclusion more than maintaining the purity and status quo of the system?

Perspective matters.

One of the goals of Lent is to draw us out of our comfort zones, to get us to look at things in different ways, and to challenge how we've always done things.  Being open to changing our perspective allows us to also develop empathy for others.  And when we can empathize with another, we begin the process of seeing them as children of God, as someone to be respected and dignified for no other reason than that they are human.

This Lent, maybe what we need to give up is seeing things like we've always seen them.  This Lent, maybe what we need to take on is a new perspective.



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