SERMON PREACHED BY THE REVEREND DR. HAROLD T. LEWIS, RECTOR
CALVARY EPISCOPAL CHURCH, PITTSBURGH, PENNSYLVANIA
ON THE FOURTH SUNDAY IN LENT
25 MARCH 2001
"Where God's glory flashes"* IV: In the gutter
"But when he came to himself, he said 'How many of my father's hired servants have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger!'" (Luke 15: 17)
As every Sunday School child knows, there are three major characters in the beloved parable that we have come to know as "The Prodigal Son." There is the younger son who ran off and squandered his inheritance, the dutiful elder son who stayed on the farm, and the father who loved them both. In addition, of course, there are the ubiquitous servants, who explain things to the principal characters, and who function as messengers, go-betweens and functionaries. But I would like to concentrate this morning on the heretofore forgotten characters in the story, who are nonetheless crucial to its understanding, and they are the animals in the parable. The animals play key roles --- and they are, as you will remember, the pigs, the fatted calf, and the goat.
The pigs, in this story, become a symbol of repentance. The younger son who left his father's house was not merely akin to the rebellious young man whom we know today (at least in the movies) who goes off to seek fame and fortune, vowing to make it on his own, without interference from his parents. Nor is the prodigal son like the spoiled twenty-one-year-old who cashes in his trust fund, buys a convertible, and joins the jet set. No, Luke's character is really more insidious. He demands of his father the share of the property "that falleth to me." In other words, he wanted immediately what would normally have come to him at his father's death. Two things about this property should be kept in mind. First, the father was under no legal or moral obligation to grant the request; and second, the father's wealth was tied up in land, which means that either he or the son had to do some pretty fast liquidation.
Shekels burning a hole in his pocket, our young man went to a "far country," where, as one translation puts it, "he squandered his wealth with the wildest extravagance." Then, two disasters struck him simultaneously. The first, that he ran out of money, was predictable. The second, that "a famine arose in that land," was not, but it exacerbated the consequences of the first. When people are themselves hungry, they are less likely to share their meager provisions. Moreover, in time of famine, employment is hard to come by. Out of sheer desperation, then, our protagonist was forced to take the most despicable of jobs --- feeding pigs. Now this is pretty dirty, unpleasant work for anybody, but for a Jew, it was the pits! Pigs, after all, according to Leviticus, were unclean, and Jews were forbidden to eat them, or have anything else to do with them. And to make matters worse, he was doubtless aware of the rabbinic saying, "Cursed be the man who would breed swine." It was this abject degradation, it was his finding himself in the gutter, that caused the young man to come to his senses, and hightail it back to his father's house and beg to be taken in as a hired servant.
So often we have to hit rock-bottom before we turn our lives around, before we repent. It is often when on the brink of losing family, employment or life itself that the alcoholic, for instance, gets to the point when he stops making excuses, and admits he has a problem. Indeed, one wonders if Dr. Shoemaker, Calvary's twelfth rector, might have been influenced by this parable when, with others, he developed the spiritual framework for the twelve-step program for AA, which has been used, in turn, by many other self-help organizations. Steps three through five seem to mirror the prodigal son's experience: By saying (after he came to his senses) that he will arise and go to his father and say, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son," the prodigal son makes a decision to turn his will and his life over to the care of God; makes a searching and fearless moral inventory of himself; and admits to God, to himself and to another human being the exact nature of his wrongs.
When the well-rehearsed confession of the prodigal son reaches the ears of the person for whom it was intended, it was virtually ignored. For when the father saw him coming, he didn't wait for his son to grovel; he didn't sit in judgment and exact a pound of flesh from his errant and disobedient offspring. No, St. Luke tells us, his father "had compassion and ran (behavior unbefitting his station) and fell on his neck and kissed him." The father sends his slaves scurrying. The next scene has the trappings of an enthronement or a consecration. A robe and a ring (both symbols of authority) are put on him, and his bare feet (a sign of the destitution he had endured) are shod, befitting his restored status as a son. Enter the fatted calf, which was obviously being saved for some special occasion, or the visit of some potentate. But the father could think of no more important visitor than his son, who had been returned to him safe and sound. Musicians, and probably dancing girls, were summoned, the tent was festooned, and the party began, or as the King James Version describes it, "they began to make merry." The fatted calf, then, becomes a symbol of rejoicing.
Now everybody was making merry except the co-dependent elder son, who, apparently, was working hard in the fields when all this transpired. He sees the revelry. He hears the music. And he learns that the party is being thrown for his father's derelict, degenerate child. Is he happy that the prodigal has returned? Indeed not! He even refuses to enter the tent. So the father, who took the initiative to run to embrace his younger son, now takes the initiative again and leaves the tent to entreat his elder son. Enter the third animal in our little story. The goat becomes a symbol of resentment. "Lo, these many years I have been slaving for you," he complains to his father. "I never transgressed your commandments, and yet you never gave me a young goat, (of much lesser value than a fatted calf) that I might make merry with my (respectable) friends. But as soon as this son of yours came, (he said, disowning his brother) who had devoured your living with harlots, you killed the fatted calf for him." The elder brother doesn't hate his younger sibling. He just resents him deeply. By his own reckoning, having been the faithful, obedient child, he should have been entitled to such a party far more than his brother. He didn't even possess enough compassion to comprehend that the safe return of his brother, who had been presumed dead, was cause enough for celebrating. Doesn't this sound familiar? Don't the workers in the vineyard who are hired at six o'clock in the morning get upset that they got the same pay as those who were brought on just before sundown? [Matt. 20:1-16] How many times does Jesus remind the Pharisees that others will get into the Kingdom of God before them? How many times does Jesus warn them that the last shall be first?
The story of the prodigal son is so familiar, it's been trivialized. It's not really about family values. It's not even only about the "pure unbounded love" of God. It's really, like every parable, told to give us a glimpse of what the Kingdom of God is like. And in this story, Jesus draws a picture of a jubilant banquet where the most hated and alien enemy is welcomed and reconciled. The Kingdom of God is an inclusive party. Let us not forget that Jesus found this lesson so important that he tells three parables in a row to drive it home. The parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin, and the parable of the lost son are all told because "the Pharisees and scribes murmured, saying 'This man receives sinners and eats with them'"(Lk. 15:2). They thought that such behavior disqualified Jesus from messiahship. Jesus tells these stories to try to convince them that hanging out with the least, the lost, and the last of society was part and parcel of his job description --- and ours.
The message of inclusiveness is such a pervasive element of the Gospel, it's a wonder that the Church has consistently missed it. Pharisees have been alive and well throughout the church's life who have determined that various kinds of behavior, race, ethnicity, gender, social and economic status, and sexual orientation, to name a few, constitute grounds for keeping people out of the tent. Words like "heretic" and "apostate" have recently been rescued from obscurity and are being flung at Christians by Christians with what we used to call gay abandon. Others have reclaimed perfectly good words like "orthodox" and given them narrow definitions, indeed.
If you haven't already done so, go to see "Chocolat." See it soon, because it is set in a small French town during the season of Lent, and ends with the celebration of Easter. It is a cinematic parable about tolerance, inclusiveness and love. Like the Prodigal Son, it is a story about how all of us can find welcome under the tent.
Let us pray:
Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling, calling for you and for me;
See, on the portals He's waiting and watching, watching for you and for me.
Oh! For the wonderful love He has promised, promised for you and for me,
Though we have sinned, He has mercy and pardon, pardon for you and for me.
Come home, come home, ye who are weary come home!
Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling, Calling, O sinner, come home!**
*To bow the head in sackcloth and in ashes,
Or rend the soul, such grief is not Lent's goal;
But to be led to where God's glory flashes,
His beauty to come near.
Percy Dearmer, "Now quit your care and anxious fear," The Hymnal 1982, No. 145.
**Philip McIntyre, "Softy and tenderly Jesus is calling," Lift
Every Voice and Sing II, 101