Sunday, March 3, 2013

This Week's Sermon: "The Sacred Man"

Luke 15:11-19

11 Jesus said, “A certain man had two sons. 12 The younger son said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the inheritance.’ Then the father divided his estate between them. 13 Soon afterward, the younger son gathered everything together and took a trip to a land far away. There, he wasted his wealth through extravagant living. 14 “When he had used up his resources, a severe food shortage arose in that country and he began to be in need. 15 He hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to eat his fill from what the pigs ate, but no one gave him anything.17 When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have more than enough food, but I’m starving to death! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19  I no longer deserve to be called your son. Take me on as one of your hired hands.” ’ (CEB)

“Loss, Mercy, and Redemption: The Luke 15 Parables,” Week Three

A couple of years ago, my childhood pastor, Holly McKissick, told me the story of a war journalist who did a tour of work in Afghanistan during our current war there, and how this journalist was staying with her husband in the home of a native Afghani farmer.  This farmer could see how tense, how on edge this couple was to be doing their work in the middle of a years-old war zone, so after dinner, he spoke to them and offered to have one of his sons stand guard outside their room while they slept.  This son could not have been more than 12 or 13, but took to the job with such enthusiasm that the couple felt they couldn’t refuse without causing offense.  And so she agreed to be “protected” by this underaged guard who, if the world were truly just, would be spending his time with toys and books rather than with weapons of war.

Late that night, this journalist hears a noise, she wakes up, and goes to crack open the door, and she sees this little boy, leaned up against a giant rifle, fast asleep.  She turns back, returns to her room, and falls back asleep.  And in the morning, the boy offers them breakfast and excitedly asks her something—she turns to her translator, and the translator simply says, “He wants to know if you think he was a good bodyguard.”

And what goes unspoken in this story from our vantage point—as Westerners with different expectations of law and order and of what it means to crash on your buddy’s couch for the weekend—is that where there is not a reliable and dependable local civil police force, you must rely  on your own family to protect you.  This boy was treating this foreign woman and her husband like family.  And it is something that the boy who turns into the prodigal son can only dream of in a similar far away land of ill fortune and unimaginable loneliness.

With Lent as a new season in the church’s worship calendar, you may notice a few things different—we hang purple, we draw the curtains on our baptistry’s portrait of Jesus, and, naturally, we begin another sermon series.  This sermon series takes us through the 40 days of Lent to Holy Week—the week of Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday that is the most important time in the Christian calendar (yes, I dare say, more important than Christmas!).  And Lent traditionally is meant to be a time of reflection and repentance as we do some even more intensive-than-usual soul-searching in preparation for what will eventually be the empty tomb.  And so we’ll be using this year’s Lenten season to walk verse-by-verse through the three parables that make up the fifteenth chapter of Luke’s Gospel: the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin, and the parable of the prodigal son.  These stories all have a common theme of being “lost and found,” so to speak, but there is a much larger dimension at work here—Jesus is telling these parables to the scribes and Pharisees—as Luke writes, “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Him.  And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.””  And what Jesus is responding with, in so many words is, “Yes, because it isn’t just about you!”

This is one of the most famous, well-loved, well-known, well-everythinged parables that Jesus ever tells, and yet you’ll only find it here, in Luke 15!  It’s one of those things that I have no idea why the other Gospel writers didn’t include, like John’s account of the raising of Lazarus.

Because the parable of the prodigal son does, I think, speak to the worst in each of us, that which we are perhaps not willing to admit we ever possess, but which, for some of us, we likely act on at one time or another—and that is, quite simply, taking those whom we love for granted, to the point of no longer seeing any need for them in our lives.

It is what this son does by asking his father for his inheritance.  In doing this, he is saying that his father has no worth to him aside from his inheritance and that he would, in fact, rather have the inheritance than have his father.  He is, in a sentence, saying he’d prefer if his father were dead.

And here’s our first hint of grace—the father, instead of taking this for the horrific insult that it is and throwing his son out, actually accedes to his son’s wish, gives him his inheritance, and sends him on his way.  You have to think it was one of the hardest things this father has ever had to do.

Because of this, we should not be so surprised when we are told that we should think of this father as God Himself.  But who we should think of as the prodigal may surprise us a bit.

In ancient Roman law—bear in mind that Israel is occupied by Rome during the time of Jesus—there was a concept called the homo sacer.  Literally, it translates in English to “the sacred man,” but there really was nothing we would think of as very sacred about it.  The homo sacer is an outlaw, a person set apart from their community who lives outside the protection of the law—they can be killed, and their killer can never be charged with murder.

The ancient Greek language has a term for this kind of a life—they called it “the bare life,” and when you think about it, the name fits.  Stripped of everything  you might have once had, built up only to be brought down to nothing, it is a life bare of any other preconceptions, any other protections, any other sense of hope.  And that is the life of the prodigal son where we leave him.

Consider this—we probably think this son could not return home because it was a financial impossibility.  But it was almost as surely a societal impossibility as well.  How could he expect to be welcomed back home after insulting his father—the source of his livelihood and protection—the way that he did at the outset of the story?  Even if the son had not squandered his inheritance, he still likely would have never thought he could see home again.

 And that’s the sort of vulnerability and loneliness that Jesus is talking about to the Pharisees on behalf of the tax collectors and the other sinners.  These are people who are living a bare life, stripped and devoid of any other means of enjoyment precisely because they’re known as sinners.  And—hold onto your hats here—I would venture a guess to say that part of the reason Jesus is championing them so in this chapter is because more than anybody else could, He gets it.

We know that Jesus, as the divine Word, the Logos in John 1, is God made flesh, God who became human and lived with us.  And Paul writes in Philippians 2—he cites a poem, in fact—that Jesus, though being made of the same stuff as God, empties himself of this divine substance and takes the form of a human, the form of a slave, even, Paul says, so that His mission and ministry might be fulfilled.  And Jesus fulfills this mission and ministry without the protection of Roman law, either—indeed, the law instead acts to execute Jesus in order to end that ministry.

What if Jesus was the original “sacred man?”  What if Jesus was the original prodigal?

Would that change how we treat the vulnerable people in our lives?

Return to the little boy bodyguard and his story.  How did he treat the prodigal in his life, the sacred person who came to his homeland where there was no such protection of the law?

Would we be so willing to offer that to the prodigal, to the set apart people in our lives today?

More to the point, would we be so willing as to offer that to Jesus if He showed up tomorrow?  After it is written in Hebrews, there are those who, by welcoming complete strangers, have unknowingly welcomed in angels.

Put a different way, when Jesus says, “Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me,” this is what he’s talking about.  This prodigal son has become the least and the lost, and Jesus is saying, even in all His righteousness and glory and divinity, “I still identify with the prodigal.”

If you have been following along in this series, you’ll know that I’m pretty big on discerning which character represents whom in this trilogy of parables, and on face, yes, the prodigal represents our real-life prodigals—the sinners and the outcasts.  But the prodigal also represents Jesus.  Consider this: Jesus, in Paul’s words, takes the form of a slave, and He went to the ritually unclean—to the sick and the leprous, to the women and the blind, even to the dead to raise them.  And the son is eventually hired out to feed the ritually unclean: a herd of pigs!

And both will eventually seek a way out from their lots in life by returning to their father—the prodigal, as we know, is actually able to do so, but at Gethsemane, when Jesus speaks to God and begs Him to take the cup of poison away, Jesus instead surrenders to the machinations of the world that necessitate His death by crucifixion.

But look at how this part of the story ends—the prodigal does not think he can return to his father as his father—he thinks he can only return to his father as a prospective employee, so disgraced does he believe he has become.

How many such prodigals do you know who ask if God could ever, ever love them?  Have you ever felt that way yourself?

If your answer to either question is “yes,” then God has good news for you.

You will be welcomed home.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
March 3, 2013

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