Are you ready to join the party?
Are you ready to join the party?
Luke 15:1-3; 11-32
March 31, 2019
You hear it long before you even know what it is that you are hearing. It’s a thumping base line, so deep that it is almost seismic, so seismic that the closer you get the more it feels like your molars are vibrating. As you walk closer, the mid-range and treble starts to fill in. It may well be the case that who you are may determine what you hear. If you are vintage, maybe you hear, “One, two, three o’clock, four o’clock rock…” Maybe if you are a bit older you hear, “You know you make me want to shout…” Still others might hear, “Cruising on down to the love shack…” All of which is very weird because, somehow, this is two thousand years ago and none of that yet exists.
What does exist, though is the human decision that it is, in fact, time to party. It is time to cut loose. It is time to eat, drink and dance. This is not some shallow decision based on some commercial that someone saw on t.v. No, again, there is no t.v. There are no reality shows whose reality we try to imitate. This is life, real life, the kind of life that includes moments that tear your heart from one corner to the other, that separate people who love one another from one another, that rip at the fabric of community. It is also the real life in which healing happens and hope is restored and folks are brought back into community and back into loving relationships. And when that happens, when love wins, either you dance or you should check for a pulse and make sure that you are not, in fact, dead.
You take a step into the otherwise humble home and what you see is a vision of the Kingdom, itself. People with smiles that bend from ear to ear. Folks who seriously can’t dance a lick and who could not care less. People with their arms around one another, singing from their heals, belting out every word that they had memorized in the hopes that one day it would be time, in fact to sing again. In each person’s hand is a red Solo cup. (Hey, some things have existed for ever.) And somehow, everyone knows that when the old man and his grown son make their way to the center of what used to be their living room but is now the dance floor, those red Solo cups should be raised high. The father and son embrace, not the awkward “bro-hug.” No, this is the hug that happens when the two people who are hugging aren’t sure if they are ever going to let go. There’s not a dry eye in the room. There’s not a heart that’s not beating in time with the “thump, thump, thump” of that base line. There’s not a person who, for a few precious moments, doesn’t feel whole.
All of this is true about every person in that house. However, it is completely untrue of the man who is sulking outside. You see him through the window. So you go outside to find him and bring him in. You find him, alright. “What’s up man? What’s going on?”
He goes on a tirade of an explanation. It seems that his younger brother had always been irresponsible. One day, that brother chose to look their father in the eye and tell him that he wanted his inheritance…now! “Can you imagine how much that hurt our father?” he asked. However, the father had always valued his sons’ freedom, even the freedom to make a bad choice. With cash in hand, the younger son set off to find the nearest party.
Like a lot of people, the younger son squandered his time and his money and his life, searching for a buzz that would last. Instead, he discovered how fast a person could roll through a fist full of cash. He also learned just how low life could go. On the day when he was feeding the pigs and found himself jealous of the pigs because they actually had something to eat, he headed home.
Life humbled him. He wasn’t going home as a beloved, triumphant son. He was one of the millions of us who have to fail spectacularly before we realize how good we used to have it. Now, he was ready to simply be a servant and hope that his father would forgive him. He was ready to own his mistakes.
It turns out that pretty much every day since the younger son had left, the father had kept one eye on the horizon for his son’s return. So, when he finally did see his son, he ran to him with his arms spread wide. They embraced and held onto one another for dear life.
Later, just the thought of that embrace would enrage the older son. He was not normally one to judge. However, how hard is it to judge a prostitute loving, wine drinking brother? You make your bed, you lie in that bed, right? He was not normally someone to feel jealous of anyone. However, where was his embrace from his father? Wasn’t he entitled to a little of that love, too? So, his little brother took responsibility for his failures…well, bully for him. He had taken responsibility every day for doing what he was supposed to do.
You know, as you listen to him, that the judgment that he denies passing and the resentment that overwhelms him combine to blind him to what’s actually happening. He is so lost in himself that he can’t see that this moment isn’t about him. His brother was lost. Now, he’s found. His father was broken hearted. Now, that heart has been healed. It’s obvious that what is happening here is amazing. We all hope that somehow the world might be healed, one relationship at a time. In this moment, joy has come to life, right before his eyes, but he is totally consumed by his selfishness.
Here’s the thing… Years before, all the younger brother could see was that he wanted what was coming to him and he wanted it now. While all of that was going on, all the older brother could see was what was coming to him, all that was going to be his some day. Neither son looked at the father and the gift that it was to be his beloved son. They just squandered that gift differently. The younger son made a giant, public spectacle out of squandering his inheritance. The older son just smoldered inside of himself about how much he was owed and missed out on the joy and the love.
After the hug, the father had the audacity to throw a party for the son, to kill the fatted calf and have a barbecue. He puts out the word: “We’re having a party! Everybody come! My son was dead but now he’s alive again. My son was lost but now he’s found!”
The killer moment in this story is captured in a single line: “All of this time his older son was out in the field!” No one told him about the party. The resentment and the entitlement explode within him when the realization strikes him: “My brother, that fool, has returned and my father has been fooled.” Not only can he not go to the party, he can’t stand to even be near. He stomps away and gets lost in a giant sulk.
The father follows him. He gets nowhere. The son says, essentially, I’ve never been anything but loyal to you. I’ve worked my fingers to the bone on your behalf, every day. You’re never had to lay awake at night once worrying over me. Yet, you’ve never thrown a party for me and my friends. This son of your’s wastes your money and you throw a party for him? You owe me!”
“You owe me!” Are there any more toxic words around? I’ve told you before about the couple that I did marriage counseling for where one partner brought in 5 pages of typed notes about what would be required to continue to have the privilege of being married to him. “You owe me.” I’ve heard so many stories about people who made terrible decisions at work or who had an affair and they justified these choices to themselves because someone owed them. Is there any more toxic poison that can work its way into our souls than the entitlement that we feel when we have allowed resentment to fester for years? Resentment sucks all the joy out of living.
I bet that when the older brother started helping his father out, he felt honored to be included. I bet he felt proud to be old enough to take on new responsibilities. I bet he loved being with his Dad. I bet all of this was true until he started to forget how lucky he was. When his brother left, all he saw was a diminished inheritance for himself. When his father worried, all he saw was more reason to hate his brother. When his father caved in and loved the younger son, all he could see was a reason to hate his father, too.
That’s precisely the reason Jesus tells this story: because resentment and entitlement and self-righteousness can cut us off not only from others and from shared joy but from God. That remains one of the core truths of life today. We can make our chief complaint to God be, “Why do good things happen to bad people?” Our assumption is that we are here to judge who is good and who is bad. When good things happen—to anyone—we’re not here to judge. We’re here to celebrate. Remember this is the man who told us to get the log out of our own eye before we point out the splinter in someone else’s eye. This is the man who taught us that we shouldn’t judge, lest we be judged. We’re here to help. We’re here to heal. We’re not here to keep score.
This is why Jesus tells the story to the Pharisees, the folks who were sure that they had a leg to stand on before God, the folks who were sure that God owed them. They are more than happy to point out to Jesus that he’s hanging out with the wrong crowd, that he is getting a little too excited about those who are clearly bad people. So Jesus tells them a story. “The base line was really thumping and the party was on. You see there was a man who had two sons…”
The question for us is this: are we going to hold onto our resentment and hold out for what we are owed, are we going to spend our lives keep score, or are we going to join the party? What was lost has been found! What was dead is now alive again! People who were disconnected have connected once again! “Come on man…let’s dance!”