Our Prodigal Abba
Luke 15:1-3; 11-32 June 17, 2018
Rev. David J. Clark
We begin our sermon series on the Lord’s Prayer on this Father’s Day by looking at the opening petition, “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” The word translated as father is Abba (like the 70’s band). It means something like “daddy,” something you would expect a toddler to say. It must have shocked the disciples when they asked Jesus, “Teach us how to pray,” and Jesus said when you pray, pray like this. “Our Daddy. . .”
It didn’t sound formal at all. It wasn’t addressing some harsh abstract unrelatable presence in the sky but someone intimate, accessible, warm, and loving. People weren’t used to thinking about God that way back then, or even now. For many people, their image of God is informed by hellfire and brimstone preachers where God is a grumpy old man in the sky whose main job is to be disappointed and only tolerate us if we believe in Jesus the right way.
Jesus had something else in mind when he said we should relate to God as Abba. What kind of Father is this? When Jesus talked about God, he talked about God as spirit, so it isn’t about God’s male-ness or masculinity. Jesus is trying to communicate something about the heart of God, the character of God.
So what is the character and heart of God? What did Jesus have in mind when he taught us to pray to God as Abba? Our best indication is from the parable of the Prodigal Son. It’s a nice little story that shows the Bible’s preference for preserving families rather than ripping them apart.
Luke 15 opens with conflict. Some religious leaders don’t like the company Jesus is keeping. Jesus is hanging out with sinners, tax collectors, thieves, and prostitutes. Upon hearing the condemnation by the religious leaders, Jesus tells three stories about the lost being found.
The first is about a lost coin where Jesus compares God to a woman who loses a coin and gets down on her hands and knees, searching until she finds it. The second is about a shepherd who leaves the flock to find the one that got away. And then we have the story about the lost son.
The implication is clear. God seeks out those who are lost to God and welcomes them back. In fact, whenever someone has gone astray and comes back to God, it is cause for celebration.
Maybe that is where you find yourself this morning. Maybe you’ve gotten a little off the path and got caught up in something, an attitude or behavior that is not healthy. Today is the reminder that it’s okay to come back now. No need for shame or embarrassment or guilt trips. Recently a guy wanted to look around the church because he had grown up here and hadn’t been back since. He joked about getting struck by lightning. People say that a lot. I tell them God is likelier to hit them with a fatted calf—a great party. It’s not about your failures but what you can learn from them.
In the parable, the younger son asks his father for his inheritance. What kind of person demands his inheritance while the father is still alive? We don’t know. Maybe dad branded his cows with bumper stickers that read, “I’m blowing my kids’ inheritance.” The kid said, “Hey, give it to me. I’ll have more fun with it—I’m still young.”
But that’s hardly likely. In Jesus’ day, dividing up a family farm was no small deal. Patriarchs did not cave in to their kids’ demands. It would be a great shame not to be able to hold your family together. So we are reminded of free will and how God allows us to reject God.
It is an insult to ask for your inheritance before your parents die—it’s like saying, “You are dead to me.” Maybe someone you care about deeply has disowned you. Has stopped talking; has said by word or deed, “You are dead to me.” You want the relationship to heal, they are done.
What can you do? The father in this story turns the other cheek. He is under no obligation to honor his child’s wish, but he does so anyway. He does not try to control, manipulate, or say, “I know what you are going to do—you are going to blow it. Generations of men and women have worked, sweated, and bled for what you are about to receive. They have endured years of drought, floods, and poor harvest, but God brought them through, and now you are going to blow it on things, not of God—if you do that, don’t you dare come back here. You walk out the door. It closes behind you forever.” No, he lets the kid go and makes his own mistakes.
Maybe that is a place to hook into the story. Maybe someone has let you make your own mistakes. Maybe you have wondered why God, like the dad in the parable, let you get into some of the messes you’ve made. Maybe you are mad because God has let you go down paths of your own free will. That’s the way God is.
The son leaves the country for the land of gentiles—rejecting his people, not just his father, and blowing the money. Most people assume the word prodigal means one who goes away and returns. But it means spending lavishly or extravagantly. The son spends lavishly on “dissolute living.” Jesus doesn’t give us the particulars, but we can surmise it’s seedy stuff. When his pockets are empty, he goes to work on a pig farm. If you are Jewish, feeding slop to the pigs was as low as one could sink.
Jesus said that when he was caring for the pigs he “came to himself,” other translations say, “when he was clothed in his right mind,” he concocted a scheme to get back as a hired hand on his dad’s farm. I like that, when he came to himself. Hitting bottom has a way of clarifying things. Most people are distrustful of it. Some folks would rather people continue to suffer for a long time for their bad decisions; they are unforgiving and would rather see you slop around with the swine. Unfortunately, many of those folks are religious. That’s probably why Jesus told this parable to the religious leaders. People can come to themselves to want to change and to recognize that their choices have caused irreparable harm to themselves and others. Maybe today is a day for “coming to yourself” to realize there is a way up from the bottom. A friend who helps addicts tells them, “It never has to get worse for you than it is today. You have choices to make, but it doesn’t have to get worse.”
The son begins a journey home. But he has more than his father to worry about. There was a ceremony for the community to punish a Jewish boy who lost the family inheritance to Gentiles. If he ever shows up in his village again, the villagers can fill a large earthenware jug with burned nuts and corn, break it in front of the prodigal, and shout his name out loud, pronouncing him cut off from his people. After that, he will be a cosmic orphan who might as well go back and live with the pigs.
On the way home, he prepares a repentance speech. But he never gets to deliver his speech. The father has been searching, hoping for the kid to come home. And he runs to his child. Barbra Brown Taylor points out how surprising that is. Then his father does one of those things that patriarchs do not do. His father runs to his son—runs so that everyone can see his pale ankles, runs so that his robes get wedged between his legs and flutter out behind him like an apron—he runs like a girl, like a mother instead of a father—he runs and puts his arms around his son, and kisses him right there on the road, where everyone can see them… If the father can get to the son before the village does, then he can save his son from being cut off. He can save his relationship with his son and his family’s relationship with the village simultaneously. This reconciliation will cost him his honor—his greatness in others’ eyes—but that is a price he is willing to pay. The father runs like a girl to greet his son before anyone can treat him like a hired hand.
The father gives gifts to the son, symbols of authority, honor, and privilege. The best robe. That would be the father’s own robe. He orders a feast. Kill the fatted calf. The whole community will be invited and see that my son is restored, not cut off. The restoration of the relationship means more to him than being thought great, right, or even a good father. His son’s salvation costs him almost as much as his son’s abandonment of him in the first place, yet he never says a word about the price. He is the prodigal Abba. The cost is irrelevant; restoring a relationship is everything.
If there were ever a man who deserved a happy ending, this father is the man. But you know what happens. The elder son shows up, hears the music and the dancing, and refuses to go into the house. This son’s problem is that no one asked whether he wanted to be reconciled with his good-for-nothing brother. No one asked him how he felt, or being known as the prodigal’s brother, or wearing the second-best robe. The elder son is the good son. He has done everything right, and he isn’t about to sit at the same table with the self-centered, pig-loving, sin-sick brother who has cost his family so much shame and grief.
The father goes to the infuriated son, risking the dishonor of leaving his own party. That’s just who he is. The father is always trying to restore relationships, to keep the door open no matter what it costs him. Sometimes the cost is pride, material possessions, or even being right. He’s willing to sacrifice to keep the family together. And he calls on all of us to put away our pride and possessions and dignity to restore relationships. We are the people called to keep the door open. There can be conditions and appropriate boundaries we put on the relationship so we are not doormats. But we are the ones who should be ready to reconcile. If others don’t walk through that door, it’s their prerogative, but we didn’t end it.
Whenever this story comes up, there is someone bright enough to think that Jesus really blew it. The older son has a point. The party should have been thrown in his honor. People need to suffer consequences. Parents shouldn’t enable their kids. The righteous should be rewarded, not taken for granted! The older brother is right to point out the unfairness that the party is thrown in honor of the younger brother—it’s his calf! I always think of how my brother was a real pill, and my parents were always bribing him to behave and gave him a puppy for passing 4th grade. They didn’t even think of getting me anything. It was just, “duh, of course, you have to pass 4th grade.”
God comes across as being unfair. I used to say, “If you read this story and put yourself in the role of the older brother, try again. We are all the prodigal. We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and we are welcomed back. The story is good news for us, not bad.”
But I know there is still this nagging question behind it, “If God takes us back, why not just squander life in dissolute living, why be responsible, why be the good person? Why bother? The father reminds the kid that he has always been in the company of the father, that all he has belongs to him. Maybe we take for granted the intrinsic goodness of a life well lived. You have the presence of God around you a community that supports you. Don’t you know how great that is? Don’t you know what a blessing it is to live with a clean conscience? If you’ve ever been the prodigal and not able to sleep at night because of guilt or shame or failure then you don’t understand how good you really have it. If you have never had people, a church that you can turn to when the chips are down and you need someone to embrace you, then you don’t know how good you already have it. If you don’t know what it is like to have one bad thing after another happen to you so that you think God is against you instead of for you, then you don’t know how good you have had it all along. Count your blessings and welcome home your little brother. He needs your compassion, not your judgment.
Meanwhile, there is a banquet going on. You can hear the music and the dancing even out in the yard, and plenty is left to eat. Your father won’t make you go into the house. He’ll stand in the yard with you to protect you like he protected the brother. What’s left of his honor is in your hands. You can go to the party as you are. The father’s banquet is for the reconcilable, thrown for anyone who will come and not take what he has to share for granted. Amen.