First Congregational United Church of Christ
July 26, 2015
“Bankruptcy” Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
Rev. Diane K. Hooge
I suspect that today’s parable is the most familiar of all the parables. So, I find that trying to see it with new eyes reminds me of attempting to pull off shortening the reading of Sam the Firehouse Cat to my son when he was two. He knew the story by heart, and he knew what was on each page and most of all, he knew the right way it was supposed to end.
So, maybe, just maybe, the lens through which we have lived with this parable is already clearly established and leaves little room to re-think the story. I know that many of you grew up in farming communities, so you can identify with my early childhood memories of visiting my grandparent’s ranch in Lancaster, California, where everywhere I went, I was identified by my family. At the grocery store, Grandma would introduce me as Jack’s daughter. At the community church on Sunday morning, where my grandparents were charter members, I entered the doors of a place that held the history of pioneer families who farmed the Mojave Desert. Everyone knew what each farmer grew and the children of the various community families were hired to plant crops, help bale the hay and harvest the corn. And, all of us grandchildren on the ranch knew to be quiet when the huge old radio in the dining room was turned on for my Granddad to hear the daily farm news report.
By osmosis, we knew the importance of the land, the crops and the animals. It was a community that held the value of passing on the land to the next generation. Neighbors helped neighbors—their very living depended on it. In that setting identity is plural rather than singular. One is part of a family unit, and forever, one is known by way of others.
So, I invite you to hear this ancient story, set in a rural setting, one more time from the perspective of the elder son.
In the beginning, I’ve always been referred to as the elder son. Most everyone who is interested in our family story hears it from my brother’s point of view. I remember the day my brother was born. The midwives came out to the fields where my father was working. They informed him that he had another son. I can still remember the excitement on my father’s face as he playfully threw me up in the air and told me I had a brother. He started shouting orders to the servants, “bring the best wine, get the fires going and kill the calf.” I knew that we were headed for a great feast day.
I guess you could say that I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with my brother. He was one of those really cute little kids—dark curly hair and deep brown eyes. He always had the ability to make people laugh. My brother could defuse any tension at any family meal by coming up with some antic, comment or impersonation of one of our more colorful neighbors. It would get everyone laughing. Even then, I admired him; and yet at the same time, I was angry with him because he was so loved. He had the ability to have a good time—and it rubbed off on all those around him.
I drew a chalk line down the center of our bedroom. I got tired of having my brother’s mess on my bed. I had my treasures carefully lined up on the table, while his side looked like a sandstorm had hit. Every week I had my number lessons with Uncle Laban, my music lessons with Uncle Benjamin, and of course, there were my lessons in the temple. I knew all the holy days.
My brother would come and go through the bedroom window. He rarely used the doorway. Mother never did figure out why he wore out his clothes so quickly.
And then came the night that changed our lives forever. My brother called for a meeting. I was stunned! That was my father’s role! Uncle Ben was there along with Uncle Laban and Uncle Isaac. My brother and I took our usual seats. The tension was palpable. My stomach began to knot up. Uncle Laban was ashen. No son had ever done this to their father in the long history of our family. I can recall every detail of that night: the smell of the lamp oil, the shadows of the family hierarchy cast upon the walls and the fragrance of the spring air coming in through the doorway. My brother began to speak. His voice cracked a bit when he first addressed father, but he seemed to regain his confidence. I couldn’t believe my ears when I heard his words: “Give me the share of the property that will belong to me:” I gasped out loud; —didn’t he know that he was in essence saying, “Father, I am eager for you to die!” I can still see the huge beads of sweat that broke out on Uncle Laban’s head. He didn’t have much hair, so the beads rolled together and streamed down the sides of his face. The request was unthinkable—an abomination to father and to his family.
I couldn’t move! The Deuteronomic Code came quickly to my mind: Upon the father’s death, two-thirds of the property would go to the oldest son and one third of the property would go to the youngest son. However, this rule didn’t apply when the property was divided during the lifetime of the father. It only applied on the death of the father.
My brain felt scrambled. I knew that the control and use of the property remained with the father as long as he lived. My mouth wet dry. I was numb as my father handed over the deed for a share of the property…right then! Father then embraced my brother and wished him well.
Uncle Laban looked to be near death. He stayed slumped in his chair mumbling about the shame this would bring from the whole town. Uncle Ben pushed my father to think about his future. He said, “Without your son’s to care for the land, there will be no future.” Giving him the land meant the worst possible outcome. I could well imagine the town’s response. They would not only be shocked, but would also scoff at my father’s weakness. No longer would our family be held in high esteem.
I couldn’t imagine the pressure my brother would endure to sell the land and get out of town before being accosted by the rage of the community. Jewish law did not permit the sale. I remembered the story of Qetsatsah ceremonies of rejection that came after sons had shamed their families and were driven out of the community.
Life changed forever. Grief was carved into father’s face and the slump of his shoulders. I felt overwhelmed with life. Somehow I thought that the harder I worked the less burdened I would feel. There was rarely laughter at our table.
It was again in the spring of the year after I had taken over even more of the business. I had been working around the clock to get the crops in. We were having trouble getting enough good help. I was exhausted! I clearly remember stopping and listening intently, for I thought I heard music. As I got closer, I was sure that I heard dancing. And, then I was stunned again, for I heard my father’s laugh! I quickened my pace. As I neared the house, I noticed a pile of filthy rags and a basin of blackened water outside of the house. I made a mental note to speak to the servants. Then I stopped in my tracks when I caught a whiff of roasting beef. I was baffled. I called out to one of the household slaves asking him what was going on. He was headed to the roasting pit with the huge platter that is only used when we have community parties. The old carving knife was in his hand as he called back over his shoulder, “Your brother has come home! Your father has killed the fatted calf. He’s safe—he’s home!”
The words rang in my ears. I was unable to move. It was like an explosion had gone off inside me. I could feel my knees going weak. Sweat broke out all over my body; I felt faint. For years I had been doing the work of at least two sons! For years I had been the one to make sure our profit margins were where they needed to be.
As I staggered away from the house, my father came out and called to me, “Son! Son…he’s home!” He knew something was very wrong. I had no interest in what he was saying. His invitations to the party are a blur. I know that he pleaded with me. And, then I let him have it! I shook my fist! I had never yelled at my father in my entire life. “Listen!” I demanded. “For all these years I have been working like a slave for you; and I have never disobeyed your commands. Yet you have never even given me a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends! But when this son of yours comes back…this son who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!”
I’ll never forget my father’s face when I was done. He stepped towards me holding out his arms. I kept backing up—my anger knew no bounds. I remember his words: “Son, you are always with me’ and all that is mine is yours! But we have to celebrate and rejoice! This brother of yours was dead…this brother of yours has come to life! He was lost and has been found!”
In my fury I stayed in the barn long after the musicians had quit playing. As dawn broke, only the servants were awake cleaning up the remains of the party. My sister Sarah found me and told me the story of his homecoming. I didn’t want to listen. When I heard that he had been on a pig farm, I shuddered. Within our community that was grounds for a Qetsatsah ceremony. I had only witnessed one. I remember the community gathering to punish a boy who lost his family inheritance to a Gentile. He had made the mistake of showing up again, and the villagers filled a large earthenware jug with burned nuts and corn, and in a terrifying way had broken it in front of the boy pronouncing him cut off from his people which left him an orphan;—- or in their minds, he was dead.
All the rules had been broken. No father races to meet his son…a mother might, but not a father. In our community fathers sit waiting to dole out anger, waiting for explanations, waiting for money to pay for the deeds. Father had time and time again broken all the rules of patriarchy.
As dawn broke, I had to admit something that I don’t want to admit. As long as my brother was the scoundrel…the family problem, I had fooled myself into thinking I had it together. I’ve been afraid that I would be “found out.” I’ve been afraid that people would find out that I wasn’t good enough, competent enough…or just not enough.
As much as I hate seeing the truth, I’m aware that I too have been lost. I haven’t allowed myself to be at home. I’ve been living out of fear…out of doubt…out of very rigid laws. It is hard for me to learn to receive. I feel like I have to earn everything myself. Yes…grace is difficult for me. I have had to face the reality that my life has been as bankrupt as my brother’s. I don’t like admitting it, but I long to trust that my father loves me for who I am. And, I long to be held by my father. Amen.
Don’t let us forget that you hold out your arms to each one of us. There is something about your love that seems unbelievable. Yet you have invited us to live in wholeness. You have called us to live out of abundance, not deprivation. Help us to accept your invitation to have the joy of being welcomed home by a God who holds unconditional love for each one of us. Thank you for your abundant grace lived out through the life of Jesus and offered to each one of us. Amen.
“Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.”