In many local elementary schools, every few weeks the “Lost and Found” box is emptied out and the contents are scattered down the length of the main hall. Coats, mittens, shoes, sweatshirts, gym clothes, are all laid down and spread out in the hopes that their owners will spot them and take them home. But the scene of all those empty clothes creates an eerie sensation, as if it is not the clothes that had been left behind, but that the children themselves have somehow been “lost” — zapped out of their clothes and transported to somewhere far away. For any parent walking down those empty halls, those empty clothes give an empty feeling, a feeling that is disturbing and desolate.
Losing track of a child is every parent’s worst nightmare. It only takes a moment to go from peaceful to panic when you suddenly realize that somehow, someone has gone astray. And, sorry to tell you this, it is a worry that never stops. Just when you think you have gotten through the scary “I can walk but not really talk” phase, children go off to pre-school and kindergarten — out of our sight for hours on end. Then they get older and want to do things like ride their bikes to a friend’s house, or go to the mall by themselves, or “hang-out” without you quite knowing where they are or what they are doing. For some reason teenagers always insist on getting driver’s licenses and then they graduate from high school and go off to college, or join the military, or get their own place. It doesn’t matter how old they get — parents still want to know where their “kids” are and how they are doing. “Out of sight” definitely does not mean, for a father or mother, “out of mind.”
But good parents also know there is a time and place when letting go is necessary. To grow and develop their own sense of responsibility, to take their own actions seriously, and to learn to live with the consequences of those actions, children have to let go of the “family lifeboat” and dare to test the untamed waters of the world.
Yet for Jesus’ first-century audience, such a message was unfamiliar. There were strict cultural and judicial laws mandating the behavior of children. Even “adult” children (an age that might be anywhere from 13 to 33) had to abide by the traditions of both a Torah-devoted and an agrarian-based life. In that patriarchal world the father was “large and in charge” — until his death. Sons stayed to work the land with their own families, daughters became part of their husband’s family world.
In his book The Prodigal God (2011), Timothy Keller portrays the two brothers as symbolizing the two basic ways people try to make life work. The younger son pursues “self?discovery” — he’s on a quest to find and fulfill himself, even if a few people have to get hurt along the way. The older brother is trying to fit in to the respectable path of social and moral conformity. He’s trying to be well-liked by pleasing his father, his family, his faith. Keller says he’s on a program of self-salvation.
The “prodigal son’s” petition for an “early inheritance” wasn’t like a kid begging for a car before going off to college. That youngest son’s request was an offensive, slap-in-the-face, “I-wish-you-were-dead” disregard of all that was accepted, expected, and respected. He was supposed to stay on the family property, raise his own family, and help bring in the crops and “run the family business.” He was supposed to honor his father through his life and work. The youngest son’s demand for an “early retirement” from any family commitment or obligation, was the equivalent of him robbing the family safe-deposit box and taking off over the horizon. That his father ok’d such a self-centered act is the first remarkably gracious action taken by this parent. The father gives his child the gift of freedom, even if it is freedom from the father. It is now the child’s responsibility to live a righteous life within that freedom.
The youngest son in today’s text goes down fast and hard. Like a college kid with a Platinum card on Palm Beach during Spring Break, his life becomes a disaster. He makes all the wrong choices at every turn. When he gets in trouble he chooses the worst possible options as a “way out” — he becomes a servant to swine, and he cannot even snack on their disgusting food.
One of the reasons we like the parable of the prodigal son so much is that we like the contriteness of the contrary youngster. He “came to himself.” He realized the miserable life he was living was worse than anything that the servants and day-laborers who worked for his father were experiencing. But from the “been there/done that” vantage point of the twenty-first century, it is hard for us to see just how grievous this young man’s actions had been, how much grief and shame he had caused his family. He had not just sown some “wild oats.” He planted a prairie where he broke every familial and social contract of his culture. He fractured the civil constructs that upheld the unity of a “faith community.”
And still his father forgave him. That’s the scandal of this story: the scandal of a father’s love; the scandal of a father’s forgiveness.
Scandal is nothing new. Scandal is as old as Eve and familiar as the next-door-neighbor’s indiscretions, or the hottest new 2013 show “Scandal” featuring the scandalously beautiful Kerry Washington. Try doing good and ending up on “Hard Copy” or “Entertainment Tonight.” Shame and Scandal rule the airwaves.
Well, Salvation and Scandal rule the church. Or should. The message of Lent is that we have a Scandalous God. The scandal of love, the scandal of forgiveness, is beyond our tolerance and bring out our resentment. But God continues to scandalize us at every turn.
Can anyone ever forget the 2006 fatal shooting of 10 Amish children aged 6-13 outside of Lancaster County? A milk truck driver with three children and a wife drove his truck up to the one-room schoolhouse, exited the boys, barricaded the doors so none of the girls could escape, and proceeded to shoot the female children before shooting himself.
As if the scandal of the violence wasn’t enough, the most talked about scandal, however, was the reaction of the Old Order Amish community to the shooter’s wife and three children. Within hours, the Amish community publicly forgave the killer and expressed loving concern for his widow and three children. After burying their own children, they attended the burial of the 32 year old non-Amish killer. There were 75 in attendance. Half were Amish. The killer’s wife and her three children were greeted with hugs . . . and with an Amish-started fund for the killer’s family. “Your love for our family has helped to provide the healing we so desperately need,” the killer’s widow, Marie Roberts, wrote the Amish later.“Your compassion has reached beyond our family, beyond our community, and is changing our world.” (Quoted in Stan Guthrie, “The Scandal of Forgiveness,” Christianity Today, January 2007).
This is what scandalized people the most. “Hatred is not always wrong, and forgiveness is not always deserved,” wrote Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby. How dare these Amish forgive the killer of their children, and reach out to his family.
Even today we older brothers and older sisters have trouble with this concept of forgiveness, a new addition to the bloodstream of human history that came from the scandal of the cross and its occupant, the scandalous Jesus. “The discoverer of the role of forgiveness in the realm of human affairs,” declared Hannah Arendt, “was Jesus of Nazareth.” (The Human Condition , 236-43).
Forgiveness doesn’t mean you’re pollyannaish about the world, or plaster over the cracks in people and history. Forgiveness looks square in the face of wrong, and chooses healing and reconciliation rather than hatred and revenge. It may be the hardest thing in the world to do offer true forgiveness. Scandalously hard.
There were three great holocausts of the 20th century: Russia, China, and Germany. Two were done by atheists — Stalin in Russia, Mao in China. One by someone who created a deviant religious cult in Germany. Adolph Hitler was his name.
Just this past week we have learned from scholars at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum that Hitler’s Holocaust from 1933 to 1945 was much worse than we ever imagined, with thousands more concentration camps up and running in areas of Europe under Hitler’s control than we ever thought even possible. The suspicion now is that the numbers of Jews killed may be far more than the 6 million we thought. (See Eric Lichtblau, “The Holocaust Just Got More Shocking,” New York Times Sunday Review, 01 March 2013: www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/02/holocaust.
But yet, from inside the barbed wire of the death camps there were some scandalous acts of forgiveness and love. Here is a prayer found at Ravensbruck Concentration Camp beside a dead boy on the day of liberation:
remember not only the men and women of good will,
but all those of ill will.
But do not remember all the suffering they have inflicted on us.
Remember the fruits we have bought thanks to this suffering:
the greatness of heart that has grown out of all this.
And when they come to judgment,
let all the fruits we have borne
be their forgiveness.
(As quoted by Duncan B. Forrester, Apocalypse Now? , 115.)
That’s scandalous. True scandal. From a scandalous God. Have you been caught up in the scandal?
from www.sermons.com. Used by permission of the author.