“Hearing the House Band Play”- The Power of Music
The Reverend Tasha Blackburn
July 23, 2017
(VIDEO UNAVAILABLE THIS WEEK DUE TO TECHNICAL DIFFICULTIES)
I love this parable. Most people do. It gives us one of the most enduring and powerful images of God we have: the Father running out to meet his son. That embrace, that hug: the action that says the boy is forgiven. We love it. We love it, also, because the parable has so many layers to it. Unlike its shorter siblings of the lost sheep and the lost coin, the Prodigal Son teaches us about family dynamics and “coming to ourselves” and being a child and not a slave. Fred Craddock, one of our countries finest preachers and one of my heroes, told the story of when he was a student pastor. A tiny church asked him to come and preach a revival for them. He asked them, What do you want me to preach on? And they said: the Parable of the Prodigal Son. He asked them, How many times should I preach? And they said: preach as many times as it takes to cover the whole story. Well, he preached 21 times! 21 sermons in 18 days. All on this single parable from Jesus. We love this story.
Most of us love it because of that singular moment. When we read that the Father sees his wayward son from far away, he runs out to meet him. He hugs his son. He doesn’t even wait to hear the son’s confession. You can see that image so clearly. Like the grateful and relieved sheep who is being carried home on the shoulders of his shepherd, the Father has brought the son back into his home. It is beautiful and it is comforting and it is a great gift.
Except you are not the Prodigal Son in the story. Oh sure, you probably have been at one time or another. We all can lose our way sometimes. But his is probably not your role in the story. I know this because you are here, in church. You come pretty often. You have spent a great deal of your life trying to please God and to be the child of God you were called to be at your baptism. That is how I know that, even if you’ve been a prodigal at times, you are also the older brother.
Since this room is filled with older brothers, let’s consider the main problem for us in this parable: it is the music. Remember what Jesus says, “now his older son was in the field, and when he came and approached the house, he heard music.” And it is the music that causes the trouble. If the hug, the embrace, of the Father and his wayward son, if that is the heart of the gospel of Jesus (which I think it is), then the music is the gospel’s scandal. It is the gospel’s offense.
Here is why: the prodigal was not the first son in history to want to make amends. In Judaism there were recognized ways to return a child to their status. So, go ahead: no one faults the Father for wanting his son back. Let him in. Even we older brothers can agree to that. But bread and water will do: no need for a fatted calf. And room and board will do: no need for music and dancing. That’s what really puts us over the edge.
Because we are in the right, you know that don’t you? The younger son has already gotten more than he deserved and before he deserved it. It is only right that he should not be allowed to be able to do it all again. Justice demands that he owe us all something. We, the older son, are right and we are just.
But that is not the tune our Father’s house band is playing. The older son—we—by the world’s standards, are right. But the music the Father plays is not the music the world plays. The tune he offers goes like this: right doesn’t matter as much as mercy does. And justice doesn’t matter as much as joy does. Do you hear that tune? Mercy and joy matter more to the Father than righteousness and justice do. That is the tune we hear in the music from the house and, hearing it, we have to decide: can we bear to join a party like that?
Over time, this parable developed the title of “the Prodigal Son” but it also has had other titles. One popular one is to make this set of three parables parallel one another with the names: the Parable of the Lost Sheep, the Parable of the Lost Coin and, finally, the Parable of the Lost Son. With this title in mind, it makes me wonder: which son is lost? Is it the younger who did so many awful things but who returned to his Father or is it the older who has never done anything wrong but who cannot stand the party music?
For the younger son to repent and change his life, he had to remember one word: Father. In remembering “Father”, its meaning and power, he was able to turn from his sin and be redeemed. But the older brother doesn’t need to remember the Father for he has always been with him. No, for the older brother to repent and change his life, he must remember another word: Brother. Because he has forgotten this word and, until he remembers it, he cannot listen to the music. He cannot go into that party.
We see his memory loss when he complains to his father about the prodigal saying, “this son of yours!” and we see his Father trying to remind him when he responds, “this brother of yours.” The older son cannot believe that the younger son can mean anything to him; much less be something precious or important or related to him. But as long as he cannot believe that, he has removed HIMSELF from the family. By calling his brother “this son of yours”, he has only succeeded in distancing himself. The word he must learn is “brother”. He must learn that the lost and the sinner are not only precious to the Father, related to the Father, but are precious to and related to him. Until he learns this single word—until we learn this single word—we will stand in that field. Have you ever noticed that we are the climax of the story, not the prodigal? We are the only son the Father pleads with, not the prodigal. We are the ones who have not yet decided if we will be lost or if we will be found.
Jesus offered this parable to the religious people of his day, in response to religious people’s questions and concerns. He offered it to people like us. So we will know that, even if we stray, we can be welcomed home, AND also so we will realize that there is a band playing and it is the Father’s house band, playing the tune he has chosen: a tune of joy, not justice and of mercy, not righteousness.
Think very carefully as you decide whether or not you can listen to this music and join this party because it is not a party for the prodigal. No. It never was. It is not about whether or not that son deserves it or whether or not he has proven himself or paid his debt. He doesn’t deserve it. He has not proven himself. Nor has he paid his debt. And he never will. But it is not his party. It is the Father’s party. One he wants to have.
This parable is not about a younger son or an older son but about the FATHER who had two sons. It is his party. It is his tune being played. And it may be offensive to us. But it won’t be if we can learn that single word: brother; learn how precious and important and related that word is to us. We know the Father. We love the Father. We have all this time. Let’s have compassion and joy for the brother or else we will miss the celebration altogether. Amen.