“The Joy of Fatherhood”
The Prodigal: Week 3
1 John 2:29-3:2
Rev. Tasha Blackburn
May 19, 2019
We arrive at our last week of considering the greatest of all of Jesus’ parables. We first put our focus on the younger son, learning that “prodigal” means wasteful. Finding that this wasteful son needed to learn to say “Father.” Then we spent time with the older brother who wanted straight lines in his life but made his mistake by starting the line with himself. And now we come to the main character of the story. It is obvious who the main character is in this parable and it is obvious what we are supposed to know about him. It is all in the first line: “There once was a man who had two sons.” That is how the whole thing begins. The main character, the purpose and thrust of the story is the Father and this Father has two sons.
There was a study that came out about 6 years ago that listed the benefits of being an only child. Apologies to all of us who are not, myself included, but this University of Texas survey studied hundreds of other child development research cases and found that only children have demonstrably higher intelligence and achievement than children with siblings do. They typically have higher self esteem and they show higher ability for certain aspects of creativity. Added to that, only children are raised in a more controlled environment. Finally, with only one of them the family is able to gain greater wealth. There are lots of benefits to being in a family with an only child.
But that is not who the Father is. He is a man who had two sons.
What would our faith life look like if there was only one son, only one child? Less would be asked of us, less strain in our relationships for we would know that we were the one who was most loved. We could simply bask in that love. It would be a better-controlled environment for we would know who was in the family and who wasn’t. And the blessings, surely the blessings would be showered upon us as the only child!?
But that is not who God is. God is the one who has multiple children.
At the very least he has these two children. It may sound simple to say that—that there are two—but it isn’t. The minute there are two or three or more, there is trouble. Just last week there was a squabble in our own home over toothpaste. I bought the flavor one child wanted and, it turns out, the other child doesn’t like the flavor. Immediately the accusation was leveled: “Do you love her more than me?” Over toothpaste! How silly to be jealous over toothpaste and how quickly does toothpaste become something more serious? And it doesn’t get more serious than reconciliation, than forgiveness, than inheritance. “Do you love her more than me?” It is bad enough to ask that question. Even worse, so much worse, is to ask, “You love her?” “Seriously, You love him?” That is even harder.
The dirty rotten scoundrel who is good-for-nothing, can’t hold down a job, low-life jailhouse conversion, that is your son? Yup. The self-righteous, nose-in-the-air, condescending, heartless stiff who resents everyone, that is your son? Yup. The one who riles you up on the evening news who wears an R next to his name, or a D, that is your son? Yes. The one you can’t even call brother but instead call “this son of yours”, your antithesis, your enemy,: O Father, is that your son? Yes.
And the Father loves both of them. He goes out to meet both of them. He welcomes both of them home. He finds joy in both of them. It is not a simple thing that this Father has two sons. It would be so much simpler if he only had one child; so much cleaner, so much more straightforward.
Because there’s more than one, because he loves them both, the controlled environment of our faith goes out the window. That is, if you are only considering our control. But it is the Father who is in control and he is over-the-top. He is outlandish. The Father adores both of his sons. He lowers himself for both. He lavishes grace on both. He spreads his joy far and wide. The Father is extravagant in his love. He is wasteful with it. He is the Prodigal.
The pastor and author Timothy Keller comes to this realization in his book called The Prodigal God. God could have had one son—one family—one set of people who looked like you and me. But God is extravagant. He is over-the-top with his love and with where he finds joy. So he has more than one son that he loves. His family is bigger than we think, perhaps bigger than we would choose. Because that extravagance, it cannot help but lead to waste. Not everyone will respond. Not everyone will deserve it. But he loves anyway. Wasteful or not, returned or not, he calls them family anyway. God is the ultimate Prodigal.
How annoying. It would be easier if we were an only child.
Which reminds me of a sermon the famous Episcopal priest and author Barbara Brown Taylor once preached. It was on the parable of the laborers in the field. You remember the one? There were some workers who were hired early in the morning for a denarius of pay. Others were hired throughout the day until evening came and all of the workers stood in a line to receive their pay. The ones who worked an hour got a denarius, as did the ones who worked a half-day… as did the ones who worked all day long. So those at the beginning of the line grumbled and the employer said to them, “Have I not paid you what I promised or do you begrudge my generosity?”
In her sermon Taylor has us stand in that line of payment and then she reminds us: this parable only upsets us because we’ve decided we stand at the head of the line. We’ve determined we should have received more. But, the thing is, we don’t know where we are in the line. For all we know, we have received much more than we deserved. Better to be an only child?! For all we know, that only child would not have been us. Perhaps we are the extravagance. And God’s extravagance is the only way we found a place in the family at all.
There once was a man who had two sons, not one but two. Thank God he did. Thank God he does. Amen.