March 7, 2021
*You can view a preached version of this sermon on YouTube.
We read this story of the man with two sons in morning prayer this week. The first comment made as we began to discuss the scripture was: “I hate this parable.”
My friend, a woman who has a wife, explained that this “prodigal child” mentality is commonly applied to gay children in evangelical churches and families. Parents are told that if their children have left to go out and “live in sin,” the parents should wait patiently and pray for their children to stop being gay and return home. And if the child is sorry for their wicked gay ways, the parents should welcome them back with open arms.
Apparently this supposedly beloved story is a traumatic, a very triggering scripture, for many lgbtq Christians.
First, I will state the obvious: being in a loving, healthy relationship with someone of the same gender identity as yourself is not “sinful living”—and it is wrong and insulting to compare being gay to “dissolute”—wild, riotous, reckless, immoral—living.
And second, I think focusing here on the behavior of the younger son misses the point—or at least it misses an important point—of the parable.
I know this morning’s scripture reading is a long one, but I appreciate being able to consider all three of these parables together. Luke clearly includes them as a series of stories here, all intended to address the grumbling of the Pharisees and scribes who accuse Jesus of “welcoming sinners and eating with them.” So in thinking about the parable of the man with two sons, it’s helpful to back up and consider the parables of the shepherd with one hundred sheep and the woman with ten coins.
Jesus begins with the parable of the shepherd and the sheep. In my mind it starts like this: “Once there was a shepherd taking care of one hundred sheep and one of them wandered off.” Except it actually starts like this: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them . . .”
Of course it’s the shepherd’s fault the sheep gets lost. I mean, maybe the shepherd isn’t necessarily doing anything wrong or negligent, but you can hardly blame the sheep. It’s ultimately the shepherd’s responsibility to keep the sheep together and safe.
But in case we’re still tempted to blame the sheep, Jesus tells the next parable of the woman who lost a coin. As much as we like to accuse inanimate objects of growing legs and walking off–or the dryer of eating them—we know that, actually, we bear responsibility for missing objects. Again, not to say the woman did anything wrong or bad, just that she lost the coin. The coin clearly didn’t lose itself.
So where does that leave us when we get to the story of the “lost son”? Is it unique in this trio of stories as being the one story where the lost animal/item/person is to blame for getting lost? Or do we need to re-evaluate and consider that the father might, somehow, bear responsibility for losing his son?
I think in all three stories the one who loses something—or someone—bears responsibility for what is lost. And beyond that, I think the shepherd, the woman, and the father are ultimately responsible not primarily for the one that is lost, but for the whole that cannot exist without that one.
I heard this thought early in the week on a podcast from Dr. Robert Williamson, and the more I think about it, the more right it seems. The shepherd is responsible for keeping the flock whole; the woman for keeping her finances whole; the father for keeping his family whole.
And sometimes, responsibility for the whole means extra attention to the one.
Pastor Simon Woodman makes a connection here with the Black Lives Matter movement. Perhaps you’ve heard people try to argue against “Black Lives Matter” by saying “All Lives Matter.” Woodman says:
of course, objectively speaking, this is true. All lives do indeed matter. But not all lives are threatened, not all lives are marginalised and excluded, and the power of Black Lives Matter is that it highlights the injustices faced by some, and that it calls the many to be part of addressing these.
He says, “I can hear the Pharisees . . . saying, ‘yes, but all sheep matter’; ‘all coins matter.’
Sometimes, caring for the whole means extra care and attention must be given to a vulnerable part of the whole.
We understand this in the church—when we take extra time for children, even though there aren’t many in our midst right now; when we spend money for electric doors and an accessible bathroom and large print hymnals even though most people in the church don’t need those things. (Though the electric doors are really nice.)
A friend of mine recently shared about a conversation she had with a conference minister recently. She’s a seminary student and was told that she would not be welcome in this particular conference because she is married to a woman and the conference decided not to allow their churches to hire pastors who are in “same sex relationships.”
The conference minister explained that the conference made this rule—that goes against our denominational policies and structure, by the way—because the “conservative” churches in the conference were upset that some churches might hire gay pastors. They were afraid that someday they might be forced to hire a gay pastor, too. Setting aside the slippery slope fallacy and general bad theology at play here, I also find this reasoning problematic in relation to these parables.
You have lgbtq people—people who are vulnerable, people who the church has lost. And the shepherd wouldn’t even need to wander the wilderness to find them—some of them are waiting at the gate to be let in.
But oh the 99. (Honestly, it’s not even 99. But you get my point.) There’s a fear that finding what you have lost might endanger the others who are still in the fold. That if the one is brought in others might wander off. If we get distracted looking for the one coin, someone might steal the other nine. If we welcome the one child, the sibling might not like it.
This is where the parable of the two sons takes us to a place the first two parables don’t go. Because of course the 99 sheep don’t resent the one that is found. And the nine coins are unaffected by the absence—or presence—of the one that gets lost.
But the older brother.
I have to admit, in re-reading the parable this week, the older brother seems to have a case here. I never noticed before that the party is already in full swing when the older son comes in from his day’s work. It’s one thing to throw a party for the younger son who has returned. It’s another to not invite the older son.
The shepherd is responsible for the wholeness of the flock; the woman for the wholeness of her finances, and the father for the wholeness of his family. And the story of the two sons makes clear what we already know from real life: it can be really tricky to hold the whole together.
And we get it wrong.
We circle around the 99 in fear, leaving the one to fend for itself.
We decide the effort it would take for that one coin is too great, so we just cut our losses.
We favor one child over another or we fail to build healthy relationships or we give in to problematic demands or we take people for granted or we function in any number of ways that tend to neglect the vulnerable and diminish the whole.
Tending to the whole gets tricky when people within the group disagree with each other. When some people threaten to leave if others are brought in. When old wounds fester and grumbling becomes the default reaction to any kind of change.
Tending to the whole gets tricky when people tell us that we have to choose between the 99 or the one; the 9 or the one; the older brother or the younger.
What the father is trying to explain here is that we don’t have to choose. That sometimes tending to the one is the only way to tend to the whole. In the end, the older brother can choose to join the party or not. What the older brother can’t choose is whether or not his little brother is part of the family.
What all three stories show—to the Pharisees and scribes and perhaps to us as well—is that the whole is worth so much more than its parts. The full flock is more than one hundred sheep. The full purse is more than ten coins. The whole family is oh so much more than two sons and a father (and maybe somewhere a deeply relieved mother?).
And the church is so much more than just you and me, than the twenty-however-many little Zoom screens on Sunday morning. A whole church is one that tends to the most vulnerable, that takes responsibility for all, that values what others might not even miss.
Now that is worth celebrating.