The Far-Off Land

by Michael Usey

Luke 15. 11-32, The Voice

Like the father in Jesus’ story, I have two sons (and the added bonus of a daughter). But unlike the sons in his story, my children could not pay for much dissolute living with their inheritance.

When my first son left for college, I did not cry.  I moped and I worried, I snapped at friends, but no tears. I excused myself from his dorm room shortly after Nate’s new college friends arrived–it was painful to leave him, and I wanted it to be over. I remember that Ann and I had the long drive home from Wilmy, the first 100 miles of which is absolutely empty, which is how we felt–sad, depleted, a little worried.

When Nate left for his sophomore year, I fretted again. I didn’t cry, but I worried and waited impatiently to hear from him. When our second son, Zachariah, went to college, I was an older and more experienced father but leaving him in his dorm wasn’t any easier; I left his dorm quickly then too. It wasn’t until Hannah at age 20 left for Scotland that I cried.  I put her on a plane twice, once in Charlotte in September, then in Raleigh in January again.  As excited as I was for her adventure, I felt the worst I’d ever felt seeing her walk through the TSA checkpoint.

My kids, now 28, 26, and 22 years old, have their own budding lives, and I love to be around them, and I miss them when they leave.  I know how sappy this makes me, but I cannot help it. Our children carry so many of our hopes that when they leave, they take a part of us with them.

After the prodigal son leaves, his father finds a quiet place and cries because his son is taking his hopes with him. The younger son knows that he is taking his father’s money, but he doesn’t understand that he is taking his father’s heart. Even when he finally came to himself, he only wants to be a hired hand. He writes a terrible speech suggesting his unworthiness to be his father’s child.

Jesus knows what he is talking about. He knows that God’s children carry God’s hopes. God’s love is what makes us God’s children. When we wander off, God’s heart breaks a little.  This is the third week of our summer sermon series, Are We There Yet?  Two travel parables are unique to Luke’s gospel, and this is the second travel parable. Hear the story again, an Aaron Sorkin version, the American screenwriter of The West Wing and A Few Good Men, written by a pastor friend of mine:

A rich man has two sons who should wait for the money, but the younger one thinks, “I don’t have that kind of time, Daddy-O.” If you haven’t seen this kid play his father, then you haven’t seen Shakespeare the way it was meant to be played. The father is not sure what to do, but a famous monk once said, “I don’t always know what the right thing to do is, my Lord, but I think that the fact that I want to please you, pleases you.”  So the father gives him the inheritance, and the prodigal thinks, “I’m really quite something. I could buy the biggest house in town and turn it into my ping-pong room.” He packs his bags and leaves for a distant country, where he wastes the money. His situation will get worse before it gets better.

A farmer who offers him a terrible, entry-level position, explaining, “This work is hot and sweaty.” The prodigal replies, “Much like myself.” He takes the job feeding pigs, even as he says, “I’m Jewish and this job is … incredibly not.” As if it matters how a man falls down. When the fall is all that’s left, it matters very much.

Each day he says, “I’m like McLovin in Superbad around here,” which makes no sense to 99 percent of those who hear it. The son feels horrible, like his legs don’t go all the way to the ground. He gets so hungry he wants to eat the pigs’ corn-cobs. That’s the cost of doing business. He finally decides to go home, though he doesn’t know how his father will respond. It’s six-to-five odds, and pick ’em. He’s afraid his father will say, “I hate your breathing guts,” but this sideshow is over.

When he finally gets home, his father hugs him. When the son starts to apologize, the old man says, “The only thing that you have to do to make me happy is come home at the end of the day. Let us drink from the keg of glory. Bring the finest muffins and bagels in all the land. Eat ’em up.” 

“Dad, everyone is mad at me.” 

“Son, I’m not other people.”  

“But what are the neighbors going to say?” 

“Answer them. Don’t answer them. I don’t care. It’s entirely up to you.”

The older brother, coming home from work, hears the commotion, asks what is going on, and is not pleased with the answer. He yells at his father, “Not for nothing, but I haven’t exactly been gathering ye rosebuds here! Have you noticed that I don’t act like an adolescent, over-sexed whoremonger? I’m not that guy. This isn’t 4H club. This is real farm work – and you know it. This is not a proportional response.”

His father asks, “What is the virtue of a proportional response? I want things to be better.” 

“Better for who?” says the older son.

“Whom. I know this has been hard for you.” 

“You think?” the older son claps back.

“Son, you are always with me. To say nothing of the fact that all that is mine has always been yours. It just seems to me that more and more we’ve come to expect less and less from each other. And I think that should change.”

The parable begins with these words: “There was a man who had two sons.” There are two sons in this story. The parable makes the radical statement, especially radical for Jesus’ time, that both sons were estranged from the father. One was a prodigal, and the other was righteous. One went into a far country, and the other one stayed home. But they are both distanced from the father. They are both alike. One is rebellious; the other is self-righteous. But they are alike. They both want the same thing. They are rivals for the same thing, and their behaviors, as different as they are, are caused by the same thing, this desperate need in their lives to hear the father’s blessing. And that is the most radical assertion made in this parable. it shocked the people in Jesus’ day–that prodigality and self-righteousness are symptoms of the same disease. And the disease is called alienation from God. And the cure for both sons is the same. It’s grace.

The tragedy of this story is that only one son realizes it. The older brother says, “I’m alright. There’s nothing wrong with me. I stayed at home. I did what the father told me to do. Never did I even imagine I would do anything like the younger son did. So I’m different from my brother.”

The father was waiting there with a big sign: Prodigal Sons Matter.  When the older brother saw it, he was angry, wouldn’t attend the party, and moped around with his own sign: All Sons Matter.  The Father said, “Dude, it’s not about you right now.”

The younger son went into a far country. If you know ancient Jewish culture, you know that already the son has broken the most inviolate taboo. Jews would never leave the family and go into a Gentile country to live. They would be defiled, disgraced, and disowned. But we know it was a Gentile country in the story, because there were pigs there. And that is the worst degradation of all. There would never be pigs in a Jewish country. And the worst state of all is when the younger son finally, in desperation, has to tend the pigs. Which means, now he is banned, ostracized, shunned–forever. As far as any Jewish family in those days was concerned, the younger son is now dead. His memory erased from the family. He can never come home. Never.

But he comes home. And not only does he come home, but the father receives him. And not only does the father receive him, he blesses him, which is the meaning of placing the robe about his shoulders and the ring upon his finger and the shoes upon his feet, and having a party to celebrate his coming home. He now has received the one thing that all of us want more than anything else–the father’s blessing. And it was just given to him. Free. He was lost, and then found. “My son, who was dead, is now alive.”

That’s why the older son is so enraged. “If anyone ever deserved a blessing,” he said, “it’s me. I worked hard for it, I sacrificed for it, I didn’t go across the river into the fleshpots of a Gentile country. I never did that. I stayed in the culture in which I was raised. I never questioned it. I was always faithful to it. And now, look what has happened. It’s just disgusting, it’s immoral, that’s what this is, that my brother would be treated in such a way.”

Go to the parable; see what happens. The younger son returns. The father gives him the robe and the ring and the party. The older son refuses to join in the party. He is standing outside of the house, on the porch, the sound of revelry from inside the house coming out. He has his back turned, looking out over the property that is supposed to be all his. He won’t go in the house. You know what that means. It means that the porch has now become the far country. That’s the point. The older son is revealing by his behavior that he is as estranged from the father as was the younger son. He wants that blessing. He believes that he’s earned it. It’s what he wants more than anything else. And he didn’t get it. His efforts did not result in it being rewarded to him. So he won’t go in.

Look what happens. Just as the father took the initiative to go down the road to greet the younger son, so the father takes the initiative and goes out on the porch to meet the righteous son. As the parable puts it, his father came out and began to plead with him.

A man had two sons. There is no difference. Both are estranged from the father. Both want the same thing. Both want the father’s blessing more than anything else in this life. What makes the older son angry is that the younger son got it. The older son had everything else. The father says to him, “Everything that I have ever had is yours.” But that doesn’t matter. The one thing he doesn’t have is the blessing, the assurance of the father’s love, expressed in words, or in some tangible symbol of blessing like the cloak and the ring and the party.

A parent had two kids. And so this is about us, everybody, riotous and righteous, holy and hellraising (and those who are both), queer and straight, religious people and secular people. It’s about all of us. It’s the human condition to want this blessing from parents, and from God. If you are a prodigal child and if you’ve lived in a way that has violated common morality, then you know what it’s like to be estranged. You can articulate the feeling. And you also know what it is like to want, more than anything else, to be reconciled, to be brought back into the family, into the community. And if you have experienced that reconciliation, then you know that it is an act of grace, you know that what you have received is God’s forgiveness and God’s grace into your life. Even if you’ve received it from another human being, if you’ve been loved unconditionally, you know what it is like to be loved by God.

That’s why Paul, in the Corinthian letter, says that we are all “ambassadors for Christ, God making a divine appeal through us.” For if we love, then others will know what God’s love is like. This is what is so significant about Christians celebrating Pride this month and always; too many queer folx feel rejected and hated by God, not realizing they are the beloved children of a good and graceful God.  It’s absolutely crucial that we live out this radical divine love because for centuries people have, under a false Christian flag, rejected, hated, enslaved, maimed, and killed LGBT folx and POC.  We can repent and do better.

And if you’ve received that love, then you know what John Newton is talking about: “Amazing grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.”  But if you are an older child, you have trouble even saying that word “wretch,” much less applying it to yourself. Because you are different. You stay close to home. You obey all the rules. You resent people suggesting that there is no difference between you and him.

You may not know that you feel estranged until you see the joy that enriches and enlivens the life of somebody who has experienced grace in their life. And that’s when you realize you don’t have that. And you might resent it, because God knows you deserve it. You’ve worked all of your life to get it. You don’t have it and you want it more than anything else. You know what grace is. You can define it, you can point to those passages in scripture where it appears–but you’ve never experienced it. Not enough to produce joy–simple and real and uncomplicated–in your life.

So there is what you could call the righteous person’s suspicion of conversion.  You notice that in a lot of mainline church people. It is manifested as a kind of elitism. We don’t do that. It’s not our style. But along with it, I suspect there is a kind of longing. And often a resentment that what they lay claim to, we mainline church people have never experienced.

A teacher, every year in her fifth grade class, had what she called the Scholastic Olympics. What happened was that she would ask each child to pick a sentence from literature, name the author and source from which it came, and then explain why this sentence could be called the best sentence ever written. You can probably guess what some of the entries were, like “Fourscore and seven years ago,” and “All people are created equal.” A lot of political phrases like that. There were also a lot of literary phrases, like “To be or not to be.” The girl who got the most points for knowing that “To be or not to be” was from a play got some points taken away because she said the author was the playwright of Hamiliton.  There were 14 entries of the same biblical verse, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” probably because the teacher had said that was her favorite verse.

You know what sentence won? It was not written by a famous author at all. It wasn’t to be found in any literary source. It was on a postcard from Hawaii that one of these fifth grade girls received from her stepfather, who was on a honeymoon with the girl’s mother. The teacher was uneasy about this, because the children were supposed to explain why this is the best sentence ever written. But she let her speak. The girl said that until she received that postcard, she didn’t know how her stepfather felt about her. The girl’s entry won the prize. It was written on the back of a postcard from Waikiki Beach. It said, “Charlotte, I love you.”  

That’s the greatest sentence ever written. There are many variations of it. And wherever it is heard, and from whatever source it comes, it constitutes a blessing from God. It is here in this text this morning. It’s here in the parable of the Prodigal Son, and it’s addressed to everyone, to both sons in the story. Are we there yet?  No, not yet. To every offspring, to prodigals and to the righteous: “Come home. I love you.”