Saturday, 7 February 2015

God, Our Father.~ Ganeida

Reading: Luke 15:11~32.

Today's topic is God Our Father.  We are looking at the story Jesus told in Luke 15, known to us as The Prodigal Son.  It is not the story of two siblings.  It is the story of a father & to understand it we must understand it within the context that Jesus was telling it.

 Let us start with something more recent.  Do you remember Bibi Aesha?  Married at 12 to a Taliban soldier & systematically abused until, in desperation, she ran away.  Caught she had her nose & ears removed & was left for dead, one of more than 5000 honour killings a year.

Or more recently,
Raif Badawi, who has had the first of 1000 lashes for publishing a liberal blog.

One is a woman, the other a man.  What they have in common is they are members of patriarchal communities that hold to an honour code.  This is the root, the basis, the foundation of the story Jesus tells.  This is the society he operated in.  This is how his listeners would have understood family, community, society.

In such societies the family is the central institution.  It is more important than individual freedom or individual achievement.  It couldn’t be further from western ideas of individualism, autonomy, self~expression.  It is driven by Pride, Culture & Religion.  A family is ruled by its patriarch & both his & the family’s status depended upon their honour. 

In our time the weight of family honour is usually carried by the women & is tied to aspects of sexuality but traditionally honour depends upon all a family’s members upholding a code of respectability.  Violation of that code brings dishonour; shame.

Now let us move to Jesus’ story.  We have a father.  By the standards of his time & culture he is a good father.  He is reasonably wealthy ~ he has a fatted calf on hand; he is able to divide his wealth on demand; he has a good robe & even a ring. His household wears sandals.  By the standards of the day he has provided well for his family as he is supposed to do.

But all is not well in this father’s house.  There is discontent.  There is rebellion.  Neither of his sons has a relationship with him [read the story carefully] & finally the younger son gets brazen.  He demands his share of the estate.

Now what this son is saying in effect to his father is:  I wish you were dead!  See estates were never divided up until the father was dead.  To ask for what you would get on your father’s death is in effect wishing they were already dead!

The thing about this request is that all this family’s dirty linen just became public property!  It’s just not the sort of thing you can keep quiet.  Firstly the son’s share would be land, sheep, goats, oxen…seriously.  The kid can hardly lug that around in his wallet so what would he do?  Sell it off ~ cheap.  He’s in a hurry to go & live his own life out from under parental authority, parental restrictions so he liquidates the estate in a hurry.  Half his village just snapped up a luscious deal.  You live here, on this island.  You know how fast the gossip spreads.

This son has shamed his father in ways that any middle eastern Jewish father would find totally reprehensible. Worse the father has shamed himself.  Instead of publically flogging his son to protect his honour he gives him what he asks for ~ all of it!  Can’t you just hear the tongues wagging! 

But it gets jucier!  We forget the older son.  He’s there all along.  His responsibility is to help protect & guide his younger brother & thus protect the family honour.  His silence screams loud. Nowhere is it suggested he tried to talk his brother out of such shameful behaviour.  Nowhere is it suggested he went to his father & said: Dad, about that kid brother of mine… No, He cares nothing for the family honour.  In his own way he is as bad as his brother.  He just goes about it differently.

The Pharisees would have had their eyeballs popping out of their heads.  What righteous, honourable, self~ respecting Jewish father would behave in such an outrageous weak willed way?!  Who would have raised such disrespectful, shameful sons?

Typically a funeral would have been held for the younger son.  He would have been considered dead by all who knew him. But hey, he’s got all that lovely cash to squander & squander it he does.  He heads just as fast as he can into the worst of the worst: gentile, pagan, idolatrous, blasphemous & full of luscious women willing to show him a good time.

 And Dad lets him do it.  He doesn't rush to rescue him when things turn catawampus.  He doesn’t lock him in his bedroom to prevent his going.  He doesn't rush out & forcibly drag him home.  He lets him go.

Then disaster hits.  Talk about a Jewish Soap Opera.  Just when you think it can’t get any worse, it does.  Famine strikes.  Famine that has people eating their leather sandals.  Famine that has women eating their afterbirth.  Famine that has this rebellious kid hanging around someone just so he can be sent off to  mind the pigs ~ an unclean animal to this day.  Worse, he tries to eat the pig swill.  The irony is that human bodies can’t digest the carob pods the pigs can eat. They make you sick.

So there he is, stripped of every vestige of dignity, so dirt poor he tries the pig food, & abandoned by his fair weather friends.  He is going to die.  That is what happens to people in his circumstances in the middle of a famine.  They die.

At this point he doesn't so much come to his senses as weigh up his options.  If he stays he will most certainly die.  If he returns he must bear the weight of his dishonour.  He will not be allowed into his father’s house.  He will be forced to wait in the village, scorned by all the villagers who will see it as their duty to uphold the father’s honour.  After days ~ or weeks ~ his father might agree to visit him but the terms of his return will be harsh.  He will not be accepted as a son until he has repaid in full ~ & maybe not even then.  He will be publicly whipped.  Restitution will be set at the minimum wage.

In arguing with himself the son reminds himself that his father is generous & merciful: remember even the day labourers, the minimum wage earners, in his father’s house, the ones Jesus says should be paid at the end of each day so that they can eat, have more than enough bread.

Our focus is not on the son but the father.  He does none of the things expected of him, none of the *honourable* things. Why is this important?  Because this story is a parable & we understand that the father is Jesus’ Abba, Father God.  How this father treats the worst of the worst shows us something important about Abba God.

Firstly, We know He is watching & sees his son returning from afar.  We have talked about what the son expects to happen but instead the father shifts his son’s shame onto himself.  He lifts his robe & runs to greet his son.  Now both lifting of the robe & running were considered shameful things for a grown man to do. It was [& still is in some parts of the middle east] considered shameful to expose any part of the legs ~ but it is not possible to run in a long robe.  How undignified ~ especially in the light of his son’s sin. 

The father meets him before he enters the village, before any of the condemnation could begin. And then he does an even more astonishing thing.  He calls for his robe, the special robe, the one usually reserved for the oldest son’s wedding & puts it on his son, restoring to him full honour, full dignity.  He gives him a ring.  It would have been a signet ring, symbol of authority.  He demands shoes for his feet ~ only sons & members of the household wore shoes so the full privileges of the house, full sonship, was restored to him.

When we talk of the Grace of God this is what it means.  There is nothing we can do to earn it.  We may have behaved in the most awful ways imaginable but as soon as we turn to God our restoration is instantaneous.  It is complete.  There is nothing we can do, nothing we must do to be accepted back.

Now we see the oldest son’s true colours.  Instead of rejoicing that his brother has been restored to the family he is angry.  Remember I said the oldest son had no relationship with the father?  See, he knows his brother is home.  He knows his father has welcomed him, killed the fatted calf that was meant for his wedding!  He knows & he steams & stews but it is the father who comes to him, not he who goes to the father. 

See it is not enough to hang round God’s house keeping the *rules*, even doing God’s work, but having no real relationship with the father.  

Everything of God’s is ours but it will do us no good if we do not claim it.  It will do us no good if we don’t cultivate our relationship with the father.

1John 4:16 tells us God is love.  This story shows God’s love in action.

Matthew 7:11 says: …How much more will your father, who is in heaven, give good things to those who ask him… This story illustrates God’s generosity in giving, abundantly, far more than expected or asked.

The father forgives.  Psalm 103:12 declares He has removed our sins from us as the east is from the west.

Romans 8:15 tells us that we can call God, Abba, Father & we are no longer governed by fear.

And so, beloved, we must understand what the older son refused to see:  God refuses to limit the extent of His grace.  He does not abide by our rules.  His son was still a long way off when the father spies him coming & He rushes to greet him, showering him with love & affection.

  This is God’s true heart for every single one of his children who returns home.  The past is done for, wiped clean.  There is no condemnation.  There is no restitution.  The father takes our shame upon himself & welcomes us into the family as though we have never been away.

Acknowledgement:  John MacArthar for his insights into Middle Eastern culture.

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