The Embrace of the Father

This is a tweaked version of a sermon that I gave on Sunday, June 12th, 2016, at the Church of the Shepherd in Hyde Park, Chicago. The sermon was based on the story of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15.

Good morning, everyone. My name is Joel Kim. I was a law student at the University of Chicago, but as of yesterday, I have graduated! That said, please don’t ask me for legal advice after the service. I still have to pass the bar exam and get licensed.

The story of the Prodigal Son is a familiar one for all of us. Even those of us that did not grow up in a Christian household have undoubtedly heard this story before. This is one of Jesus’s most beloved stories, and rightly so. But I invite us to consider this story closely, for it is truly remarkable and bewildering. For it is when this story becomes familiar and ceases to amaze us that we need to hear it again.

To understand Jesus’s story, we need to know his audience. Luke 15 starts with these words: “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them!’”

The tax collectors came to hear Jesus. These were the corrupt agents of the occupying Roman government. These men assessed taxes on their fellow Hebrews, and often fraudulently collected extra money to keep for themselves. They were universally despised.

And the sinners! These were people whose moral failings were so visible that they were publicly identifiable. These were not good and upright people.

Yet here was Jesus, this supposed great religious teacher, who allowed these people to come to Him. And even worse, He ate with them. To eat with another was a sign of acceptance and approval. This is what upset the Pharisees and the scribes. The Pharisees and the teachers were people who took religion very seriously, who took great steps to obey God. Faith was very important to them. The Pharisees and teachers would have said “if you eat with these people, you give people the wrong idea about God.”

So Jesus shares this story. There was a man who had two sons. The younger son said to his father “Father, give me my share of the estate.” Now this was a scandalous request. What the son wanted was his inheritance, and he wanted it now. What the son was telling his father was “Dad, I wish you were dead. I don’t want you, I just want your stuff. You’re in the way of what I want.” My parents are here, and if I made this request, they would have rebuked me severely, and rightly so.

But instead of reprimanding his son, the father grants his request. He divides his estate among his sons. The word Jesus used was his livelihood, or his life. At the time, most wealth was kept in land, that was passed down through generations. So the father was giving to his son the work of generations of the family. The son’s request would have been a source of deep shame for the family. The village would talk of little else.

Then the younger son departs for a distant country. Imagine him leaving home, telling all his friends how he will come back an amazing success. Perhaps he would quote the poet, “There’s a million things I haven’t done. But just you wait, just you wait…” He goes off in search of his own happiness. But unsurprisingly, he comes to disaster. He wastes everything that he has, everything that his family worked for. He becomes so desperate that he works feeding pigs. For a Hebrew, to whom pigs were unclean, this was a deeply shameful act. He is envious even of the pigs, and longs to eat the pods that he feeds them. Perhaps we don’t get the same feeling of revulsion regarding pigs and carob pods. So imagine that you are working in a rat farm, teeming rodents crawling underfoot, while you feed them live cockroaches. And you’re so hungry, you’re tempted to eat the roaches.

But the son comes to his senses. He wants to return home. But how could he possibly return, after what he had done to his father? He prepares a speech, to convince his father to take him as a servant, and sets out.

And then follows one of the most beautiful lines ever written: “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.”

Note that the father ran and embraced the son, even before the son had said a single word, before the son’s intentions were known. The father was overjoyed to see his son, and his son’s physical condition was enough for the father.

And the father ran. Patriarchs of that time, in long robes, did not run. In order to run he would need to hike up his robes and expose his legs. Such a sight would have been embarrassing. The shame that the son anticipated in walking through the village, the father took on himself.

The son begins his prepared speech. “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But before the son can say another word, the father calls to his servants, “Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him.” The best robe would have been the father’s robe. And the son still reeks of the pigs! “Put a ring on his finger.” The ring was a sign of authority in the family. “Bring sandals for his feet.” The son had worn himself out. The son said that he was no longer worthy to be called a son. But the father said “You don’t get to decide that you are unworthy. I say that you are worthy. I say that you are still my child.”

And to top it all off, the father calls for the fattened calf! This was a rare delicacy. The fattened calf would have been killed only for celebrations for the whole village. The father was restoring his son not just to his family, but to the whole community.

By this point, half of Jesus’s audience would have been weeping. To think that God loved them as this father loved! To think that God accepted them, even when no one else would! But the other half would have been furious. “This is exactly what we’re talking about! There have to be consequences. If you just accept people like this, they will take advantage of it. What about holiness? What about righteousness?”

Some of the Pharisees may even have accused Jesus of hypocrisy. Earlier, in Luke 14:27, Jesus says “Whoever does not carry their cross and follow Me cannot be My disciple.” The Pharisees would have said “Where is the younger son’s cross? Where is his dying to self?” Perhaps you have heard this kind of message. Perhaps you’ve preached this kind of message.

But anyone who hears this story and hears a license for sin has never really heard it. For how could the younger son not be transformed by his father’s embrace? How could we not be transformed by the Father’s embrace? For no matter how much we mature and grow, we never leave that embrace. And that embrace is the fuel for our discipleship. For everything in the Christian life: our prayer, our worship, our acts of service, are simply just us learning to return that embrace.

For this is the promise. No matter what you have done. No matter what other people have said to you. No matter what you have said to yourself. God embraces you as His child, and is calling you to Him.

But this is a story of two sons. The older son is out working in the field. He doesn’t even know that his brother is home until he hears the party. When he finds out, he is livid.

So the father leaves the party. He traveled down one road after one lost son, and now he travels another road for another lost son. Imagine the father pleading with his son to come inside. What would the neighbors think?

The older son says “Look.” You know that if your child starts with “Look,” you’re about to hear it. If I said “Look” to my parents, they would shut that down real quick. But the son says “All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours (not “my brother”) who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!”

These are not the words of a son. These are the words of a slave. Although the older son has never left home, his heart is distant from his father’s. Both of these sons were lost. One was lost outside the home, the other was lost inside. It’s just as possible to be lost sitting in a church as in a brothel, or a corporate office. And the older son may be even more lost, because he doesn’t know how lost he is.

The older son wasn’t just envious of his brother. Remember that the father had divided his assets amongst the sons. Per the tradition of that time, the older son got two thirds, and the younger son got one third. That meant that everything in the family now belonged to the older son. So when the younger son comes home and eats the family’s food and drinks the family’s wine, he is consuming what belongs to the older son. In a real way, the older son is diminished by his brother’s return.

But just as with the younger son, the father invites the older son in. In fact, his first word is “Son.” The father reminds the older son of his sonship, that he is not a slave. He reminds the older son of the return of the younger son, of “this brother of yours.” Jesus declares that the older brothers in his audience, the Pharisees and teachers, those who did everything right; they too are welcome as children of God. Not because of their earnest devotion or hard work, but simply because God calls them as His children. But to accept this truth, they also need to accept that God will embrace those that they think don’t deserve it. Notice that we don’t know if the older son enters in. His story is a warning to the Pharisees and teachers.

The story of the older son reminds us that relationship with God is given, not earned. Too often we measure our relationship with God by what we do. We look at how much time we spend in prayer or how much we read our Bibles and evaluate our spirituality by our practices. And these practices are important. But let us not believe that God’s love for us depends on how much we do these things. These practices are just us learning to embrace back.

But the story of the older son is difficult. There is a band named Poor Rich Folk whose music I enjoy, although the band is currently dormant. They have a song called “Teach Me to Love.” The first line is “Is it true that you love porn stars, the same that you love pastors? Do you love the deadbeat fathers like you love their blameless bastards? If that’s true, then I need you to show me a thing or two. I need you to teach me to love.” The song continues: “Do you really love the prostitute like you love the faithful preacher? Do you love the racist and the rapist like the Sunday school teacher? Do you really love the pedophile like you love the victim child? If that’s true, then I need you to show me a thing or two. I need you to teach me to love.”

God’s love is beautiful because it is wide and vast and expansive. But this wide, vast, and expansive love forces us to disarm, to see the humanity, the Imago Dei, the child of God in each other. And love isn’t squishy wimpy acquiescence. Jesus did not accept everything that the tax collectors and sinners did. But he loved them, and it was from this love that he called them to repentance, to a turning away and turning toward. But this is hard.

The tax collectors and sinners approached Jesus to hear Him. They wanted to hear what He had to say. But these same people today would not step foot into a church building. They associate churches with judgment and condemnation. If the same people that came to listen to Jesus don’t want anything to do with our churches, then are our churches preaching the same message that Jesus preached?

So how can you know that God loves you like this? And how can you love others in this way? The older son in this story lashed out because he was being diminished by his brother’s return. But we also have an older brother. And unlike this older brother Jesus gave not just some of his life but all of it, not unwillingly but graciously. He left the embrace of His father, so that we could be welcomed in. And the writer of Hebrews says that Jesus is not ashamed to call us His brothers and sisters. And as His spirit moves within us, we can extend this wide, vast, expansive love to others. To see them transformed.

This story is often called the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Prodigal means excessive, wasteful, lavish. So perhaps this story should instead be the Parable of the Prodigal Father. The father whose love is vast, wide, and expansive.

The Catholic writer Henri Nouwen was so moved by this story that he wrote his own meditation. Now I have not read much of Nouwen’s work, although I enjoy his writings from time to time. You could say that I read his work Nouwen then. In The Return of the Prodigal Son, Nouwen writes this:

“Perhaps the most radical statement Jesus ever made is: ‘Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate.’ God’s compassion is described by Jesus not simply to show me how willing God is to feel for me, or to forgive my sins and offer me new life and happiness, but to invite me to become like God and to show the same compassion to others as he is showing me…What I am called to make true is that whether I am the younger or the elder son, I am the son of my compassionate Father. I am an heir. No one says it more clearly than Paul when he writes: “The Spirit himself joins with our spirit to bear witness that we are children of God. And if we are children, then we are heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, provided that we share his sufferings, so as to share his glory.’ Indeed, as son and heir I am to become successor. I am destined to step into my Father’s place and offer to others the same compassion that he has offered me. The return to the Father is ultimately the challenge to become the Father.”

I want to end with a piece by Jon Acuff. Jon Acuff wrote the book Stuff Christians Like, which is a hilarious poke at Christian culture, like side hugs and not knowing which meals to pray for. For example, if you stand up while you’re eating, you don’t need to pray. But he also wrote this.

I don’t want to brag, but I’m pretty awesome at applying band-aids. And make no mistake, that is an art. Because if you go too quickly and unpeel them the wrong way, they stick to themselves and you end up with a wadded up useless mess, instead of the Little Mermaid festooned bandage your daughter so desperately wants to apply to a boo boo that may in fact be 100% fictional.

Half of the injuries I treat at the Acuff house are invisible or simply wounds of sympathy. My oldest daughter will scrape her knee, and my younger daugther, realizing the band aid box is open will say, “Yo dad, I’d like to get in on that too. What do you say we put one on, I don’t know, my ankle. Yeah, my ankle, let’s pretend that’s hurt.”

But sometimes the cuts are real, like the day a few years ago when my then 5-year old got a scrape on her face playing in the front yard. I rushed in the house and returned with a princess bandage. As I bent down to apply it to her forehead, her eyes filled up with tears and she shrunk back from me.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“I don’t want to wear that band-aid.” She replied.

“Why? You have a cut. You need a band-aid.” I said.

“I’ll look silly,” she answered.

Other than her sister and her mom, there was no one else in the yard. None of her friends were over, cars were not streaming by our house and watching us play, the world was pretty empty at that moment. But, for the first time I can remember, she felt shame. She had discovered shame. Somewhere, somehow, this little 5-year-old had learned to be afraid of looking silly. If I was smarter, if I had been better prepared for the transition from little toddler to little girl, I might have asked her this:

“Who told you that you were silly?”

I didn’t, though. That question didn’t bloom in my head until much later, and I didn’t understand it until I saw God ask a similar question in Genesis 3:11. To me, this is one of the saddest and most profoundly beautiful verses in the entire Bible. Adam and Eve have fallen. The apple is a core. The snake has spoken. The dream appears crushed. As they hide from God under clothes they’ve hastily sewn together, He appears and asks them a simple question:

“Who told you that you were naked?”

There is hurt in God’s voice as He asks this question, but there is also a deep sadness, the sense of a father holding a daughter that has for the first time ever, wrapped herself in shame.

Who told you that you were not enough?

Who told you that I didn’t love you?

Who told you that there was something outside of me you needed?

Who told you that you were ugly?

Who told you that your dream was foolish?

Who told you that you would never have a child?

Who told you that you would never be a father?

Who told you that you weren’t a good mother?

Who told you that without a job you aren’t worth anything?

Who told you that you’ll never know love again?

Who told you that this was all there is?

Who told you that you were naked?

I don’t know when you discovered shame. I don’t know when you discovered that there were people who might think you are silly or dumb or not a good writer or a husband or a friend. I don’t know what lies you’ve been told by other people or maybe even by yourself.

But in response to what you are hearing from everyone else, God is still asking the question, “Who told you that you were naked?”

And He’s still asking us that question because we are not.

In Christ, we are not worthless.

In Christ, we are not hopeless.

In Christ, we are not dumb or ugly or forgotten.

In Christ, we are not naked.

Isaiah 61:10 says:

“For he has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of righteousness.”

The world may try to tell you a thousand different things today. You might close this post and hear a million declarations of who you are or who you’ll always be, but know this:

As unbelievable as it sounds, and as much as I never expected to type this sentence on this blog:

You are not naked.

I don’t know what sorts of things you have heard about yourself. I don’t know what sorts of things you have said to yourself. Maybe that you’re not smart enough, or attractive enough, or competent enough, or successful enough. But know this. God embraces us as His children. Let us choose to see ourselves with His vision.

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