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A New Testament: Revisiting the Parable of the Prodigal

Date: 16/06/2019/Speaker: Rev Miak Siew

How many of you have heard of “the boy who cried wolf?”

It is one of Aesop’s fables, and it is about a boy who tended to a flock of sheep. He was bored and decided to play a trick on the villagers to amuse himself. He ran toward the village shouting at the top of his voice, “Wolf! Wolf!” and as expected, the villagers who heard the cry dropped their work and ran to the pasture to help fend off the wolf, only to find the boy laughing at them.

A few days later the boy again shouted, “Wolf! Wolf!” Again, the villagers ran to help him, only to be laughed at again.
Then, some time later, a wolf did attack the sheep. The boy ran towards the village shouting “Wolf! Wolf!” But though the villagers heard the cry, they did not run to help him as they had before. “He cannot fool us again,” they said.

The wolf killed a great many of the boy’s sheep and then slipped away into the forest.
The moral of the story, often told at the end of the story, is that “A liar will not be believed, even when telling the truth.”
Do you remember your response when you first heard this fable?
I remember asking “what happened to the boy?”
How do you feel about the fable today?
As we grow up, we begin to realise the world is a lot more complex and this simple warning tale may not be helpful to us anymore.

Today we start on a new sermon series – A New Testament.
For this sermon series, we return to stories in the Bible and look at them anew. Like the “God is still speaking” campaign that the United Church of Christ launched in 2004, we will not put a period (full stop) where God has put a comma.

This is inspired by the Contextual Bible Study method that Prof Gerald West introduced at the consultation organised by the National Council of Churches in India that both Pauline and I attended in 2017.

We need to recognise that “the text of the Bible and its readers (meaning us) inhabit actual historical contexts which must be opened up for exploration in the act of reading the Bible. In this method, then, the Bible is not merely the object of study but rather the sacred resource for our lives. In the act of reading, the contexts of text and reader may fuse or clash; either way, in the encounter, the way the text of the Word of God interacts with our lives will create new understandings of the text and new challenges to our lives. In doing so, this encounter with the Bible will transform us.

For those of you who were with us last week at the church retreat, bear with me. There were some spoilers at the retreat.

We begin with the parable of the prodigal.

The Parable of the Prodigal and His Brother Luke 15:11-32
11 Then Jesus[b] said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. 13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16 He would gladly have filled himself with[c] the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17 But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ 20 So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21 Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’[d] 22 But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.

25 “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27 He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31 Then the father[e] said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”

Let’s start off with our contexts.
Who do you identify with? Do you identify with the prodigal? Or the older sibling? Or the parent? Do you identify with more than one of them? Why?
Many LGBT folks, including myself, identify strongly with the prodigal. The story of returning and seeking acceptance – even conditional acceptance – only to be embraced fully and unconditionally by God is a common experience we have. We may or may not have asked for our share of the inheritance and left, or squandered everything away, or even lived dissolutely and promiscuously – but we experienced the unconditional and radical love of God.

Some of us may identify with the older sibling. We have experienced what we feel is favouritism. We have been faithfully at our parent’s side, and yet we are not treated as well as “this son of yours.”

Some of us may identify as the parent, as someone whom we cared for, supported and mentored left church and then returned.
Our contexts and experiences help determine how we read the text, and which character we are drawn to.
What about the context of this passage?
Who was the audience of this parable? What did Jesus intend to say?

Luke 15 begins with:
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
Then Jesus told 3 parables – the parable of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the prodigal.
Who is the lost sheep? Who is the 99? Who is the shepherd?
Who is the lost coin?
Who is the prodigal? And who is the older sibling?
In the book “The Prodigal God” by Timothy Keller, which I serendipitously brought along to consultation in Bangalore in 2017, he argues that we have misunderstood this parable.

“Most readings of this parable have concentrated on the flight and the return of the younger brother – the “Prodigal Son.” That misses the message of the story, however, because there are two brothers, each of whom represents a different way to be alienated to God, and a different way to seek acceptance into the kingdom of heaven.”

“So to whom is Jesus’ teaching in this parable directed? It is to the scribes and Pharisees. It is in response to their attitude that Jesus begins to tell the parable. The parable of the two sons takes an extended look at the soul of the elder brother, and climaxes with a powerful plea for him to change his heart.”

We know that the parent and the younger sibling has reconciled. But the parable doesn’t give us an ending for the older sibling. Just like how I wondered what happened to the boy who cried wolf, I wondered about what happened to the older sibling.
Jesus didn’t give an ending, because he wanted the Pharisees, the real elder siblings, to respond. It is up to them.

We have gone through the contexts of the parable, and our contexts as readers. Do these contexts fuse or clash? How does the text of the Word of God interact with our lives will create new understandings of the text and new challenges to our lives?

How do you think the story should have unfolded to better express how you understand God’s love and the beloved community called church?
I have a personal experience of how this parable interacted with my life to create new understandings of the text and new challenges to my life.
Zihao shared with me his reflections when I preached on this same passage in February this year.

[11:40, 17/2/2019] Zihao: Your sermon triggered thoughts:
We often also overlook the Idea that the father is also problematic.
The father is justified as always looking out to the ones who left and return, thinking a value over these, searching elsewhere to do good and act as a loving and just father to the many lost outside (projects, projects, projects that look everywhere for lost sheep).

But despite these the father couldn’t even communicate to the elder son that he his valued efforts all the while in contributing to the house, and that the elder son (the one standing by all the while and rendered into the background, the ones nearest) is an image of an equally forgotten other that is close by, banal, everyday, for the pursuit of higher more ‘noble’ values. This is the missing welcome that FCC cannot deal with.
The idea of home and belonging is constantly made and remade. Home and belonging is. Domesticity is bigger than a fixed architectural space. It is found also in routines, habits, practices, that make and remake the home for the visitors as well as the house members themselves.

Zihao’s reflection prompted me to reflect more on this passage. I knew God is still speaking here,
During the retreat, when we did the Bible study on this passage, many groups felt that the parent was unfair to the older sibling. And echoing the point that things will be very different if the older sibling was valued and knew deep in the heart “you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”

Then, in that story that is closer to Shalom and wholeness, it would be the older sibling who is racing out to embrace the younger sibling.
It is a story we need.

Sharon told me at the retreat this – that she felt as the younger sibling, it was the older sibling who welcomed her home here in FCC. I was moved to tears.
Yes.

That is our story. And what we are missing is this – that the older siblings are cared for, loved, appreciated so they know “You are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”

I am sorry that all the older siblings in this family feel neglected. In the focusing on the story of the younger sibling, I have forgotten about those who are close by, present, faithful. I have neglected and failed you.

Thank you for being faithfully serving, when I have not been faithfully serving you. Forgive me – for hearing and not listening, for not appreciating you, for not meeting your needs. I pray that I continue to grow and transform – so we can live out this new testament where the older sibling is beloved, supported and appreciated, and in this parable of FCC, it is the older sibling who races out to embrace and reconcile with the younger sibling.

We are in need of a cultural change. And such changes don’t come from top down, but it comes from within, from inside out. And we change culture when we change the stories we tell ourselves.

God is still speaking,
Amen.