Lost & Found
Keeping track of things feels a like a full-time job some days. People lose keys, phones, wallets, purses, and other common, everyday items, well, every day. Some of us try to avoid this by putting these things in the same place when we aren’t using them. We have little bowls or spaces on the nightstand or the dresser. We put little hooks next to the door or in the bedroom. We make these spaces, these arrangements to keep track of things but then, the exception happens. We come in the house, in a hurry, toss the keys or the phone down and run to do something else. We finish what we were doing and the keys, which are always on the keyring, or the phone, which is always on the nightstand, are gone. We search high and low and panic and rail and fume and finally remember or run across then.
My favorite is when people raise their reading glasses. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen someone lift their glasses up and rest then on top of their head and forget they were there. For those of you who aren’t follicly challenged, I can see how it could happen. You raise your glasses, letting them rest in your hair, and you don’t feel them. You go to read something and where are my glasses? The truth is, most of the time, the things were looking for are right in front of us. We already have them, but we can’t see them for what we think we are being cheated out of or what it appears someone else is getting. Our sense of equality (everyone getting the same thing) wins out over our sense of fairness (everyone getting what they need) and we fume and fuss and act like children.
Speaking of children, the parable from our scripture passage today gets into some of these issues of fairness and equality, as well as lost and found. It’s a familiar story—the prodigal son or the loving father—and a story with details we often overlook. It’s one of those stories we’ve heard since childhood and because of the familiarity we assume we have exhausted its understanding. It means certain things to us because we’ve heard it the same way over and over. We see the younger son being greedy. We see the older son being sullen and petulant. We see the father being merciful, forgiving, and of course, loving. We get the big points, right?
One thing I find interesting in a close reading of the story is this line, “Then the father divided his estate between them.” Notice that the elder son was given his portion, too. Many times, the story has been presented as the younger son getting his share of the family fortune early and the elder son having to wait. But no, both sons are given their portions of the estate. While we don’t know for certain (it is a parable after all), the assumption among hearers may well have been the elder son got a double portion since the eldest was entitled under custom and law to have it. And we don’t know what the portions are. Is it the portion of what the father has saved, future profits, current yield? So, while we often find ourselves siding with the elder brother in issues of fairness because the younger son asked for the inheritance, the elder brother gets is an unequal share by law and custom. With that in mind, what else is going on here?
I think the people listening heard shades of an Old Testament story. This parallels the story of Jacob and Joseph. Of all his sons, Jacob loved Joseph the most, doted on him, gave him the most attention. Joseph had the dreams, the coat of many colors, and of course, his father’s greatest affection. Joseph, the son of his old age according to the story, was the apple of his father’s eye. I wonder if perhaps there is an unspoken parallel in this story. The elder son, like Jacob’s older sons, feeling the pangs of jealousy when the father spoiled or pampered the little brother. I wonder if he secretly fumed over his father’s preference, if there were fights around the farm. I wonder if these fights came to a head, much like in the Joseph story and rather than ‘having an accident’ on the farm, he decided to leave, maybe before he was truly ready. In all this, we usually preach this as be loving and merciful like the father, be repentant like the son, don’t be sullen and jealous like the older son.
Today, we’re going to look at this as from, as J. Ellsworth Kalas called it, the back side or with a twist. I hear a lot of things in the media, especially in political circles about people getting what they don’t deserve. You hear it in commentary about funding social programs, you hear it in commentary about rights and equality, and you hear it dozens of other places and ways. The focus becomes what do we get or what should we get from X? Does (fill in the blank of your favorite villain or scapegoat) deserve it, whatever it is?
The interesting thing about this parable is that it is a third in a series dealing equality and fairness. The first two (Luke 15:4-10) deal with a man celebrating for having found a lost sheep and a woman celebrating for having found a lost coin. So, when we come to the parable of the loving father, it becomes a parable about a father celebrating the return of a lost son. The focus is not the elder son, though he is recognized for how he behaves, which is badly considering he also got his share and maybe more. The focus is giving those in need, what they need. None of these stories have anything to do with everyone getting their fair share. It’s not about what was lost but what is found. It’s not about equality (everyone getting the same), it’s about fairness (everyone getting what they need). And you could argue that the elder son needed the father’s love and attention, but the father says he had it, “Son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.” In other words, I celebrate you every day. You could have had your own party long before now if you had asked for it. The younger brother needs this right now.
The problem with some churches seems to be, they are places where some people get what they need to the exclusion of others. They have everything, as the elder brother does, as they seemingly always have, but they don’t see it. The first mention of change or making space for others or better encouraging others to have space, and they want to know why someone is getting something they aren’t. The answer is simple, they need it. And the cry from the elder brothers of the congregation is what about my needs? And the answer to those cries is, they have and are being met. It’s others who are in need and need those needs met. And by the way, what is the greater purpose of church, to meet needs or to have someone else meet your needs? The answer is both and is tied up in everyone working to meet the needs of others and in turn having their needs met. The problem comes when people set up structures and ministries and programs that are great for them but meaningless to others. This is why the younger siblings leave home, because it feels like someone else’s home, a home they aren’t welcome in.
The question is, what do we do to meet the needs? First, we need know what the needs are. We can’t know that without getting outside of our silos. Silos are those groups of people we spend our time with because we’re lifelong friends and we’re comfortable and so on. Silos have their own way of thinking and seeing the world. And that view is often very narrow and inward looking. So much so, that we rarely see anything but those in the silo with us. How many people have you spent time with that weren’t in your Sunday school class? Your age group?
Second, we need to make space for and encourage people to new ministry. Just saying, “You can do your own thing if you want” isn’t much in the way of encouragement. Having conversations to find out what helps others connect and how they might help those who aren’t yet here connect and being a part of helping start those ministries makes a difference. When we see adults who don’t have children or grandchildren in youth ministries, they tend to grow. The youth feel the support of not only of the youth leaders but the church at large. When younger men and women are asked to be part of things like UMM or United Women in Faith (UMW) and the groups make accommodation for them by setting times that work for working families or arranging childcare, people feel like they are wanted. And saying you tried something one time fifteen years ago is laziness incarnate. You try and if it doesn’t work try again and that doesn’t work try something new. You don’t just quit because you tried a few times, you keep trying.
And finally, let everything be done with the motive of loving God and loving neighbor. The words of 1 Corinthians 13 are especially apt here,
You won’t always get what you want, but you’ll get what you need, and can give what others need.
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