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March 27, 2015, 12:32 PM

A Man Had Two Sons


Luke 15:11-32
11 Jesus said, “A certain man had two sons. 12 The younger son said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the inheritance.’ Then the father divided his estate between them. 13 Soon afterward, the younger son gathered everything together and took a trip to a land far away. There, he wasted his wealth through extravagant living.
14 “When he had used up his resources, a severe food shortage arose in that country and he began to be in need. 15 He hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to eat his fill from what the pigs ate, but no one gave him anything. 17 When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have more than enough food, but I’m starving to death! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.19  I no longer deserve to be called your son. Take me on as one of your hired hands.” ’ 20 So he got up and went to his father.
“While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with compassion. His father ran to him, hugged him, and kissed him. 21 Then his son said, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his servants, ‘Quickly, bring out the best robe and put it on him! Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet! 23 Fetch the fattened calf and slaughter it. We must celebrate with feasting 24 because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life! He was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
25 “Now his older son was in the field. Coming in from the field, he approached the house and heard music and dancing. 26  He called one of the servants and asked what was going on. 27  The servant replied, ‘Your brother has arrived, and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he received his son back safe and sound.’ 28  Then the older son was furious and didn’t want to enter in, but his father came out and begged him. 29  He answered his father, ‘Look, I’ve served you all these years, and I never disobeyed your instruction. Yet you’ve never given me as much as a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30  But when this son of yours returned, after gobbling up your estate on prostitutes, you slaughtered the fattened calf for him.’ 31  Then his father said, ‘Son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad because this brother of yours was dead and is alive. He was lost and is found.’”
 
A Man Had Two Sons…
 
If I say, “Larry, Mo, and Curley,” you immediately say…(Three Stooges).
And if I say, “Dynamic Duo?” (Batman and Robin)
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” (A Tale of Two Cities)
“Marsha, Marsha, Marsha” (The Brady Bunch)
“That’ll do pig. That’ll do.” (Babe)
“Hey…with thumbs up.” (Happy Days)
“Stay in the house, Carl!” (The Walking Dead)
“Rock, Paper, Scissors, Lizard, Spock” (The Big Bang Theory)
 
There is something about stories. Whether we experience them from books, television shows, or movies, stories touch us and connect us in some profound ways. They become part of our vocabulary, part of our memories, part of our lives. This has been true for humanity throughout our history. We are a narrative people.
 
Jesus’ listeners and followers had their own common stories, connecting narratives, that informed their vocabulary, their memories, their lives. First century Israel was still a largely oral culture. Few people could read and write. Stories were their entertainment. They were handed down from generation to generation, told around the village fires at night, at the Sabbath table. Their stories were played by the children in the marketplace. And these stories, the fabric of the lives of Jesus’ followers, were what we fondly call “bible stories.” Adam and Eve being cast out of the garden. Moses parting the Red Sea. Abraham and Sarah journeying to Egypt. Daniel facing down the lions in the den. Elijah battling 400 prophets of Baal. David and his sling shot standing firm before Goliath. These were the figures  of their imaginations. These were their common stories.
 
As Jesus shares these rich and beautiful parables over the course of his ministry, he not only used the images of everyday life—agriculture, family life, community life—to capture the imagination of his listeners and drive his points home. He also used their common stories. By invoking those narrative memories he could call on many stories at once and yet tell something new.  He could help the people rethink stories they had known all their lives.
 
A man had two sons. It seems such a simple beginning to the story, just sharing some facts. A man had two sons. We breeze right past it into the heart of the story, but not Jesus’ audience. A man had two sons. It is like Jesus proclaiming, “O Captain, my Captain.” Our minds go to the poem by Walt Whitman, to “Dead Poets Society” and the boys standing on their desks, to a host of sitcoms that have invoked those words and that image. Jesus begins, “A man had two sons,” and instantly stories begin popping into the brains of his listeners.
 
Our shared faith story begins with a man and two sons—Adam, with Cain and Abel. Cain is a herder. Abel is a farmer. Both offer to God the first of their harvest/herd. For whatever reason Abel’s  is accepted and Cain’s rejected.  In a rage, Cain murders his brother and is marked by God.
 
The father of three major world religions had two sons—Abraham with Ishmael and Isaac. Ishmael is firstborn of the slave woman, Hagar. Isaac, however, is the covenant child, the one promised by God to Abraham and Sarah. Sarah and Hagar are constantly at odds and pour this strife onto their sons.
 
That covenant child, Isaac, had two sons as well, twins. Esau born first with Jacob, ‘Heel-grabber,’ immediately following. Crafty Jacob tricks Esau out of his birthright and his blessing, and then flees for his life from a murderous brother, to another country.
 
A man had two sons…and that is only three examples. All these stories crowd into the listeners’ minds as Jesus utters those simple words, and their focus is immediately on that younger son—lost Abel, promised Isaac, crafty Jacob who later becomes father Israel. God does amazing things with those younger sons.
 
But as the story unfolds it reveals a strange family. The younger son grabs his inheritance, runs off, and squanders it all on loose living. He ends up destitute and alone. A father who lets his son run off with all that money and puts up no protest, and yet is eagerly waiting to welcome that son back home. The forgotten older sons who isn’t invited to his own brother’s celebration, and indignant refuses to come into the party. This father and two sons couldn’t possibly be the patriarchs of faith, the larger-than-life figures of such pivotal stories…and yet…
 
The first family was hardly functional. Abraham was so often silent in the face of the unfolding family drama. Isaac, Esau, and Jacob has a lot of issues. These families were complicated, human, and messy. But despite the messiness and broken relationships, the man seeks reconciliation and restoration with his two sons at all costs. It doesn’t matter if the younger is repentant, the father falls upon this child in joy with tears and kisses. When the man realizes the older son is angry outside he leaves the party and goes out to meet him where he is, offering comfort, and urging and pleading for restoration. This is about repairing relationships no matter what. This is about absolute reconciliation…and such reconciliation is transformative.
 
A man had two sons…Cain and Abel is not just about the first murder and the loss of one brother. Cain is marked by God, protected by God. Must both brothers be lost?
 
A man had two sons…Ishmael and Isaac, as Amy-Jill Levine says in her commentary, if either is sacrificed, both are. We see their children at odds today, at war today. But Ishmael and Isaac reconciled and came together to bury their father. Can their children find a way to reconcile as well? Esau and Jacob make amends at the River Jabbok after Jacob wrestles with God and is renamed Israel.
 
A man had two sons…a parent has two children. Families are complicated. Relationships are messy. Communities take work. The question is, like the man in this story, in all these stories, can we grab reconciliation moments when we glimpse them coming? Are we willing to diligently watch for those opportunities? Will we lay our own stuff aside and go out to meet the moment and the ones lost? Because if we are…”it could be a far, far better thing we do than we have ever done…”
 
A man had two sons.

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