On Pushing the Boundaries
March 27, 2022
Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.
Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
So he told them this parable: “There was a man who had two sons. 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. 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. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 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. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 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! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ 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. 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.’ 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. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 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. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 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.’”
Today’s sermon is titled On Pushing the Boundaries.
Vitaliy is a young surgeon in Ukraine. He has been working nearly non-stop, living at the hospital in Kyiv, operating on civilians, mostly, but also on soldiers when the military hospital is overrun. Three soldiers were recently brought in, wearing Ukrainian military uniforms, but they spoke only Russian. The soldiers claimed to be from Kyiv, but it quickly became apparent to Vitaliy and his staff that these soldiers were a very long way from home and one of them was very badly injured. After weeks of working with his own two hands to remove Russian shrapnel and bullets from Ukrainian bodies, Vitaliy had a decision to make: treat the wounded soldiers right there, alongside civilians that may have been injured by those very same men, or hand them over to military authorities.
Lucy is a young mother living in England. She was brutally attacked in her own home by her former boyfriend. Lucy’s daughter found her the next morning and called 911. Lucy was hospitalized with “life-changing” injuries. Her attacker pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 6 years in prison but for those six years Lucy said she never once felt safe. Nearing the end of his sentence, the prisoner expressed interest in having the chance to apologize to Lucy in a safe and supervised setting if she was willing. Lucy had a decision to make: follow her own survival instincts or face her greatest fear of coming, once again, face-to-face with the man who had done so much damage.
These are true stories. These are accounts of real people struggling with whether or not to take what might be a great risk. They have every reason not to. They would both be justified in setting a boundary and simply saying, “No. I will not. I will not treat them. I will not hear his apology. They are in the wrong; I am in the right and that is that.”
When we meet Jesus in the scriptures today, he is running up against the same kind of invisible boundary. The scribes and Pharisees are criticizing Jesus for sharing food with the tax collectors and the prostitutes and the like. The holier-than-thou are making it clear that some people are not welcomed. Jesus responds to their unfair judgment with a story.
I have heard this story of the prodigal son my entire life, it seems, but I only learned this week that Jesus offers this story as a hyperbole, as an exaggerated example, so there is no way for the scribes and Pharisees (and anyone else who may be listening) to miss his point. His point is this: God welcomes all people, no exceptions.
To illustrate his point, Jesus makes up a story about a landowner and his two sons. The younger son asks for his inheritance; he is given his share of land and, presumably, he turns right around and sells it. The younger son is prodigal (prodigal meaning “wastefully extravagant”). He wastes his fortune and finds himself penniless and hungry, feeding pigs. So he returns home and is welcomed graciously, unquestionably back into the family fold. Only the faithful older brother is bitterly resentful, judgmental and angry.
To fully understand how outrageous this story is, we have to view it through the lens of someone living in first century Jewish culture in Palestine. In that time, if a son had asked his father for his inheritance while his father was still living, that would be grounds for disownment right then and there, leaving him with no inheritance at all. No son would risk even asking. The scribes and Pharisees, they know this. It is also highly unlikely that the son would sell the land. Biblical scholar Leslie Hoppe explains, “Jesus’s audience would have been shocked as much by the presumed sale of the land as they would have been by the son’s squandering of the proceeds from the sale. It was not just a question of a land-based economy, which led Jewish families to hold on to the ancestral lands. It was also a question of religious belief, since Jews considered their ancestral land holdings to be God’s gift to their families.”
Do you see what Jesus is doing here? He is giving detail after detail to illustrate just how far beyond the cultural boundaries the prodigal son ventured. Jesus doesn’t stop there. Next there is a famine and the youngest son finds work as a swineherd, feeding and caring for pigs. Pigs are unclean animals in Jewish culture; the scribes and Pharisees, they know this. No doubt they are thinking this Jewish boy is beyond hope, beyond redemption. But when the son returns home, after all of the disgrace and disrespect, after the squandering of his fortune and his humiliation as a swineherd, his father welcomes him, graciously, extravagantly. Everyone is elated except for the older brother. The older brother is resentful about the reconciliation.
Do you think the scribes and Pharisees recognize themselves in the resentful attitude of the older brother? that the resentment of the older brother is meant to point out their own resentment that Jesus is so welcoming with those they deem undeserving? I think those scribes and Pharisees are intelligent, to be sure, but are they self-reflective enough to see how unfair and how judgmental their position is? Can they see their own hesitancy in welcoming any and all people? Can they see how inconsistent that is with the scriptures they profess? Can the scribes and Pharisees admit that, surely, God calls them to welcome all people, and to welcome any and every chance for healing, for reconciliation? With this parable, Jesus shows the scribes and Pharisees what he could never point out directly. In his actions, ministering to each and every one, no matter their standing in society or lack thereof, Jesus became the embodiment of reconciliation, bringing the presence of God within reach to both sinners and saints.
In closing, Friends, I readily admit that I can not tell you exactly what God is. But this I can say with confidence: I see evidence of the existence of God in the world every day. I see the force of God in that young surgeon’s choice to ultimately treat the enemy soldiers as he would want to be treated were he to find himself behind enemy lines, wounded, and in great need.* I see the force of God in that young mother’s willingness to engage in Restorative Justice, to face her fear and risk the chance that forgiveness might free her; she said later that it was “the beginning of the rest of my life.” ** Our teacher, Jesus of Nazareth, pushed every boundary, even the boundary between life and death, to prove the power of love. May we, too, push the boundaries and live into the truth that we are all in one family of humankind. May we be both…human and kind. So be it. Amen.
God who is Father, Mother, All, I pray your blessings of peace upon us all this morning. This worldly life is fraught with hardship and disappointment and it can eclipse the light of Your presence among us. Help us, Lord, to attune our awareness of the divine that is intermingled with the ordinary, the blessings that come along with the tragedies, the beams of holy light that shine into the heart of darkness. For the parts of us that are fearful, grant us assurance; for the parts of us that feel unworthy, flood them with forgiveness. Strengthen us, we pray, when faced with difficulties within ourselves and within our culture; strengthen us with a love so tender that we become boundless and effectual, on every level of our beings. For the healing that is happening, we thank you; for the awareness that is deepening, we thank you; and for the guidance that is only a prayer away, we thank you. With hearts and minds yearning for peace and compassion and an end to all warring, we pray these words that Jesus gave us so long ago: Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not to temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever and ever. Amen.
I leave with you these words from George Fox dated 1683; he was the founder of the Religious Society of Friends, the Quakers:
“Keep close to that which is pure within you, that which leads you up to God.”