Monday, February 29, 2016

Important Words


When it is time to prepare a sermon for Christmas or Easter, it is easy to lose sight of the biblical texts assigned for those days. Sure, it's Luke 2 or John 20. You don't even need to look them up. You already know what they say. Sometimes in the lectionary the occasion or the story is so big and so familiar that we forget to pay careful attention to the text. This week, as we prepare for the refreshing Fourth Sunday in Lent, we have the Parable of the Prodigal Son to consider, and I will suggest to you that, whether you're preparing to hear it or preach on it on Sunday, spending time this week refamiliarizing yourself with the already familiar text is valuable.

A quick reading has already led me to a thesis for Sunday's sermon, but I'm forcing that to wait. I'm putting into an intellectual box, where I hope it will sit and germinate until Wednesday, when I can check and see if it looks like it will bear fruit. Between now and then, I want to focus on some tiny aspects of the text that hopefully will shape the sermon that will come out of that box.

For today, I want to start with the second half of the parable--the part that involves the older brother and his father. Notice some of the words that are used in the parable:

When the older brother came in from the field and learned that his younger sibling had returned and that his father was throwing a party for him, "he became angry and refused to go in." He refused. Notice that word "refused." The brother wasn't just uninterested. He didn't just skip it. He was defiant. He was scandalized. Actually, however, the Greek isn't quite that strong. It's clear from the text that the son "was not willing" to go in, but the outright refusal of the NRSV overstates it a little bit. Maybe we're supposed to hear more of an opening in this line than English "refused" allows.

And what was the father's response to his "indignant" (Greek word in v. 28) son? Upon hearing that his elder son would not enter the celebration, he "came out and began to plead with him. He pleaded. Notice the word "plead." Isn't it remarkable that the father would plead--beg, entreat, cajole--the son to come to the party? The only other time Luke uses this word for "plead" is in Luke 8:1, when Jarius falls at Jesus's feet and begs him to come and heal his near-death daughter. This isn't a word for a polite request. It's a desperate begging. Why would the father do that? Why not just let him go and be stubborn? Maybe we are supposed to see that the celebration cannot be complete as long as the older brother refuses to participate. Maybe the father's invitation to the older brother is as important as the forgiveness he bestows upon the younger son.

How does the father explain this celebration to his faithful son? I can see the father placing a hand on the son's shoulder when he says, "We had to celebrate and rejoice..." We had to. Notice how that is rendered in modern English as "had to." The KJV uses Rite I language and renders it, "It was meet that we should make merry." The Greek word is edei, which means that it was "binding." It was "necessary" or "inevitable." This is simply what happens. There must be a celebration. It isn't even an option. Maybe we need to embrace the unavoidability of this feast of forgiveness. Maybe there's a reason for us to see it not as the father's choice but as the only fitting response to the return of the lost.

The brother was not willing to go in. The father pleaded with him to enter. Why? Because it is the only fitting response. That sounds like a sermon in the making. We'll see.

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