Not Even a Goat
“Not even a goat!” These are the words of the elder son to his father. The father had gone out to the field wher he is working. He pleads with him to join the celebration for his brother. To be accurate, our scripture says, “not even a young goat” because a young goat would be even less of a sacrifice than a full-grown goat. The elder son is bitter about the celebration that has been arranged for his younger foolish brother. He is bitter and angry at his father because of his father’s extravagance. “Okay, let the stupid kid come home. But, shouldn’t he be setting down limits, some condition upon the return of this son who has wasted away his inheritance prior to receiving him back into the household ?” From the elder sons place, the father’s generosity is shameful, scandalous even—a robe, the best one, a ring, the family’s gem-stone on his hand, sandals, washed feet and soft leather, and to top it off—"kill the fatted calf,” the one set aside and especially fed for a celebration or sacrifice in the temple.
“For him! The fool who wasted the fortune, Dad gives everything. But for me, who “kept the farm going”—'worked like a slave’—always obedient, me, I have been given nothing, not even a goat!”
To truly grasp the meaning that Jesus is trying to convey, we need to remember the context and background to this story. Jesus is telling this story, the last of three “lost and found” stories, to a group of disgruntled Pharisees and scribes. He’s telling them these “lost-and-found” parables as a teaching tool. The first one is about the lost sheep and the relentless seeking shepherd. The second, is about the woman looking for a lost coin. And this one, is about the lost son returning home to the father. He tells these stories in response to the accusations that the ruling elite of the synagogue and community have made about the company Jesus keeps. “These fellow welcomes sinner and eats with them.”
The Pharisees and scribes are the “gate keepers” of the faith. They are the ones who determine who will be the beneficiaries of the promises that are central to their religion and culture. “I will be your God and you will be my people.” “I will bless you!” But, from their point of view this promise is conditional.
“ You will be blessed , yes, but you have to obey the commandments—the rules”. The rules are all spelled out in the Scriptures. These grumblers are unhappy because the message of redemption and salvation
that Jesus is offering, a gift for repentance—or metanoia, in Greeks, this gift is being offered to and received by those who have not followed the rules. These guys, Pharisees and scribes, are the rule keepers, the enforcers of the Law and the Tradition. They are making sure that anyone who is included in the community has been adhering, obeying and practicing the rules—devotion, sacrifices, observing purity rituals-- bathing, food rituals, the giving of tithes—all this is required according to the Torah. But then, along comes this Jesus of Nazareth, and he has undermined their authority with his “free floating” and unconditional interpretations, and, what’s more, he even eats, shares food, with these “lowlifes”.
This free and unconditional acceptance of everyone, and particularly those who are dismissed by the powerful elite , is founded in the proclamation that Jesus made when he gave his first sermon in the synagogue in Nazareth. There he proclaimed that the promise from the prophet of Isaiah—remember the scripture;
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour. Luke 4:18
--remember that reading. And, remember what happened next. Remember how Jesus rolled up the scroll and sat down. And with all the faces in the synagogue upon him, he proclaimed: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Now Jesus is enacting that fulfilment. Now they, the Pharisees and scribes, are witnesses to this “fulfilment.” And they don’t like it one bit. How can anyone celebrate this liberal “revisionist” interpretation that is being played out before their eyes? They grumble and grieve about the undeserved, unearned generosity to which these sinners are responding. They, the Pharisees and scribes, have worked their whole lives to keep the community upright and pure, observe the rules. And what do they get for a reward for their effort —humiliation – nothing--“Not even a goat!”
In the story, Jesus draws a picture of God’s outrageous generosity and the openness of God’s inclusiveness to anyone who turns around— faces up to continuing in a wasteful, unfulfilling way of life. To the Jewish understandings of that period, the conduct of the second son is the absolute worst imaginable. The second son, who has no priority, asks for, and, is given his birthright-. Outrageous and unimaginable! Then he wastes it – “squanders it in desolate living.” This depiction, by Jesus, is one of a “non-person” to their understanding. The young man has forsaken his people, his household, and family. He has lost his religion – living in a corrupt land and eating with pigs. He is, in the minds of rule keepers, completely outside, totally “finished” as a part of their community.
But, in Jesus’ story his relationship with the community is restored. He recovers his place with one action and one word. He turns around. He acknowledges his error. He admits his “sin”, While far from home, he practices his confession..:… I have sinned before heaven and before you -- and he returns in humility. That’s the action. And the word: “Father.” He acknowledges his progenitor, his Creator and benefactor – “Father!” He submits to the authority of the Father. Grace lies at the heart of this parable. Mercy and Grace are the gifts of the Father. This is a scandalous grace. A grace that defies all rules, all conventions.
Because we focus on the “bad” son, we neglect to pay attention to the Father. The Father goes out to greet the son. The Father has been out looking up the road waiting for his wayward son to return. Yet while he was far off his father saw him and was filled with compassion… He runs to greet him. What we have here is an example of the economy of God. The mere return, the coming around or “wising-up” actions of the wayward son are not enough in God’s world. The return must be celebrated. It must be celebrated extravagantly, with the very best—a “makeover” and a feast.
While we enjoy the repentance story, and like the idea of the feast, many of us in church today may often find ourselves much more in line with the thinking of the firstborn son. Many of us are reluctant to include, to open our hearts and our church’s doors to any and all sinners who show repentance and desire to be part of our “Household”. Many of us have been part of the church and its conventions, its doctrines, for a long time. We have stood for what is right and good. We have worked hard, some might say “slaved.” We have seen, or perhaps heard about, what happens out there in the world. We have not ventured far from the homestead. When we characterize those who we find difficult to welcome, we might even fall into some forms of exaggeration like the firstborn son when he accuses his younger brother of hanging out with “prostitutes.”
We are not thinking about how bringing someone who has been excluded will enhance us, offer some yet to be discovered gift, give us something to celebrate. We think about how it will contaminate us. The Pharisees and scribes see Jesus’ form of inclusion, his “eating with sinners” not as something to celebrate. It is the most contemptable thing one might do. This behavior, the intimacy of eating with the hand from the same dish. This utterly is disgusting.
Likewise we too may, hold greedily to our blessings, even with those with whom we do share our values—we wouldn’t celebrate ,” kill a fatted calf’—why that would be a waste. We don’t expect a celebration —not even a small goat.
Again and again, our bible stories show us how God’s economy is far more generous, far more inclusive, than our own. Again and again, we are reminded to “go deeper,” deeper that the rule book, deeper than our habitual practices, deeper than our maintenance of rules and culturally- held traditions.
The Hebrew Bible contains many rule-breaking stories of God’s generosity. The story of Ruth, the story of Naaman the leper cured by Elisha the prophet. Throughout the New Testament, Jesus is living out a gospel of inclusion “good news to the poor”—lepers, hemorrhaging women, Gentile Roman centurions and Ethiopian eunuchs—all outsiders are included in the household of God that Jesus presents. “In my father’s house there are many mansions.” John 14: 2.
The challenge for us today is to hear the words of Jesus. The challenge for us today, on this Fourth Sunday in the season of Lent, is to see our own need for repentance, our own need for metanoia—a turn around. We need to begin to follow Jesus’s teaching and offer mercy, not only judgement. Mercy Now. We need to buy into our Holy God’s economy – the one that Jesus chose while on his forty-day vigil in the wilderness when he rejected the three temptations of the Satan. The first-- not living “by bread alone’’ – understanding and accepting that our blessings are mostly spiritual, not material. The second “all this will be yours”-- not making the Kingdom our own -- not taking possession of God’s territory, the landscape, the ownership —relinquishing, emptying ourselves of the power that we believe we possess, letting God have the power and the glory. And the third – leaping out in certitudes, not being so absolute in our convictions, our righteousness, not laying down ultimatums—throwing ourselves down, “from our high temples” and expecting God to save us – God is on “our” side.
We need to acknowledge our abundance and know that God has always been with us. We need to humble ourselves, examine and acknowledge our own weakness, Our “lostness,” if you will. We need to acknowledge that all that we have has always been a gift. God is always with us. We need to celebrate and rejoice—rejoice and be joyful about our own “good news”, we are redeemed forgiven, the “good news” is living within us and living through us through God’s grace. We need to acknowledge God’s scandalous, extravagant mercy and grace for us and all God’s Creation, all of God’s children, all of humanity. We need to find ways to let the world experience God’s crazy “prodigal” --wasteful, --that’s what the word means, foolishly wasteful, a generous abundance, a huge surplus, to let that be visible in our own lives and the life of our church.
And perhaps we could hold back and deliver fewer complaints: --“Not even a goat!” Let’s acknowledge our salvation, our metanoia, our turn around, our acceptance back into our Father’s household. Let’s show more joy! Forget the goat. Bring on the “fatted calf”