“I get in trouble for being honest. Sometimes I think I should lie.” This is what an acquaintance of mine named Joe told me after he’d been turned down for another job.
“They say I’m too big of a risk; that they don’t know what would happen if they let me in.” He had been applying for work every day for almost a year, and the answer was usually something similar. This particular time it was to work the overnight shift at a supermarket in the small town where he lived. He is trying to be responsible. He is trying to participate in culture. But it is difficult. He wants the supplement the support he is receiving from his parents, but no one will hire him — even to do the most basic things. All the “no’s” are making him quite desperate.
You see, Joe is being treated for schizophrenia, and he is up front with the interviewers regarding his condition. “Maybe you could forget to tell them once and see what happens,” I said … trying to be supportive. “I’m not always right,” he said, “I think it is only fair that they know that.”
“But you are much better than you were just a year or so ago,” I said. “You and the doctors are trying … is there nothing redemptive about that?” He shrugged and changed the subject. Obviously, the string of rejections wasn’t helping his mental state, nor was it helping his desire to be re-incorporated into the community where he grew up.
He hadn’t always been this way … or at least it wasn’t quite as pronounced. When he was much younger, he played on that supermarket’s little league team; he was invited into the homes of his neighbors to play with their children. He bought dime candy in their downtown. He rode his bicycle on their streets. He was named prince of the annual summer festival.
And then something just seemed to snap. His parents didn’t know what to do with him. He had become angry, unhappy and lethargic. He didn’t come out of the basement for days. He finally said “I want to go live with grandma.”
So he packed up what he had and went west. But grandma couldn’t handle him any better than his folks. He got into drugs and lost his job. Grandma kicked him out of her house, so he started living in his car at state parks. For the better part of two years, he wandered the backwoods of America until he ended up back in his hometown.
By that point Joe was practically unrecognizable. He was unkempt, unclean and kept talking to himself. Rumors quickly swirled through town that there was a crazy terrorist living in his car planning on blowing up the old steel bridge just outside of town.
A couple of weeks later, his folks saw him drive by. They were elated and frightened as his white Chevy Cavalier drove by with a backseat piled with clothes and garbage. They were elated because they had assumed the worst … that he had killed himself, died of an overdose, or was the victim of some truck-stop assailant.
They were frightened because they didn’t know what to do. The invited him back to his boyhood home and spent most nights in tears because they didn’t know how to communicate with him. He was lost somewhere in his own mind … he was incapable of talking about anything with his family.
It took a while, but he was finally diagnosed with schizophrenia and began treatment. He has now done and is doing everything he can to become part of his town again, but his everything is evidently not enough.
After my conversation with Joe, I began doing some soul searching of my own … “What kinds of things would I hide in order to be accepted? In what situations would I be completely honest and risk getting hurt in the process?”
The even harder question was: “If he wasn’t already close to me, would I allow him to enter into my circle? Would I give him a job? Would I be seen with him at a restaurant or a high school basketball game? Would I invite him to my home?”
I think, ultimately we all have our limits. We have edges we don’t want to fall off of, and borders we don’t want to cross.
We human beings have a long history of establishing rules in order to protect the things we value. We have levels of tolerance and expectations of performance. Rules are the framework for our culture. When we follow them, we are rewarded (or at minimum left alone).
When we break them, we are punished. This is what motivates us … we follow rules, and adhere to social mores and customs out of fear for what may become of us … we follow the laws of governments, communities and every other social structure because we are afraid of the consequences for doing something contrary.
We believe it is our morality which separates us from the other parts of creation. And if we compromise the rules which order our morality, the our whole social order is threatened.
Now, if this becomes our whole construct for living … if this becomes the way we enter into relationships and live in community, we end up with situations like the one Joe has found himself in. He is, after all, well outside their basic framework, and things that exist outside a social framework … things that can’t be defined by rules … they are the most frightening of all. This is what the son from Jesus’ parable in today’s (tonight’s) reading from Luke has to contend with when he decides to go back home.
When he comes to his senses — after blowing through half of his family’s estate — he heads back to try and get a job as one of his pop’s field workers. It may have been the only choice he could make, but he has to be out of his mind. He’s not thinking clearly about the way he violated the community’s laws when he dishonored his father; by asking for an inheritance, he said you’re worth more to me dead. And his insolence would not have gone unnoticed.
The people of his hometown wouldn’t want this guy hanging around their families … he would certainly be a bad influence on their children. Imagine if he convinced more boys to do the same! It would be devastating to their economy and would undermine the whole social structure.
So as he approached the gate of town through the farmland, I imagine people would have been rushing to greet him with his punishment before he could get inside the walls of their hometown. By tradition, a jar of sticky and smelly plant and animal renderings waited to be broken over his head to officially bring to an end the return of this boy who had no respect for their rules and honor. He was to be marked.
There was a certain standard necessary for living in their town, and he was not welcome because he hadn’t lived by it before. You’re too big of a risk. We can’t let you in here.
Obviously, this son had no fear left in him … or he feared the life he had been living more than the possibilities of mob violence back in his hometown. That life was going nowhere. If he wasn’t eating, he was soon to be dead anyway, so he takes a calculated in returning to his father’s house.
Knowing what the mob had in mind for him and the futureless existence his son would have if they got to him first, the father takes off running to him. The father could have easily been captured by fear … not knowing what to do. But he hikes up his tunic and enters a footrace to beat the town to his son.
Jesus says the father was filled with compassion when he saw him … this is not the kind of compassion we imagine … like the in one of those movies where the two loves see each other across a field of wildflowers and take off running and meet in embrace (in slow motion, as the violin section swells with a great crescendo something in a really happy key).
No his compassion is to literally save his son’s life. It is more like a foot soldier running in to prevent another from tripping an landmine. His father risks his reputation in his running to receive him and hide him in his arms … and not just risks his reputation, but pretty much ruins whatever he had left by running to the son. The father is made lower so the son can return to some degree of normalcy. He does the same for older son who, after becoming indignant, leaves the party and further dishonors the family. Like his younger brother, he would have been the target of public humiliation and possibly death for his actions. So the story ends how it began, with the father … out of this bizarre love for children who don’t “deserve” it, sitting on the stoop and waiting for his other son to come back home.
This story is the third and final parable that Jesus tells to address the grumbling of the “righteous” who believed that he, because of his actions and the people he associated with, was not a leader of the law. He was someone who took too many risks. He was not bound by their culture and rules. When they came to him, Jesus let people into his space. When they reached out to him, he opened up his life so they would have room to live. This radical love was a full-scale protest against the ways of the righteous. And it was producing radical results.
Jesus lives like the father in this story. He lives in the way he believed God asked him to live … as an agent of embrace in a culture of exclusion … as one who witnesses history, present and the future through the lens of love. Love is the norm for Jesus.
This is the power of grace and the goal of God … to restore the fallen to a degree of normalcy. The gospel is not about prosperity (as some TV preachers would have you think), it is about a great leveling of life and faith. It is good news because it seats everyone at the same table … it seats everyone at the feast to share in the fatted calf. The rule of God is this kind of love; It is a love built on radical hospitality that greets the radical risk-takers who choose to come home knowing what might happen when they do. Love overcomes fear for those who put their trust in it. Love spills into the darkness with just enough light to allow all of us caught up in it to make it back.
Every day, we are given the opportunity to come in from the darkness where we live out of fear … It may be the kind of darkness where Joe and the younger son live as outcasts of judgement or choice. It may be the kind of darkness their towns live in for fear of their world becoming more of an unknown. It may be the kind of darkness the older brother thrusts himself into out of entitlement and jealousy. In whichever darkness we reside, God invites us back into the light. And, by grace, God will wait for your return. By grace, God will wait for you to accept that you are accepted. By grace, God will wait for your anger to subside and your jealousy to wain.
And we are given that opportunity because our God gives everything of God’s self out of love for all. In Jesus, we meet that love. In Jesus, we encounter the shepherd who welcomes us home; the woman who throws a party in our honor; and a parent who will risk it all — one who is truly prodigal — by wasting a fortune of divinity so our humanity would be complete. That grace is the foundation of home. Know that you are welcome there. And know that you are loved.