The Running Father
Prepared remarks by Dr. Steven Bouma-Prediger, the Leonard and Marjorie Maas Professor of Theology
Sunday, May 5, 2019
Dimnent Memorial Chapel
Before the sermon, a brief word to you students, the Hope College class of 2019. Congratulations! You have worked hard to achieve this milestone in your life. You learned how to solve differential equations and craft persuasive essays. You spent long hours in the lab and late nights in the library. You participated in the Pull and Nykerk, Dance Marathon and a whole host of other activities. But remember that you have not done this by yourself. Many people have helped you along the way — friends and classmates, faculty and staff, donors and alums — but most notably members of your own family. So sometime today don't forget to say thank you.
A wise Hope College professor from three generations ago once said that the Christian gospel is summarized in a story buried in the middle of the Gospel of Luke. In chapter 15 Luke records for us three powerful stories about the lost: the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son. After the parable of the lost sheep, who is sought out and found by its shepherd, and after the parable of the lost coin, which is found by the woman who lights her lamp and carefully searches her house, comes the parable of the lost son, otherwise famously known as the parable of the prodigal son. Jesus the Master Storyteller sings out “Once upon a time... ” and winsomely tells a tale that pierces its hearers to the heart. But is this story really about a so-called prodigal son? Listen, whether for the fiftieth or for the first time, to this evocative parable.
I couldn’t believe it. I just couldn’t believe it. None of us could believe it. It was unthinkable, impossible. In our village no one had ever made such a request before. “Give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” Those were his very words. Carefully chosen words, they were. He slyly avoided using the word “inheritance” for that would imply family responsibility. But taking his share of the family responsibility was the farthest thing from his mind. This boy wasn’t interested in building his father’s house. He was a homewrecker, not a homebuilder.
The shame of it all. We were all shamed by the request that Jacob made to his father. The entire household was embarrassed by this self-centered request from this ungrateful son. For what was most shocking was that, with this impertinent request, the boy proclaimed his desire for his father to die. It was a death wish, this request. “Father, I wish you were dead,” was what he was really saying. What kind of son says that about his father? The pride of him, and the shame for us. Unthinkable.
We all wondered what our master would do. Some of us bet that he would do what every other village father would do: put this mutinous kid in his place, discipline him in no uncertain terms or maybe even disown him. But our master, Jacob’s father, did as his son requested. With a wounded heart, or so it seemed to me, he divided his property between his stay-at-home older son and this rebellious younger son. Our master gave Jacob one third of his assets: one third of the houses, one third of the land, one third of the animals. He gave him what the Torah requires for the younger son’s inheritance, and in only a few days Jacob had converted it to cash. You can guess what Jacob got for it all — the sheep, the goats, the land. He was forced to sell cheap because it was a buyer’s market. But sell he did, even under those circumstances. Well, this was quite a blow to the family. To lose one third of our wealth in such a short time was a staggering loss. How would we recover? How could we?
All of us in the village knew that this broken relationship between Jacob and his father should have been healed. There should have been reconciliation, but for that to happen there had to be a go-between. And we all knew this mediator should have been the older son, Levi. For duty’s sake, he should have intervened to bring his father and younger brother together. Even if he disliked his brother, for the sake of his father he should have been the mediator. But for some strange reason he did nothing; for some reason he did not want reconciliation. We then realized that he, too, had a strained relationship with his father. The family was more broken than we thought. “Get lost,” Levi said, “and if you die, so be it.” For what Jacob had done, Levi no longer considered him his brother.
Once he had traded his inheritance for cash, Jacob set off. No farewell parties, no well wishes from family and friends, no one pleading with him to stay. He just wandered off all by himself, which is apparently what he wanted. Be his own boss. Do his own thing. I spied him leaving early that morning, as the sun was breaking just over the horizon, hot and dry. I wondered how he would survive. Did he really know what he was doing? I feared for him. Where was home if not here? But most of the other servants said, “Good riddance!” After what he had done, it was not surprising they reacted that way. But I worried. Vagabonds are not trusted. It’s dangerous out there. Where will he find home?
And, oh, the risk he took! I saw him head off in the direction of the land of the Gentiles. We all knew what that meant. Any Jew who lost his inheritance among the Gentiles would not be welcome back home. If he tried to return, he would be cut off. He would have burned his bridges. He would be homeless.
That day I noticed my master’s face. It was frozen in pain. Lined with grief. I knew he suffered. He was estranged from both his sons. His home was broken.
From what I later learned, Jacob traveled into a far country, a long way from his own people. There he squandered his money among the unclean Gentiles. Spendthrift that he was, Jacob scattered all his money like seed thrown upon the ground. He threw big parties, dished out expensive gifts and built a reputation for generosity. He bought esteem. He gained status. He was living, so he thought, the good life.
When he had squandered everything, spent his last dime, a severe famine descended on the land, like a blanket of dread, and Jacob was in need. He thought briefly about returning home, but that was impossible. He would have to face his scornful brother and live forever indebted to him. And he would have to face the entire village and the near certainty of being forever an exile mocked and taunted by the community. This was too much to bear. He wasn’t that desperate. He still, after all, had his pride.
But Jacob’s life was getting very difficult. His money was gone and his so-called friends had vanished. He pawned his outer coat, his family ring and his shoes for money to buy some food to feed his empty gut. Around him people were stealing food, beggars were multiplying faster than cockroaches, and some old people were dying of starvation. The famine was brutal. He tried begging, but he was a foreigner and no one gave him anything. So Jacob tried to get work at a prominent local farm. In fact, he begged for work — said he’d do anything for a meager meal.
Knowing that Jacob was a Jew (and that Jews detested pigs) and wanting to get rid of this foreign beggar, the Gentile farmer offered him a job he was sure Jacob would refuse — feeding pigs. But to the man’s great surprise, Jacob took the job and went to the field to feed the pigs. This good Jewish boy was in an unclean land among unclean people feeding unclean animals. Life couldn’t get any worse than this.
But it did. Jacob got so desperate that he longed to eat the very food the pigs ate. Jacob had gone off the bottom of the Jewish social ladder and could get no lower. He had descended to live like swine, craving pig slop but unable to eat it because his stomach simply couldn’t take it.
One day Jacob hit bottom. He was so starved that his hunger overcame his shame. So he resolved to go home. Even the slaves back home, he reasoned, had it better than he did. They weren’t working with pigs and wishing they could eat pig slop. Even the servants on the farm back home had enough to eat, with some to spare. Others had food, while he was hungry. It was simple. He would go to where the food was.
So he hatched a plan. He knew he would be cut off from his family if he returned without the money. That was the long-established custom: restoration was impossible until he paid his debts. But what could he do to earn money? He could not ask to be taken back as a son; he had forfeited that honor. Nor could he ask to be taken in as a slave; slaves didn’t make any money. But he could earn money as a skilled craftsman. That was it! He would try to persuade his father to hire him as a craftsman’s apprentice, and then he would use the money to eventually pay off his debts. The problem was all about money, was it not? So Jacob carefully crafted a speech designed to convince his father to give him another chance: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you.” And then he added his request: “I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your skilled laborers.”
This plan, he thought, was perfect. This would allow him to live in the nearby village with the other skilled workers rather than at home with his angry older brother. This would allow him to make up for the money he lost without having to ask for anyone’s help. This would allow him to put all his problems behind him without really asking for forgiveness. If only he could convince his father to trust him one more time.
And so Jacob set off. As he approached his hometown, he was famished and exhausted. He had been walking for days. And his anxiety increased as he anticipated a gauntlet of rejection from the villagers. He expected to sit outside his family home, maybe for many days, until being summoned by his father. He was beginning to doubt whether his plan would work and whether he was willing to pay the price.
But what Jacob saw as he approached his hometown he could not believe. His eyes deceived him, he thought. This must be an illusion. We saw it, too, those of us working on the edge of town that dreary day, and we didn’t believe it either. Nothing like this had ever happened before. This was incredible! But our eyes were not deceived. There was our master, Jacob’s father, running — in fact, racing — toward Jacob as fast as his aged legs could carry him. Now in our town, no man of his age runs anywhere. It is undignified. And among my people, the head of the household goes out to no one. People come to him. And further yet, my master had hitched up his robe to run faster, thus showing his legs. This was most humiliating and shameful!
The only explanation I could think of for such public humiliation was that this running father was filled with compassion for his homeless son. And so it was that when the running father met his stunned son, he embraced him and kissed him again and again. Somehow, my master had a hunch that his long-lost son was returning home, and fearing the ridicule and rejection his son would face from the villagers, my master was filled with compassion. So he violated all the social conventions and ran out to greet his son to save him from the scorn and pain. An unprecedented homecoming for a son thought long lost and likely dead.
What happened next exceeded our already astonished imaginations. Jacob, finally freeing himself from his father’s bear hug, fell down at his father’s feet and began the speech he had memorized while walking home those many miles: “Father I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But he could not finish. He could not pitch his plan. For through his tears he finally saw what his pride had so long blinded him from seeing: his father’s suffering, his father’s love, his father’s longsuffering love. The young man’s scheme dried up like a drop of water in the desert, and genuine remorse filled his aching heart. Overwhelmed by the outpouring of his father’s love, Jacob abandoned his plan and simply threw himself at the mercy of his father. At long last he acknowledged being lost and accepted being found.
By then, most of the town was gawking in amazement. My master’s house servants, friends of mine, had finally caught up with him, and as they were catching their breath, he told them, “Bring out the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his finger and shoes on his feet.” So Simon ran back to the main house and got the most beautiful robe and put it on Jacob. Meanwhile, Samuel ran back and fetched the family signet ring and a pair of fancy shoes and put those on Jacob as well. It was very clear to us that this lost boy was no outcast, no untrustworthy servant, no slave. He was a son — a beloved son.
Then the master told us to stop work and start the party. Kill the fatted calf, cook that prime veal, break out the best wine and celebrate, the master said, “because this son of mine was dead and is now alive; he was lost and is found.” So party we did. It was glorious. A fitting end to a most unusual day. Except for one thing: I noticed that Jacob’s older brother, Levi, wasn’t there. Why wasn’t he at the party? I suspected I already knew the answer. And after a while I noticed the master had also gone missing.
I set out for the field where Levi had been supervising workers earlier in the day. On the path to the field, quite near the house, I came upon Levi and his father locked in a heated argument. Levi had apparently heard the music and singing and started toward the house. He had asked one of the young boys milling around what was going on. He didn’t remember any party planned for this day.
“Your brother has appeared,” one boy blurted out, “and your father has killed the fatted calf.” The boys then told Levi the whole story as they had heard it from the villagers.
“My brother?” Levi spit out loud. “What brother would that be?” In his view he had no brother. He had hoped his father’s younger son was dead. But somehow he had showed up again? How could that be? Impossible! “And the fatted calf has been slaughtered?” he repeated aloud to himself. Butchering the fatted calf meant a great celebration was in the making. For this? Impossible! And worst of all, “My father has reconciled with this scoundrel of a son? Is eating with him? How can there be peace?” he murmured under his breath. Impossible!
“Where are my rights?” I heard Levi exclaim to his father as I approached silently along the path. “For all these years I have worked like a slave for you. I have been faithful. I have never disobeyed your command. And yet you have never given me even a scrawny goat so that I might party with my friends. This is not fair!” He paused briefly to catch his breath, veins bulging from his neck, anger reddening his ears, his black eyes glaring at his father.
“But when this son of yours came back, the one who squandered your property with prostitutes, you kill the fatted calf for him? This isn’t right!” He screamed it with all the passion in him. The partygoers inside the main house heard it over the music. Some of them came outside to see what all the ruckus was about. What would happen now? This was a most serious personal insult to the guests, and embarrassment for the father, because all male family members of the host were expected at a party to greet all the guests, and the oldest son was expected to serve as the headwaiter. Now this full-blown dispute was in full view of the entire village. There could be no private rebuke for this most public insult.
We all waited to see how the father would respond. For this flagrant public rebellion a son would normally be promptly punished. But I wasn’t so sure. I had seen the agony on my master’s face when Jacob left home. I had witnessed the most unusual events earlier on this day. I had watched in amazement as this running father greeted his lost son and embraced him with compassion. I was now present for this confrontation with the older son, and it did not escape me that the father who had taken the initiative to meet his younger son had now gone out to meet his older son. Twice in one day he had violated established social customs to meet an estranged family member. What would happen this time?
We watched, in shock, as this father now further humbled himself by publicly pleading with his petulant son. This father, already enduring the shame of a public dispute, entreated his older son to be reconciled — to him and to his brother. This father, out of the depths of his deep love, begged his son to participate in his offer of peace. In response to his son’s anger, envy and pride, the father firmly but gently spoke: “My dear son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. We had to celebrate, because this brother of yours was lost and has been found.” Once again we could not believe our eyes and ears. Grace, pure grace, for both rebellious sons. Then the final question: Would the elder son accept it? Would he, like his younger brother, acknowledge being lost and accept being found?
I am old now, but I remember that day like it was yesterday. Firmly etched in my mind’s eye, I recall each detail of each scene. I remember each spoken word. I will never forget the compassionate father and his two lost sons. I will never forget the depth of this father’s love nor the breadth of his mercy. As long as I live I will never forget the running father.
Students, never forget this Parable of the Running Father.
When the wild-eyed dogs of day to day
Come snapping at your heels
And there's so much coming at you
That you don't know how to feel
When they've taken all your money
And then come back for your clothes
When your hands are full of thorns
But you can't quit groping for the rose
When thoughts you've tried to leave behind
Keep sniping from the dark
When the fire burns inside you but
You jump from every spark
When your heart's beset by memories
You wish you'd never made
When the sun comes up an enemy
And nothing gives you shade*
Never forget that when you are lost, God loves you more than you can ever fathom and longs to embrace you with that love.
Class of 2019, we love you, and wish for you God's blessings of love.
Shalom. Go in peace. Amen.
*Lyrics from the song “Southland of the Heart,” by Bruce Cockburn
[More on this sermon and the larger theme can be found in the book Beyond Homelessness: Christian Faith in a Culture of Displacement by Steven Bouma-Prediger and Brian Walsh, published by Eerdmans in 2008.]