Being Right or Maintaining Relationships 08 21 11

My sermon from August 21st, 2011 based on Luke 15:1-3, 11-32. 3rd of 3 in Found! series.

I have a friend who is always right. It’s not that he really knows more than everyone around him, but when a difference of opinion arises, he’s always right. And it’s interesting, it’s not really even that he wants to be helpful and to make sure that others have accurate information; it’s simply that he’s always right. I imagine that some of you might know people like this; maybe you have someone like this in your family, that person who always has to be right, no matter what the topic of conversation, no matter much or how little they know about the topic, they just always have to be right.

Can you think of someone like that in your life? A friend, a neighbor, a co-worker, a family member… How is your relationship with that person? Do you feel particularly close to them? Are they someone in whom you feel like you can confide and really trust? Do you often go to them to ask them questions because you know that their vast expanse of knowledge will be helpful in finding the answer that you seek? Or do you find yourself shying away from them, hesitating to ask them questions, hoping that a dispute doesn’t arise so that they have a chance to show off how right they are?

My experience with the person who is always right is that I don’t really want to be around them much. I don’t really want engage them in conversation or hear what they have to say. When someone always has to be right I find it to create a barrier to our relationship. Anyone else had this experience?

Today we conclude a three-week look at Luke 15 and the three different parables of Jesus found here. Two weeks ago we began this series by looking at the parable of the lost sheep. In this parable Jesus challenged the listeners, and in turn us, to think about the nature of a shepherd who seeks out 1 lost sheep to bring it back to the fold.

As we reflected on this story we saw the reality that sometimes we’re like the 1 who wanders and is lost. In these situations and times of life we know the good news of a God who seeks us and will come to us to bring us back to the fold.

We also named the reality that at times we’re a part of the 99, the flock left behind to care for one another. In this example we also played through the idea that we as the church are to be the body of Christ in the world today and that if we are to be the body of Christ we are to partner with God in the work of shepherding and helping the lost be found.

As a way of living out our understanding of this story we then had a great opportunity through the following week to be in the community with the fair parade and the fair seeking to connect people to the story of the things that God is doing in and through our community.

Last week we talked about the woman searching for her lost coin and explored the possibility that she so desperately sought it because of what it meant to her on an emotional or sentimental level, not because of it’s monetary value. As an extension of this idea we talked about our call to extend God’s love to others and to help them find God in and through our church because of the value that lost people have to God, not monetarily, but emotionally or sentimentally.

Today’s story is also about something that has been lost being found, but it contains a much greater level of detail and complexity than the first two. And so while on one level it still tells us the remarkable story of God’s love who seeks the lost and rejoices when they are found, I want us also this morning to look at this story through the lens of our human need to be right and the way in which that can harm our relationships.

There is a young boy, the youngest of two sons, who grows up working with his dad and his older brother on the family farm. At some point in late adolescence or early adulthood (that time in our lives when we tend to do our clearest most rational thinking…) this young man decides that he wants to receive his inheritance now. According to the societal laws of the time, this young man would have been entitled to one third of his father’s property when his father died – the older brother would receive the other two-thirds.

But this young man didn’t want to wait. He wanted his inheritance now. Sure, 1/3 of what his dad had now, could end up being significantly less than 1/3 of what his father had years later after the father and his two sons continued to farm and to grow the worth of the operation. But the son didn’t want to wait for the possibility of a greater inheritance later. He wanted his now.

To request that his dad give him his inheritance now, before his dad was dead, was an unusual request to be sure, but it was a request that would have been well within his legal rights. When this son asked for his share of his inheritance he was within his rights, he could do that, there was no real reason not to. The son was right.

But the youngest son’s actions, though they were right, for all practical purposes ended his relationship with his father. To take his inheritance and to leave his home country clearly made the statement that this young man’s father was dead to him, that his family was dead to him. He was right, and still those relationships were deeply harmed.

The youngest son takes his inheritance and leaves town and the story that unfolds from there is all too familiar. I can imagine that the earliest days and weeks of the youngest sons time in this new place were exciting and wonderful as they were filled with new experiences. I’m guessing that this youngest son spared no expense in providing himself with every pleasure he could want. I’m guessing that he was incredibly generous, buying food and drinks for those around him, his newest friends and those people he was trying to impress.

There is nothing in the text to indicate how long this lasted, how many months or years he was able to live this high life on the inheritance that he had received. What we do know is that it didn’t last forever. His money ran out at the same time that a great famine hit the land. Suddenly this youngest son is a stranger in a strange land with no money or resources and no family to support him.

For a season the young man goes to work in the fields of a man in the foreign land where he is living. He is barely making enough to survive, isn’t getting the food that he needs, and finds himself considering eating some of the pods that he is feeding to the pigs in the field. Somewhere in the midst of this hunger and his despair he comes to himself. The young man has an aha moment and decides that he’ll return to his homeland and see if his father might hire him as a hired hand. It would be still be hard work, but he knows that the men who work for his father have enough to eat.

As the young man makes his return journey home, he rehearses the speech that he’s going to make to his father, a speech that has four distinctive parts.

The speech begins with an address, “Father.” This detail is significant, as the young man’s previous actions had treated his father as if he were already dead. This address, calling this man “Father” makes the statement that the young man regrets his previous action and wishes now to reestablish relationship over and above being right.

The second element of the son’s speech is a confession, “I have sinned.” He acknowledges the wrong that he has done.

Thirdly the son expresses contrition, “I am no longer worthy.”

And finally the son makes a petition, “treat me like one of your hired hands.” The son does not suppose to return to the relationship of father and son, he acknowledges that he has done wrong, wrong that he assumes to be beyond repair.

When the youngest son returns home the dad has rights, just as the young son had rights in asking for his inheritance in the first place. The dad could have said, what are you doing here? I have already given you what is yours, you have treated me as if I were dead to you, there is nothing here for you, no family, no possibility, you need to move on… Dad has a right to be furious, to keep the son cut off. He had the right, he could have chosen to be right, just as the son had been right earlier in the story, but he didn’t.

The dad sees his lost son approaching on the horizon and Luke explains his reactions like this, [the]father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.”

And as the father embraces and kisses the long lost son the son begins to recite the speech that he had worked on perfecting, but only gets through the first three sections, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But before the son can get to the petition, before he can make his request, the father interrupts his speech and calls for servants to bring the best robe, to bring a ring for the son’s finger and sandals for his feet. He orders that the fatted calf be killed and prepared for a celebration.

The father had rights, but he chooses to restore relationship and to emphasize the importance of the relationship over being right. His son has returned. It is a joyous time!

The youngest son, in making his decision to leave home, exercises his rights and destroys a relationship.

The father, in welcoming his son home, restores and maintains the relationship instead of insisting on being right.

The older son, the faithful son, the son who had stayed home for all of those years is coming in from the field when he learns about what is going on, that his brother had returned and his dad was celebrating the return. Luke tells us that this oldest son, refuses to go into the celebration and so his father comes out to plead with him. Hear what the oldest son has to say to 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!”

Is the elder son most interested in being right or in restoring and maintaining relationships? Clearly he is most interested in being right. His language doesn’t even acknowledge the relationships that exist. His address to his father was not, “Father” it was “listen” and he referred to his brother as “this son of yours.” Even after being with his father for all of those years, the oldest son defaults to that need to be right even at the cost of relationships…

The actions of the father in this story are remarkable in their uniqueness. They are exactly the opposite of how we as humans seem to be wired to act. Jesus uses the father in this story to portray the love of God that is more interested in restoring and maintaining relationships than in being right.

Two weeks ago as we began this series I shared the context of what was happening as Jesus taught these three parables. We have read those couple of verses in worship the last two weeks, but I want you to remember the context in which Jesus taught all three of these parables…“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.’”

Jesus was doing things that the scribes and the Pharisees didn’t believe were right. He was interacting with people who they didn’t believe were right. The scribes and the Pharisees, who believed that they represented God’s interests in the community, were more concerned about being right than about maintaining relationships. And so Jesus with these parables, especially today’s parable, is challenging the assumptions of those who are most concerned with being right. Jesus calls us to put down some of our need to be right for the sake of tending to relationships.

Countless times through our days and weeks, we have to decide whether we’re going to be right or whether we’re going to maintain and maybe even work to restore relationships. People hurt us and disappoint us. We have hopes for how our parents or our children will treat us. We have expectations about how our co-workers or neighbors will behave. We know that people won’t always act how we believe they should, that people won’t always do what we believe to be the right thing. And when people hurt us or disappoint us, when we believe that other people are wrong, we can insist on being right or we can work to preserve relationships.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Being Right or Maintaining Relationships 08 21 11

  1. Cathy Giessen

    Rev. Jeff — How we do miss you in the pulpit!! But — how outstanding that you are sharing them online. I told Marty and Celia Westphal last night — and they asked me to share with them….. They’ll need to sign up for your blog as well!! Thanks again — Excellent and very thoughtful!! Grace be with you 3+ in Tongie!!

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