Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
While many people know the name Captain William Bligh from two movie versions of Nordoff and Hall’s book, Mutiny on the Bounty, fewer people know of the extraordinary feat of survival and seamanship carried out by Bligh after he and eighteen crew members were set adrift by the mutineers. Given food and water for only a few days, a sextant and pocket watch, but no charts or compass, Bligh steered the twenty-three foot open boat 3,600 miles west over 47 days to Timor in Indonesia, losing only one man, and that to an attack by cannibals on the island of Tofua. It is generally regarded as the most astounding example of navigation and seamanship in history. Carefully rationing food and water, maintaining discipline in the boat, Bligh’s feat is astounding to this day.
Bligh’s resources were extremely limited, to say the least. They caught fish and a few birds; they captured rain water from storms; Bligh used his memory of the area from his turn as navigator for Captain Cook a few years earlier. A stern but, contrary to the legend, fair disciplinarian, Bligh marshaled his scarce resources brilliantly.
Over the last year or so, many of us have had to adjust from a lifestyle of abundance to a lifestyle of scarcity. The silver lining, it seems to me, about the national and even global economic downturn is that people like you and me have been forced to realize that financial and physical and natural resources are not unlimited. I grew up with the notion that we should have more and more and more forever. Bigger cars, bigger houses, bigger boats, bigger stomachs, without consequence and without end. That always was a lie, but we believed it and worshiped at its altar. That god has been revealed as the hollow idol it has always been. Life turns out to have limits. Imagine that!
In contrast to our limited, mortal lives, the whole Gospel of Luke is about the abundance of God: blessed are the poor, the meek, and the sorrowing; Jesus is called a glutton and a drunkard for the way he lives; a woman anoints Jesus with expensive perfume; a farmer scatters seed even on hard paths, rocky soil, and among weeds; a demon-possessed man is healed; five thousand people are fed with twelve baskets of food left over; children are invited to sit with Jesus; even the Samaritan heretics are examples of grace; strangers and the poor are invited to banquets; shepherds leave ninety-nine sheep to find one. Human life may be limited and resources may be scarce, but God is prodigiously abundant with grace and love and blessing, according to Jesus.
So, one day, the Administrative Council of First Church, Jerusalem, was discussing the poor stewardship and questionable example set by the Reverend Jesus Davidson from Shady Grove Church, Nazareth. “Instead of helping the United Jewish Men stir the Brunswick stew the other day, Rev. Jesus was having breakfast with prostitutes and IRS agents and Democrats, not that we could tell the difference.”
Overhearing their stage whispered critique, Rev. Jesus, like any good rabbi, told a story. A farmer had two sons, the younger of whom decided he wanted to enjoy the good life. Of course, you can’t enjoy the good life anywhere near your parents and family: that’s what college is for, don’t you know. So he asked his father to cash in his half of the Virginia Education Fund money that had been set aside for him, and then asked Dad to take out a home equity loan on half the value of the farm. After all, the last thing he was going to do was be a farmer. With tears in his eyes for multiple reasons, the old man gave the boy a cashier’s check for a pile of money, and watched him head off to become famous in The Big City.
In The Big City, the boy lived the abundant life. The drinks were always on him at every bar, and he made friends quickly. He threw the best parties in town, networking in his penthouse condo. But when the money ran out, so did all the friends, and, having been evicted from his condo, his Porsche repossessed, and his credit card confiscated, he was reduced to feeding pigs in the stockyard at the edge of town.
Meanwhile, back on the farm, the elder brother was living the flip side of the younger’s coin. Also convinced that The Good Life did not include his father, big brother hoarded his pennies waiting for the old man to die, so he could have the whole farm to himself. Resenting baby brother’s good life in the City – how little he knew – big brother simmered and stewed, growing angrier by the day not just at his sibling’s good life, but at the foolish old man who had enabled it.
They really were brothers, you know. As my mother used to say, “Heredity is a curse.” It must have come from their mother, who is curiously absent from the story. My hunch is that Momma was a penny-pinching character always complaining about the slightest sign of excess. Maybe that’s why Daddy went down to the gate every day looking for little brother, in case he came home. Dad just wanted to get out of the house.
Baby brother’s prodigality – the word means wasteful, after all – isn’t because he believes in abundance: he actually believes in scarcity. There’s not enough love, not enough fun, not enough joy in the world to be able to share it with his family – with those who love and know him best. He has to ration his joy and spend it somewhere else. And, truth be told, most people who are reckless and wasteful with their resources in fact believe they’re on the Titanic, and they might as well go first class. “Let us eat and drink,” Isaiah 22 quotes Jerusalem saying as the Babylonian army stood outside the gates, “for tomorrow we die.” Watch a starving animal eat: they gulp down the food as if there were no tomorrow. A secure animal, knowing there will always be more, savors the feast.
Big brother also believes there’s not enough to go around, so he hoards his life and his resources as Gollum hoards the Ring. There’s not enough love, not enough grace, not enough mercy to share with his father and his brother. So, when baby brother comes home and the prize calf gets carved up for dinner, big brother comes unglued. “How DARE you,” he screams at the old man. “That’s MINE. There’s not enough to go around. You’re wasting everything on this idiot who wasted everything you have him: you’re just like him, you old fool.”
But, you see, they’re all wasteful fools. The younger son wastes his life by running from those who love him best. But so does the elder brother. He wastes his life on resentment and hate, which may last longer than a party, but which are even more fatal to the community and to the soul. Of course, religious people reward arrogance and hatefulness more than they reward partying. The older I get, the better I like those who err on the side of the party. They’re more likely to end up in heaven, Jesus said, than the elders who guard the gates.
The father is the most wasteful of all. The real prodigal isn’t the younger son, or even his foolish big brother. The holy fool in the story is the old man who mortgages his farm so his son can blow the money; who lets his older son stay on the farm even though he grows more hateful every day, and who goes down and waits every day at the farm gate for his family to be whole again. And, when the chip off the old block of a younger son comes home in disgrace, Dad even wastes his son’s carefully concocted liturgy of confession and repentance, ordering the hired help to get the party rolling before the boy can grovel in the dirt as he ought. This is probably exactly the same silly farmer who sows seed on the road and in the rocks and in the weeds, hoping something will take root. This is probably the same teacher who sits with small children in the conviction that they might understand the mysteries of the universe better than their parents. This is the same Lord who loves the heretics and the sinners and the dying and the deformed. This is the same shepherd who leaves 99% of his flock to find the 1% that the wolves should have eliminated, thereby improving the breeding stock by natural selection.
Let me tell you a great secret: we’re all going to waste our resources. We’re going to give food to someone who doesn’t really need it. We’re going to provide health care to someone who doesn’t deserve it. We’re going to forgive someone who hasn’t repented. We’re going to give someone a diploma, or a job, or a handout, or a compliment, who hasn’t earned it. We’re going to let someone into our church, or our family, or our heart, who is going to break it. We’re going to waste love. Get used to it.
But if you’re going to love poorly, would you rather love too little, or love too much? Would you rather love someone who doesn’t deserve it, or not love someone who did? Would you rather see someone get more than they needed or deserved, or would you rather see them get less than they needed?
God loves us infinitely more than we deserve, and eternally more than we need. Some of us here have wasted our lives feeding the pigs, but it’s much more often the case that religious people are the Puritans who, in the words of H.L. Mencken, are haunted by the “fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”
Are you going to live as though love were pouring down from heaven like Niagara Falls, or are you going to ration it by the teaspoon? You’re going to waste your love. The question is: too much, or too little?