Standing Invitation, Pastor Fred
Augustine of Hippo was baptized at the Easter Vigil, by Ambrose, the leading scholar and bishop of Milan, Italy. Augustine was not a baby, but 31 years old! It took him a while to find the grace of God.
Augustine was very much influenced by Ambrose, his mentor. What attracted Augustine to Ambrose was that he was one of the greatest speakers and rhetoricians of the 4th C. Our two Diakonia students from Unity, John and Michael – great rhetoricians in their own right – can tell you more about this, having just read Augustine’s Confessions. For instance, how Augustine tenderly recalled Ambrose as: “That man of God [who] received me as a father would, and welcomed my coming as a good bishop should.” Ambrose adopted Augustine as a spiritual son, after the death of Augustine's father, and truly welcomed him home.
It was also after a life that some might call, lost in “dissolute living!” Something like the younger son in our parable today, Augustine is notable for the life he lived before he turned to Christianity. He had walked away from his parent’s life in the Christian faith, and turned toward rival Manicheism, before losing interest almost as quickly in its dualist theology and disappointing bishop. When he was a student, as Augustine tells it in the Confessions, he stole fruit from an orchard with some friends, not because they were hungry, but just for the pleasure of going against the rules. And Augustine also wrote about what he called his sexual tribulations and carnal temptations. Augustine was married, but also maintained 2 relationships with women outside of his vows, to the great disapproval of his mother, who tried to intervene more than once. But at the same time, through his intellectual brilliance, he was accepted to teach in the academy in Rome, which, at the time, was the most visible academic position in the Latin world, and also a stepping stone to a political career.
But then he met Ambrose, his equal in rhetoric, and his teacher in the Christian faith, and Augustine’s life turned completely around. Or rather, God turned Augustine around! As he relates in the Confessions, his conversion was prompted by a childlike voice he heard telling him to “take up and read”, which Augustine took as a divine command to open the Bible and read the first thing he saw. And what Augustine turned to, was Paul's Letter to the Romans, the 13th chapter:
let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. [parts from Wikipedia]
Augustine was definitely cut from the clothe of the younger son in our parable today! The son that turned away from his family to embark on a journey of self-discovery, and some might say, ‘dissolute living.’
There are so many illusions to other biblical pairs of sons in the bible. Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his 11 brothers.
Here in this parable – no names are given, just the younger and older brother. And for the original audience, those who heard and read this parable, they would have related to the younger brother, the Jacob’s and Joseph’s, who were the heroes of their Hebrew stories. But they quickly would have been upset at Jesus, that the younger brother of his parable is such a cad, a disrespectful son. His “dissolute living” refers to immoral behavior with little or no conscience, and his fall from grace is swift and far. It’s not a pretty picture!
From the start, the younger brother is oblivious to tradition, saying, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me,” when Jesus’ audience knew that nothing is passed down to the next generation before the death of the father. Another translation of the word “property” makes the case even more stark: ousia has the connotation of substance or existence. So it would read: The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of [your] existence that will belong to me.’
And in the next sentence when ‘property’ is used, it comes from the Greek word, bios, for life. So it would be: “So, the father, divided his life between them.” And, “A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his existence in dissolute living (zao /from the word life).
His throwing caution to the wind, and blowing his father’s gift, his very ‘existence’ and ‘life’ in dissolute living – is now compounded by a famine in the country he ran away to. So to stay alive, he took any old job he could get, which turned out to be the ethical ‘embarrassment of the century’ for all the good Jews listening to Jesus’ story – feeding the unclean swine – and to top it off, the pigs were eating better than he was! When he finally came to see himself, and how far he had fallen, he longed to go back home, where even the servants of his family ate well, better than he, the son, who was ‘dying of hunger!’
On his way home, he practices his speech for his father, desperate, not to be rejected for his unforgivable mistakes, but before he can even get to his doorstep, his old man comes running out, like he’d never seen him move before, hugging and kissing him as if he was a newborn baby, in an embarrassing welcome of utter joy!
He tries to deliver his sincere speech of contrition, but his father is laser focused to “put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet” in order to prepare him for the biggest feast and celebration ever! “For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” says the gracious father.
Meanwhile, the older brother, has to find out what all the celebrating is about, from one of the hired hands, and is super ticked off! His father comes out to plead with him to join in. But the older brother let’s out his deepest lingering feelings that, you have to wonder, if he might later have regretted: ‘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!’
How many of us have been bitter like this, to some degree? …Having been faithful and obedient, and, felt left out of the rewards, despite our hard work – we can’t help but feel resentful?
But maybe the older son gets over his tantrum, now that he got it out? Maybe he will decide to come into the celebration, or maybe, at least, go through the motions to give thanks that his little brother has returned, is not lost, or dead? The parable leaves that question open to us, to answer.
One of the saddest parts of this parable is the separation of the sons from each other. Remember back to the beginning of the parable, after the younger son’s rash decision to leave, Luke tells us, “So he – the father – divided his life between them.” The divine-like father, lets him go of his own free will, knowing the risk. But when the lost son has come back, and his older son resents it, he calmly insists that he, his older son will always be with him, and all the father has is his. The celebration for the younger son is because he has been found, and is alive!
And just as wonderful, now they are a family again! His sons are not divided. And he is not separated from them. They can reconcile as a family. And that’s something all of them deserve to celebrate together!
God in Christ Jesus is our reconciling parent, welcoming us home, whatever Augustinian sins and mistakes we’ve made. God is all-gracious! forgiving, when we turn around from our old, dead-end ways, from the behavior that lives only for our own pleasure and purpose, and we return home to our life of joyful servanthood. The feast, is a feast of reconciliation! “We had to celebrate and rejoice,” says the father, “because this [sibling] of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”
Will the older son come into the banquet? Will the younger son be able to accept his father’s love and find redemption? We, have been one or the other of the father’s children, more often, than we might like to admit. But through God’s grace and love, Jesus leaves the questions of reconciliation and celebration open to us, as well. Will we come in to the banqueting celebration that God has invited us to share with our wayward siblings? It’s a standing invitation!