God’s Wilderness Children

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, March 6, 2016
Taken from Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

Footprints on beach

Hasidic rabbis over the centuries have told this story of two men, each of whom had their dreams:  there once was an impoverished Jew named Isaac, son of Yekel, who lived in the city of Krakow.  One night, Isaac had a dream, in which he was transported to the city of Prague.   In his dream, which was a real as life, Isaac beheld a bridge leading into the city.   And, there, in a certain spot under that bridge leading into Prague, Isaac was shown where he might dig to find a great treasure.

When Isaac awoke the next morning, he dismissed his dream as so much foolishness.   But, when Isaac had exactly the same dream a second night and then, again, for a third, Isaac realized he had no choice but to travel to Prague to search for the bridge from his dream.   After a journey of many days, Isaac finally reached the outskirts of Prague.  Sure enough, there was the bridge leading into the city, just as his dream had shown him.  Isaac carefully found his way under the bridge to the very spot he’d seen in the dream.   He was about to start digging, when suddenly Isaac was jerked up by the scruff of his neck!   It was the captain of the guard who watched over the bridge.

“You Jew!   What are you doing, prowling under this bridge?” the captain demanded.   Poor Isaac, frightened out of his wits, could come up with no better story than to simply tell the captain the truth.  He told him about his dream.

The captain of the guard laughed, “You foolish Jew, traipsing over the world in search of your dreams! Why, if I were so stupid as you, right now, I would be roaming the streets of Krakow!   For I too have my own silly dreams.   I dreamed that in the city of Krakow, I would find a great treasure buried under the stove in the house of a Jew named Isaac, son of Yekel. But imagine doing that, when half the Jews in Krakow are named Isaac, and the other half are named Yekel!” The Captain gave Isaac a kick in the britches and told him never to return.

So, Isaac retraced his long journey back to his own city of Krakow, where he entered his own house.   Isaac pushed aside his own stove and began digging.   And, there, Isaac son of Yekel found a great treasure.   So great was the treasure, Isaac was able to pay all his debts, marry off his five daughters and then build a synagogue to the praise of God!2   That’s a good story told by the rabbis, of people who search after dreams and of God’s ways.

Hear a second, more familiar rabbinic tale.  This story is also about two men, each of whom has their dreams.   But, these two men are not at all strangers to one another.  They are brothers, sons of the same father.   The youngest brother, by tradition, we have named Prodigal; the older brother we might just as well have named Frugal.   The rabbi telling the story, of course, is Jesus.

Jesus doesn’t tell us what dream compels Prodigal to leave his home.   Jesus simply says, one day, Prodigal demands that his father give him his share of the inheritance.   Essentially, Prodigal asks his father to put a cash value on what the father’s eventual death will mean for his younger son.  A few days after this cold-cash and cold-hearted exchange between his father and himself, Prodigal leave home.  He goes off to a far country, seeking what?   Seeking freedom, perhaps, from whatever restrictions he thought he suffered back home with his family.  Certainly, Prodigal dreams of enjoying the luxury of wealth; enjoying the pleasures of friendships founded in the liberal doses of money he threw at all who would join him.  Whatever Prodigal’s dreams, they are naïve and destined to bring about his ruin.   Which they surely do, Jesus tells us.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Frugal slaves away, day-in and day-out, faithfully discharging his duties as the elder son.   Always faultless and obedient, perhaps Frugal is even more so now, as if to say to his father, see how different I am from that other son of yours, Prodigal?  What dreams Frugal secretly harbors, Jesus doe not spell out.  But, Jesus does tell us just how angry it makes Frugal when Frugal see his father squander good money, slaughtering the most valued of the livestock, throwing a party.   Frugal cannot bear to see his father wasting the property that one day will be his once his father dies.  And, perhaps that is Frugal’s dream.

What Frugal never dreamed was the abundant love that his father actually holds in his heart for Frugal.   He does not understand how it delights his father that Frugal would wish to stay and labor along beside him all these years.  Because Frugal cannot believe his father has such a full love for him, his dutiful and obedient son, Frugal cannot fathom how his father could possibly have just that same kind of love for that wasteful and ungrateful skunk of a son, Prodigal.  But, evidently, that is exactly the love the father has nurtured in the safe-keeping of his heart, hoping that one day, this wandering son of his would return.   Which is exactly what happens one day.

The father, as has become his habit, stops from time to time throughout the day.   He stands looking off into the distance.   His eyes scan across the horizon, taking in the roads that travel to and from distant lands.   And there, on this day, he sees, just now coming into view, his son, Prodigal.   Overcome with joy, the father throws aside his work and runs down the road to greet his son so long lost to him.  Jesus tells how the happy father makes a great fuss over his young son, Prodigal.   He dresses him in all the finest things that show his special status, far above anything that a servant might imagine.   For, of course, this is no mere servant in the father’s employ; this is his child.  The father throws a great party to celebrate this greatest treasure restored to him that day.

As it happens, though, this is not the only time that day that the father goes out to welcome in a son.   The father must leave off celebrating with his younger son, Prodigal, in order to go find his eldest, Frugal.  The father assures Frugal there is no scarcity that Frugal need fear; there is no generosity to resent, once Frugal understands the great wealth of the father’s love for both his sons.  Does Frugal finally understand that truth?   We don’t know.   Jesus leaves the story open-ended for us to finish out for ourselves.

What we often miss is that, really, this is a story within a story, isn’t it?  This parable of Prodigal, Frugal and their father comes in the larger story that Luke, our Gospel writer, is telling us.  For Luke, his story is neither parable nor fable.  It is Luke’s account of real people, all of them children of God, all of whom have traveled far from God, as though lost in a far country, a wilderness country.  Luke wants us to hear this greater story about these men and women, whom Luke sums up for us in verse one.  He uses the convenient short-hand of his day:  the tax collectors and the sinners.   Everyone knew who these folks were; these men and women had clearly traveled far from God.

A second group is present there with the tax collectors and other sinners this day.   Again, Luke uses the convenient short-hand of his day; these were the Pharisees and the teachers of the law.  These were the men, and we presume their wives and children, who had bound themselves to God’s covenant with all the rigor humanly possible.   With all their strength–body, mind, heart and soul, as they saw it–they served and obeyed God.  Though no one would guess it, least of all themselves, they too had gone far from God.

Finally, Luke tells us of a third member of God’s family present there on this day.  This third one Luke has already summed up for us; this one is called Beloved.   As Luke records earlier, in chapter three, verse 22, using God’s own words:  thou are my beloved Son.  The Beloved Son of God also travels to this same far country, this wilderness country.  He’s here not as one lost, but as one who seeking out where wander his lost siblings, the tax-collectors and sinners.   It is the same real-life far country where wander Beloved’s other lost siblings, the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. 

Oddly enough, it’s the tax-collectors and sinners who suspect that they are indeed lost and unable to find their way back to the place which had once given birth to their dreams.  That is, until their elder brother, Beloved, shows up one day, loving them openly with a love they had long forgotten.  The Pharisees and the teachers of the law, on the other hand, have no inkling of the far country into which they had strayed.  So, they find the words and behavior of the Beloved so peculiar.   In fact, they found him downright offensive.  Does he really mean what he seems to imply, that God has sent Beloved to seek after them, too, just as God has sent him to seek out the tax-collectors and sinners?   They just cannot get their heads around such a foolish claim.  So, one day, Luke tells us, Beloved has an idea.  He invites all his sisters and brothers to gather around, to hear a story of how, There once was a man who had two sons, a younger son who was named Prodigal and an eldest son, who was named Frugal.

Isaac and the Captain of the guard; Prodigal, Frugal and their father; tax collectors and sinners, Pharisees and teachers of the law, and Beloved…this story of God’s love that winds its way down to us across the generations.  As God’s children we must hear and tell this story over and over and over until its truth burns itself deep into our consciousness:  this is our story we are telling.   It is the Gospel story of how God’s children keep getting lost in a wilderness of their own devising until they hear the voice of the One sent to search them out.  We are Prodigal, and we are Frugal, sought after, found and restored by our Elder Brother, the Beloved One of God.

But, do we understand our new role in this never-ending story?   Do we understand that now God intends we play the part of the Beloved?

Jesus assures us there is no scarcity in God’s love for which we must fear.   Jesus shows us that the generosity in God’s love is not a virtue we must hoard up as if it might be wasted.  Jesus says to us, “Let’s not wait for the others to find their way back home to the treasure that awaits.   Let’s search them out wherever they have wandered.  Let us go, the Beloved children of God, out into that far country, to find our broken brothers, to find our wandering sisters, that their lost days may all the sooner be put behind them, that they may all the sooner live as the newly returned children of God.”

There is a great celebration that’s going on in the banquet hall of God.  It is a party that will not be complete, until all God’s children are welcomed in to share at the table.  This table around which we now gather is but a token.  With its simple elements it is a reminder, of that far greater banquet that is laid and that awaits.   This table set by God’s Beloved One is our invitation to come, receive, and our call to go, seek.

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1Exegetical notes are from Norval Geldenhuys, The Gospel of Luke, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans Publ. Co., 1979) pp. 405-413; and Thomas Walker, Luke, Interpretation Bible Studies (Louisville:  Geneva Press, 2001) pp. 77-82.

2Several variations of this fable may be found at creative.sulekha.com/double-dream-jewish-folktale_75076_blog