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Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Parable of the Unreliable Narrators - Sermon

In my sermon last week, I said that we should be surprised by parables, that they really are intended to surprise, to catch the audience off guard with an eternal truth wrapped within a pleasantly told tale. But can be difficult to retain that surprise when the parables have become familiar.

Movies with a twist, surprise ending are enjoyable once, and Mystery and Detective novels lose their thrill after the first reading. The story in Luke 15: 11 - 32 of the prodigal son (a title that I really don’t like[i]) is very familiar to us; it is probably the most familiar, most well-known of Jesus’ stories. And because of that over-familiarity it is challenging to retain a sense of wonder as we read it. Familiarity in this case breeds, if not contempt, then at least indifference. We’ve heard the story, read the parable multiplied multiple times and, since we already know the ending, we may have a tendency to breeze through it without critical thought. It is difficult for us to retain the thrill of the twist, the surprise ending, the aha!. But, perhaps it’s time to be surprised by the parable again. We want a sort of ‘second naiveté’ when we come to the parable of the Lost Son[ii] .

As I read and re-read the parable this week, one of the things that caught me by surprise was the unreliability of sons as they described their circumstances. Neither the younger nor the elder son seems able to speak the truth, to himself or to others around him. They omit certain details and highlight others in order present themselves in the best light possible. They do not tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Their stories are shaded and shady.

And everyone does this; sometimes we do it purposefully and with deliberate calculation, sometimes unconsciously. When politicians do it, we call it “spin-doctoring.” Corporations hire Public Relations teams to do it. Governments create propaganda. Individuals do it by shading the truth. We do it, all the time; we reveal only parts of the truth, those parts that we think are acceptable, the parts that we think other people want to hear, those parts that will make us look good. Even when we’ve sworn to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, we emphasize our success and our strength while hiding and disguising our failures and weakness. (Firestone)

Pamela Meyer, author of the book Liespotting, has said, “We wish we were better husbands, better wives, smarter, more powerful, taller, richer-the list goes on. Lying is an attempt to bridge that gap, to connect our wishes and our fantasies about who we wish we were, how we wish we could be, with what we're really like. And boy are we willing to fill in those gaps in our lives with lies.”

 In Jesus’ story, the younger son, after blowing through his inheritance, finds himself working on a pig farm in a far off country. And there he says to himself, “…here I am dying of hunger…” (Luke 15: 17) But I think he’s lying to himself. Yes, there was a famine in that country and, yes, times were hard, but he was working, presumably being paid. If the famine had not yet proceeded to the point where all of the pigs had been slaughtered for food, there must have been other food still to eat. And considering what must have been his pampered life of comfort and ease–under an extravagantly generous, softy of a father-I doubt that this callow uncalloused boy had any previous experience with hunger or labor. His tender hands and pale skin must have blistered from work and sun. His stomach must have cramped from hunger. But I read his complaint with a measure of distrust–not outright disbelief. I’m sure he was hungry, and tired, and sore, and dismal. But I doubt his claim of starvation.[iii] He is exaggerating his peril, somewhat.

When he finally comes to his senses and realizes  that he has made a foolish mistake he begins to formulate a plan, prepares and rehearses a speech that he hopes will minimize his failures and at the same time, engender a compassionate response from his father: “Father,” he says, rehearsing, “Father, ehem, uh… Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired men.” (Luke 15: 18 -19 NJB)

It doesn’t seem honest. It is calculated for effect. It’s as if he is afraid to confront the truth about himself and so puts the burden of this very practiced apology on his father. What he wants is for his father to accept him, so he prepares this nonpology[iv] to get that acceptance. One author has written that, “[w]ith great privilege comes an equally great ability to be irresponsible and yet succeed, be cared about, get out of jail free.” Saying “I’m sorry,” in this case is really only saying “Please like me.” (Prickett)

The younger son in this parable is not entirely honest-not with himself, and not with his father.

But the elder son is not any better. He first claims that he has “slaved” for his father for many years and “never once disobeyed any orders.” (Luke 15: 29) The elder son wants to portray himself as the wounded martyr, the aggrieved innocent, so he accentuates the positive and eliminates the negative. (Arlen and Mercer) But I suspect that his slavery is only a whining exaggeration and that his claim of perfect obedience is not perfectly true.

He then goes on to say that despite all of his perfect obedience and loyalty, his father has “never offered [him] so much as a kid for [him] to celebrate with [his] friends.” (Luke 15: 29) And this, too, I disbelieve. The father in this story is the true prodigal–giving money and resources extravagantly, wastefully even.  I cannot believe that this lavishly giving man, would have never given his son anything. But the elder son isn’t a reliable narrator; he shades the truth and, like his younger brother, puts the burden on the father.

And the extraordinary thing about this story, the really surprising thing in this familiar parable, is that the father doesn’t care. He accepts the self-serving stories from both of his sons, and responds with an outlandish generosity, with a prodigal grace. The younger son isn’t quite able to own up to his own immaturity and failure, but the father accepts him, welcomes him home anyway. The elder son is angry and unforgiving and unable to admit that he is just as greedy for their father’s estate as his younger, irresponsible brother. But the father loves him anyway, and gives him everything. 

Both of the sons are unreliable narrators. They have not told the truth (not the whole, unvarnished truth, anyway) to themselves or to their father. Even so, the father remains absolutely reliable in his outlandish, extravagant, prodigious love. He loves them, welcomes them, embraces them even as they are attempting to manipulate him. He knows what they’re trying to do, but he ignores it. He cuts off the younger son’s rehearsed nonpology apology, to have him dressed in a fine robe and have the family ring thrust upon his finger. He interrupts the elder son’s complaint, “you’ve never given me anything” to tell him that “everything I have is yours.” The father is steadfast in his merciful love to these unworthy boys.

And if this is to be read as a parable of God’s love for us unworthy people, we should be surprised and taken aback by the steadfast reliability of his merciful love. Even when we try to manipulate God, bargaining, pleading, demanding… he loves us. Even when we try to pretend to ourselves and to God that we’re not really so bad, not as bad at least as the other guy… he loves us. Lavishly. Wastefully, even. Prodigally.

Like the psalmist in Psalm 32, we have a tendency to keep silent about our sin and shortcoming; we don't tell the whole and complete truth. And while we are lying to ourselves, and to others, and to God about ourselves, our bones are wasting away, groaning day and night. (Psalm 32: 5) But when we finally come to our senses and tell the truth, when we confess, God, for his part, takes away our sin and forgives our guilt. This is is extraordinary, prodigal, wasteful grace-that he loves us, even as we are telling lies.

For his mercies shall endure
ever faithful, ever sure.
-John Milton 

Arlen, Harold and Johnny Mercer. “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive” 1944.

Firestone, Lisa. "Shades of Truth: The Many Ways We Lie." The Huffington Post, 23 Sept. 2013. Web. 5 Mar. 2016.

Meyer, Pamela. "How To Spot a Liar." TEDtalk. July 2011. TED. Web. 5 Mar. 2016.

Prickett, Sarah Nichole. “Saying Sorry Is a Pretty-Girl Trick.” The Hairpin, 20 Aug. 2013. Web. 5 Mar. 2016.

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