Christian Brookx Peele
“Work It Out”
The honest truth is, I was a little concerned the first time I sensed the Spirit leading me to preach from this morning’s text.
Mostly because the passage is really, really long. It’s one of the longest parables in Scripture, a whopping twenty-two verses. And don’t tell me you weren’t grimacing at its length when it was read this morning. I was also concerned, because the passage is so familiar.
Because it’s so long and because it’s so familiar, there’s so much that could be said about it and there’s so much that’s already been said about it. So, I went back and forth with God about it, and as usually happens when I go back and forth with God, I didn’t hear much from God! I took that as a sign that I should move forward and indeed explore what the passage might speak to us in this moment and on this day.
Finally, before we dive in, I also want to name that every character in this parable is a male, so as we work through the passage this morning I’ll be speak a lot about “him” and “he” and “the son.” When I speak about the father character I will say ‘father character’ and when I’m speaking about God I’ll make that clear, so there isn’t any confusion. Amen?
Let’s dive in. This morning, we’re gonna talk about work and what this parable has to say about our relationships to work, to performance and to success.
To begin, I want to point out something interesting about the make-up, the literary make-up, of the passage, and I’d ask us to hold this point in mind when we’re later exploring what the passage has to say about work.
The first verse of the passage reads: “Then Jesus said, “There was a man [PAUSE] who had two sons.”
I love this verse, because it’s straight to the point. Verse 11 jumps in and makes the identity of main character completely clear and it gives us a heads up as to who we should keep an eye on as the story unfolds.
“There was a man who had two sons.” The verse could’ve been written any number of ways. It could’ve said “there were two brothers who had a father” or “there once was a younger son and an older son.” But the gospel writer makes a point to identify the father as the subject – literally. In ancient Greek texts of the passage, the word “man” in the phrase “there was a man,” is presented grammatically as the subject of the sentence.
Now what’s interesting, even beyond this, is where we, the listeners, the readers, see and hear the father character in the passage. Specifically, mention of the father character, the presence of the father character, frames the younger son’s experience and frames the older son’s experience.
To see this a little more clearly, let’s take our imaginations on a stroll.
Imagine chillin’ outside on a pretty normal day. It’s you, the disciples, a couple of tax collectors and your BFF Jesus, and you’re listening, front row, as Jesus tells this story. The first thing you hear him say is that this is a story about “a man who had two sons.” You immediately make a mental note and you attune your ear so that every time the father character speaks or acts, bells ring in your head.
So Jesus continues telling the parable. First, there’s the part about the younger son. The younger son asks for his inheritance and his father [ding, ding, ding] gives it to him. The younger son leaves home and we all know what happens after that. Well, after coming to his senses, the younger son returns home and is greeted in complete love by the father character [ding, ding, ding].
Notice: the father character is present when the son leaves home and when he returns home. The younger son’s experience is framed, before and after, by the father character.
But because this is the story of a family, the drama doesn’t end there. So now, we’re even more on the edge of our seats, because our teacher explains that the older son refuses to embrace his brother and his father. So, the father character [ding, ding, ding] begins to plead with him, but the older son continues to respond in anger. Then, the story closes with words from the father character [ding, ding, ding].
Notice again: the father character is present at the beginning and end of the son’s response and experience. The older son’s experience is framed, before and after, by the father character.
Our imagination exercise shows that even within the literary make-up of the story, the sons’ experiences are framed. They do not stand on their own. I’d offer that there’s something powerful in the fact that both sons’ experiences – their comings and goings, their identities – are framed, upheld and held within the presence of the loving parent.
With this in mind, we transition to what the passage might speak to us about work.
As I combed the passage, I found that in lots of ways – and I think you’d agree – each brother’s experience and response is pretty different.
One is the rebel – I mean this dude thinks he’s Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic and that he’s the king of the world. He cleans out his parents bank account, heads to Vegas, crashes the family car, wastes the cash, comes to his senses, heads home, apologizes to dad, he’s welcomed home and, finally, somehow manages to end the night with a party. The other son, however, has always been loyal to the family, seems hardworking and focused, probably was one of those people who always arrives five minutes early and he seems to have it together.
Pretty different. But on the other hand, I’d offer that there’s one way in particular that their experiences and responses are frighteningly similar.
Turn your attention to verses 17 and 19 – this is where the younger son realizes that he’s gotten himself into a mess and he decides to return home. Listen to what he says:
17 But when he came to himself he said, 'How many of my father's hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 19 [he plans to say to his father] I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands."'
This dialogue is so interesting. The son realizes that he’s disrespected the family and that his ties with his father and brother could very well be broken. So, he decides that his reconciliation, that the healing of his relationships, will come in the form of being like a hired hand to his father.
We don’t say “hired hand” nowadays, so what does that mean? The word’s Greek root denotes an employee-employer relationship. It’s important to note that typically the word doesn’t refer to slavery – this is a worker/supervisor kind of thing. In fact, a variation of the same Greek word means “wages.” So, the son wants to work for the father and earn his living, re-earn his presence in his family’s household. He wants to work it out, literally, and he suggests that work has the power to in some sense reconcile a relationship.
And he’s not the only one who thinks so.
Listen to the older brother’s words from later in the passage in verse 29.
But he answered 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.
Work is part of how he understands his relationship with his father, as well. “I have been working like a slave for you,” he says. The root of word the older son uses denotes a relationship of bondage, inferiority and compliance. He confesses that his understanding of what it means to be son, child, is tied to work and obedience and performance and he has submitted completely to that understanding, even to the point of being oppressed.
Both sons have broken understandings of how work relates to relationships, and friends I’d offer that that’s because both fail to recognize what we discovered on our imagination journey – that they are framed, upheld and held within the presence of their loving parent.
Their relationships and their identities aren’t at all based on what they can do, what they can earn, what they can achieve or prove or how well they “work it out.” Their relationships and their identities are held, framed, within a love and compassion, within a consistent presence, far greater than anything about them.
Its my sense that this insight rings especially true for us – we who find ourselves in a buzzing city of work and profession and achievement.
What are our understandings around the ways work and relationships connect?
In what ways do we live as though we can “work it out?” What stories have we been told about success as accomplishment and achievement? And how have we bought into those stories? How have we bought into ideas about our self-worth being based upon what we do?
Perhaps you can relate to some of these ungodly ideas about work and worth and relationship:
I am worth something if I succeed or perform or get into the right schools or work at the right job or meet the right people.
I should work hard and be hard on myself, even to the point of living in bondage and fear of really being myself.
I can become good enough, if I am continually aspiring, working, to be different from who/what I am right now.
Relationships are better and healthier when they’re strictly 50/50. Resist vulnerability – it’s too risky.
If I’m the perfect friend, if I work to be the perfect friend to everyone, then I’ll have true relationship and meaning.
It’s perfectly fine to compare myself to others and to their “success,” and maybe that will push me to do better.
As it relates to relationship with God, if I do xyz, I will be loved, but if I don’t I won’t.
Sisters and brothers, God invites us into a truth that is so holy it doesn’t make sense.
The greatest freedom is found when we recognize that we are framed and held by a God who is consistent and who is big enough to hold all that we are.
Nothing we do or earn or perform has any bearing on how God loves us and is present to us.
As people of faith, we exist within the framework of God’s creating, redeeming and sanctifying activity within the world. It’s not up to us to do enough, to perform – we can live in the freedom of knowing that because God lives, we live. Our worth and value, our success, doesn’t come from anything we do or achieve. So, let’s re-define success. “We are successful” because we are children of God and because God dares to call us and invites us into God’s presence.