|Text: Luke 15:20
He was still a long way from home when his father saw him; his heart was filled with pity, and he ran, threw his arms around his son, and kissed him.
Shame is a painful feeling we have when our improper behaviour, incompetence, and bad judgement are brought out into the open. As we feel shame we feel guilt and disappointment in ourselves and the judgement of others as they wonder how we could have disgraced ourselves in such a way. Embarrassment, dishonour, disgrace, inadequacy and humiliation are associated with shame.
It is believed that the origin of the word ‘shame’ is connected to an older word meaning to cover. We see this in the account of Adam and Eve when they realised that they had disobeyed God and heard him calling for them in the Garden of Eden. They felt shame for what they had done and so what did they do? They covered their nakedness and went undercover as they tried to hide from God. When we feel shame we want to hide from others, not make eye contact, and feel as if our faces are on fire as we blush.
Look into the history of our country you will find attitudes and events that are shameful. For instance, the way the aboriginal people of our country were hunted and killed in the early days of white settlement, or when aboriginal children were forcibly removed from their parents, or when orphanages and homes for children were places of abuse and cruel treatment. Every country has those times in their history that bring shame. Recently we heard the Prime Minister of Great Britain acknowledge the shameful way children were shipped to Australia between 1920 and 1960 and then forgotten by their mother country.
Shame and dishonour are very important concepts in the Middle East and one’s honour and that of the family are very valuable and to be protected at all costs. It was like that in Jesus’ time.
Remember the wedding at Cana when the wine ran out. That kind of thing brought shame upon the groom and his family and that stigma would stay with them for a long time.
You can imagine the shame Peter felt as he heard the rooster crow and realised that he had done exactly what he had so boldly stated he wouldn’t do – not once but three times he had denied that he ever knew Jesus. We are told he wept bitterly out of shame.
Today’s gospel reading from Luke gives us the story Jesus’ told about the father and his two sons and even though the word shame doesn’t appear in the text, there is still plenty of shame involved in this story. Let’s take a look at the instances of shame in this story. Part of understanding this parable is to view it from its Middle Eastern context.
Firstly, there is the shameful thing the youngest son does. He does something that is really low and unkind. He demands that his father immediately give him his share of the inheritance that would normally come his way when his father died. Making this kind of demand is like wishing his dad was dead so that he could his hands on dad’s money. This is another way of saying to his father, "I no longer want to have anything to do with you. Give me what is mine so that I can cut loose from this family."
Research has shown that this kind of demand is unheard of in Jewish culture and if the request was granted and a son was given a part of his inheritance that didn’t give the son the right to cash in his share. By selling his father’s property he would deprive his father of his own livelihood. Does the son care? No! His action in selling his share of the property only heaps more shame on himself. He is self-centred, ungrateful, greedy and doesn’t care how much his family will suffer. He only cares about himself. In a Middle Eastern community that was very much family and community oriented, this kind of attitude is indeed shameful.
To treat his father and family like this not only brought shame on himself but also brought shame on his father. In fact, the whole of the community would be ashamed that this lad had treated his father like this and so the only way a father could restore dignity and pride again in the sight of his neighbours was to wash his hands of this shame by never speaking to his son again or even acknowledge that he ever existed. As far as the family was concerned that son was dead and there was no coming back again.
But son’s shameful deeds don’t end there with his leaving father and brother to live off what they had left; he goes to a far off land indicating that he never intended to return and there he wastes his father’s hard-earned money with wild parties and spending as if there was a never ending supply of cash.
He ends up in a pig pen. Pigs were animals that Jews considered to be unclean and totally repulsive. Pigs were the garbage collectors of the time and were the way of getting rid of any household rubbish. What a pitiful and shameful picture this young man must have made as he sat amongst the filth of snorting, messy, sometimes dangerous pigs, especially if someone tried to muscle in on their food. He even tried begging from passers-by but no one cared. Maybe they had heard how he had treated his father and so believed he got what he deserved.
I think you get the picture and though his shame is so overwhelming his desperate situations calls for desperate measures. He is aware that he has cut himself off as a son and can never go back to his family, so he trudges toward home to ask for a job as a hired servant, and to live with the servants. As he takes the long journey back home, he heart is heavy with shame and guilt for what he has done and the broken relationship between him and his father.
We know what happens when his father sees him coming in the distance. He doesn’t walk or shuffle slowly but races down the road to meet him; throws his arms around him; there is no rebuke or accusations; only the joy of a loving father welcoming home a son whom he had considered dead. In the eyes of the people in his village, it was most undignified for a father to be seen running through the streets let alone running to greet and hugging this son who has acted so shamefully toward his father and his family. He is humiliating himself, demonstrating how spineless and weak he is by treating his son in a way he doesn’t deserve and seemingly rewarding him with his love.
The father has become an embarrassment to the whole village because by accepting his son back he is also bringing shame on himself and he is doing this gladly. He is happy to take on his son’s shame because his son is back; this son that had once disowned his family is now back and can be restored to the family; this son who was once dead is now alive.
To our western way of thinking this is a feel good story – father and son are reconciled – but it’s not. This story is scandalous. To Jewish hearers, the behaviour of father and son is downright shameful. To Christian hearers this story has a Disney like quality. But it is more. It is an illustration of our relationship with God – we are the spiteful son and God is the loving Father who leaves his house and takes up this humiliating posture on the road. He has no shame and at a great personal cost greets, hugs and throws a feast for the one who had treated him so badly. The father takes on the shame of the son and becomes shameful in the eyes of the world as he restores the boy to his home and reconciliation between them occurs.
You can see why this reading has been included in the lead up to Good Friday because the father’s action is a symbol of what God has done and is doing for us through Christ. Like the son we have been oblivious to the pain that we have caused our heavenly Father. Just as the son wasn’t even aware that he had hurt his father, likewise we are too often quite indifferent to the way our speech and actions hurt our heavenly Father. But our Father in heaven was prepared to take on our shame and guilt, to embrace us, and welcome us back home. God takes our shame, our humiliation, guilt, and disgrace on himself and he is punished for us and as Isaiah tells us, is despised, struck, beaten for our sins. He is brought low and put to shame for us. He hung in shame from a cross – an innocent man treated as a criminal and mocked as a fraud all the while taking on our shame and reconciling us to our heavenly Father.
On the cross, Jesus is the greatest and most shameful of sinners – there he becomes a liar and a thief and an adulterer and a murder, for me. Just as love was the driving force that led the father in Jesus’ story to be shamed in front of all his friends and neighbours so that he could welcome back his son, so Jesus’ love for us is the driving force that led him to be shamed and humiliated nailed naked to a cross so he could welcome us back as his sons and daughters. This shame he gladly bears and makes it possible for those who were dead to now be alive; those who were lost to be found.
There are those who have used this parable to show that God is an old softy when it comes to sin and like a doting old father doesn’t take his children’s waywardness seriously. To our modern minds, this parable might be understood that way, but to look at it in its Middle Eastern context we can see that reconciliation is a painful thing. The father could have easily severed his relationship with his son and quite rightfully forgotten that he ever had a son. He and his family had been terribly shamed by his behaviour by Jewish standards. And so he could have quite rightly ignored the boy as he limped up the road but instead he shamelessly raced to meet his son and, in spite of the stares of his neighbours, embraced and welcomed his son home.
As we move closer to Good Friday we become aware again just how much God has done for us and continues do for us especially when we come limping home and smelling like pigs. Just as the father in Jesus’ parable wrapped his arms around his smelly, filthy, shameful child so also our heavenly Father wraps his arms around us when we are smelly and filthy and shameful because of our sin.
Our God is a divine lover who runs and leaps for joy when a worthless sinner comes home.
© Pastor Vince
14th March 2010