Action! Verbing our Way into the Gospels: Loved and Treasured, Go and Do (Luke 15:11-24 and Luke 10:25-37)
Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
This is our final sermon in a series on verbing our way into the gospels. We’ve practiced reading Bible passages verbs-first over the last several weeks and come away with some interesting insights, things we might not have noticed if we’d read the same passages nouns-first.
As promised, we’re wrapping things up today with two of Jesus’ parables: the story of the Prodigal Son and the story of the Good Samaritan. You heard their basic plots as Steve read them for us. And now we’ll take a closer look at the verbs.
I invite you to turn in your pew Bibles first to page 955 where we’ll work our way through Luke 15 beginning at verse 11.
Actually the first thing we’ll want to notice here is that we read aloud only part of this particular teaching story. It’s a long one, and its second half is important too. This is a man with two sons, not just the one, and there’s plenty to be said about the older brother and his relationship with his father. That has been, and can be again, the subject of other sermons. For today we’ll be focusing on this first part of the story, the story of the so-called prodigal son.
We’ll begin today’s verb hunt with verbs belonging to the son, since that’s where most of the action happens. What does he do in verse 12? What’s the first verb there? He said. And what a thing he says! Asking his father to give him the share of the property that will belong to him sounds like he’s asking for his inheritance before his dad even dies. Not an auspicious way to begin. Then in verse 13 what does he do? He gathered (all that he’d been given), traveled (to a distant country), and squandered. And in verse 14 what verbs does he get there? He had spent… (and then there’s this awful famine) and he began to be in need. Verse 15 he went, hired himself out to feed the pigs. Verse 16 Would have gladly filled himself with pig chow! Couldn’t even get that. Verse 17 he came to himself(came to his senses, wised up). He said (Dad’s servants all have plenty to eat and here I am going hungry), I will get up and go, and I will say (Dad, I’ve seriously screwed up, I’ve let you down, I’m no longer worthy to be your son, just treat me like one of your servants so I get a little something to eat). And in verse 20 he set off and went… was far off. And sticking with just the son’s verbs here, in verse 21? He said. In other words, he starts to apologize.
Now let’s look back through the same verses for the verbs given to the father. Verse 11 just sets things up: there was a man, he had two sons. We find a more active verb in verse 12. What does the father do there? He divided his property between his sons. In other words, even though it was a strange thing his son had asked of him, likely offensive, even scandalous in that culture, he was generous to the point of agreeing to the request. Then we need to skip over a few verses without any verbs at all for Dad, while Junior is off running around and getting himself into trouble. But when we return to the father in verse 20, we find him busily verbing. He saw (while the son was still far off, implying he’d been watching for him), he was filled with compassion, he ran, he put his arms around him, he kissed him. After waiting and watching and presumably longing for his son’s return, once he sees him, Dad falls all over himself welcoming him back. In verse 21 the son gets out his apology – or at least a portion of it. He does say “I’m not worthy to be called your son” but he doesn’t actually get to the “just treat me like your servants” part, does he? Because already in verse 22 the father is doing what? He says to the servants: Quick, bring the best robe and a ring, and sandals and let’s have ourselves a feast and celebrate. And incidentally what does the father say in verse 24, after the son’s tried to disown himself? He makes a point of calling him “this son of mine.”
Admittedly the son gets far more verbs than the father here in Luke 15: all that squandering and spending and pig handling, eventually followed by a moment of seeing things clearly (Dad, I seriously messed up). But the father’s verbs are to me far more striking. Seeing him while he’s still far off, having compassion (no matter the mess his son has made of his life), running to meet him, embracing and kissing him. This is what unconditional love looks like.
Jesus lets this parable stand without spelling it out for us in so many words, but its moral is fairly clear. The part of the child is played by us; the part of the parent is played by God. So if you only had this text and its verbs, what would you know about God? Our divine parent will always be watching and waiting for us to return, ready to drop everything, race to meet us, and grab us in a giant bear hug at the earliest opportunity. And good luck trying to get God to disown you. God’s pretty crazy about you, as it turns out, eternally devoted to you in fact. Whoever you are, however messy or complicated your story may be, know that you are loved and treasured. Whoever you are, whatever your story, God’s saying to anyone who’ll listen: let’s celebrate; to make him love you any less.
Let’s turn now to Luke 10 (page 948 in your pew Bibles) where once again we see Jesus using a story to convey a point. A lawyer asks him in verse 25 what must I do to inherit eternal life? And given the word do there in the question, we expect a verbal answer. Here’s what you do: you love God (with heart, soul, strength, and mind), and you love your neighbor (as yourself). The lawyer then asks a follow up question: And who is my neighbor? Since this time it’s a who question, we might expect this next answer in the form of a noun. Your neighbor is so-and-so, or your neighbor is this or that category of person. Instead of a noun type answer, though, Jesus offers a story packed with verbs.
There are the verbs of the robbers: stripping and beating and leaving this poor man half dead. There are the verbs of the priest and the Levite, who simply pass by this man in need. And then we’re introduced to the Samaritan, the unlikely hero, who gets a whole lot of verbs. Beginning at verse 33, what does the Samaritan do? While traveling… came near… saw… was moved with pity. Verse 34, went to him, bandaged his wounds, poured wine and oil (to clean them, help them heal), put on own animal, brought him to inn, took care of him. Verse 35 then sees him paying for the innkeeper to take care of him, with more money coming as soon as he returns.
In this case, Jesus does spell out the moral of the story: which of the men was a neighbor to the one who’d been robbed and beaten? The one who showed mercy of course. It would have been hard for the lawyer to argue otherwise. At which point Jesus gives back to the one who’d sought to put him to the test this verbal challenge: go and do likewise.
While I’ve heard and read these two parables often, I guess I’ve never paired them together like this. When I did this week, I was struck by certain similarities between the father’s verbing toward his son in the other story, and the Samaritan’s verbing toward the injured man in this one. In both cases they see someone in need, go to him, and demonstrate mercy or compassion in a tangible way. The father by making sure his desperate son gets some nice clean clothes and a decent meal; the Samaritan by cleaning and bandaging the wounds of a guy who was just mugged, and ensuring a safe place for him to rest and heal. Go and do likewise, says Jesus. Show mercy, kindness, compassion like this.
Representatives from this congregation are going and doing right now while we’re here in worship today. They’re participating in a Sunday morning of community action organized by our friends down the hill at the Magnolia United Church of Christ, and we’ll be hearing about their hands-on service in our neighborhood on a Sunday morning later this spring. Others of you “go and do” by cooking hot meals for hungry people living on the streets downtown, and by donating diapers and warm clothes to refugee families just arriving in our area, and by packing bag lunches for our neighbors at the Interbay Village Tiny Cabins. You know what it means to verb your love for others, that it requires of us action not just abstract theories or warm feelings. To the man wanting to justify himself some other way here in Luke 10, Jesus says: look, just act like a neighbor. Verb it. Show mercy. Go and do.
Sometimes biblical texts are complicated and leave us with all kinds of questions. Sometimes even the words on the page are a little tricky. We had an example of a challenging translation exercise from the Greek just last Sunday.
But there’s no point pretending things are more complicated than they are. Sometimes the message is as clear as can be. From the parable of the prodigal son? God is a loving parent and you are God’s beloved, treasured and adored. You couldn’t get God to disown you if you tried. And from the parable of the Good Samaritan? Love others in God’s name. Actively. Get out there and find a way to verb compassion to those placed along your path.
Life is messy, and frankly we’re all a bit of a mess some of the time. God loves us anyway.
Life is complicated and it’s not always easy to know how best to direct our mercy or kindness. Love others anyway.
In the end, I expect it’s the single verb that matters most: God loves you. Love God. Love others.
In parables that sum up biblical teaching from both testaments, Jesus comforts and challenges us all at once today:
Loved and treasured by God, go and do!