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Before you even knew you needed it…

Date: May 26, 2019/Speaker: Sharla Hulsey

Scripture: Romans 5:1-11

Scripture Reader: Carol H.

I’m sure you know the story…it’s probably the best loved story in the Bible.

“There was a man who had two sons…”[1] That man was my husband, Levi.

We had two sons, Jacob and Caleb. Jacob was the oldest, and it seemed like from the moment he could walk he was working. He followed Levi around and did all kinds of little tasks Levi gave him, partly to keep him out from underfoot, but also because it made him so proud to be helping his dad.

As he grew the tasks grew bigger, and before too long Jacob was working as hard as Levi did. Our farm prospered because of their hard work. We had lots of animals and lots of hired men.

Caleb, our younger son, was different. He had no interest whatsoever in the farm. He spent most of his days with our rabbi, studying the Torah.

But as he got older, he changed. He still studied, but he was rebellious. His questions got more challenging, and really tested the rabbi’s patience.

And then he came home one day and announced he was through with that. He wasn’t sure he believed any of it, anyway. He looked at the world in which we lived and wondered how it could possibly be that, as Torah says, if a person works hard and plays by the rules, they will prosper. There are plenty of people in the world who work themselves into the ground and get nothing but sweat and a dirty face. And then there are the people who can’t work, the ones to whom life has dealt a terrible hand.

One of the main beliefs of our faith is that we are to help those folks—but, Caleb asked, why are they in that state? Is God punishing them for something? What? “And if that’s how God treats people,” Caleb declared, “then I don’t want anything to do with him.”

Nothing Levi or I could say would get through to him. The rabbi had pretty well given up. Caleb was a grown man, so we couldn’t force him to participate in family prayers or attend synagogue with us on the Sabbath.

And one Saturday, as the sun was setting, Caleb went to his father and asked him to give him his inheritance, the share of Levi’s estate that he would get when Levi died. That hurt us so much—it was like Caleb had said to his father, who had never been anything but loving toward either of his boys, “I wish you were dead.” We shed a lot of tears that night. We felt like we were losing our child.

But what happened after Levi gave Caleb the money was worse. He just packed up and left—didn’t even say goodbye. We just woke up one morning to find his bed empty and his stuff gone. Now we had lost him.

And it was as though Levi aged thirty years overnight. His strong back became bent from carrying a burden that none of us could see. More and more of the work became Jacob’s responsibility, as his father spent his days sitting in front of the house, watching the road, peering off into the distance, in case he might catch a glimpse of Caleb returning.

I must confess I got impatient with him. “Levi, our son is gone! We have to accept that. He isn’t coming back. Get up and do something!”
And after awhile Levi said, “Tirzah, you’re right. I do need to do something.”

But what he did wasn’t quite what I expected. He took the best calf from the herd and began to fatten him up for a feast. He planted a garden full of Caleb’s favorite fruits and vegetables. He prepared the best wine and put it aside.

Every day he had me prepare the best breads and cakes and other good things. “He could be here tonight,” Levi said. “I want to be ready.”
And several times every day, Levi walked up the road from our house, just in case.

This went on for weeks and weeks. It was costing us a fortune, preparing all that rich food. We sure couldn’t eat it all!

The widows and orphans, the elderly and disabled folks in our town ate well during that season. It didn’t make sense to throw so much out, when so many were in need. They were grateful, but I knew that others were laughing at us.

“His grief has driven him mad,” I overheard one of our elders say.

“How ridiculous for him to put his whole life on hold like that, waiting for a son who will never return,” said another.

“For all they know, that kid could be dead in a gutter somewhere—and it would serve him right, after how he treated his family,” one of the women said when she didn’t know I was there.

Levi didn’t care.

He found a beautiful ring that had belonged to his grandfather, and he put it aside in the place where he had put the new set of clothes and robe I had made for Caleb, just in case.

Day after day we prepared for a feast that we never had. Night after night we went to bed and tried to pretend it didn’t hurt. And day after day faithful Jacob took care of the farm without missing a beat. He worked so hard, and I know it was tough on him to see his father pining away for Caleb, and giving him scarcely a glance.

And then one day, late in the fall, as the harvest was being brought in, Levi got up from his chair on the front porch and took off running down the road. His robes flapped in the breeze behind him, and he lost a shoe somewhere; but he didn’t care. As he ran I heard him calling, “Tirzah! He’s back!”

And I put the plan we’d hashed out in motion. Hired hands were dispatched into the town to invite everyone to the party—the rabbi, our friends, the poor and disabled folks, everybody. The new clothes were brought out and pressed, and the ring was polished. I fixed those cakes and breads and salads and everything, just like every day, but this day it was all different. The calf Levi had been fattening was killed, dressed, and cooked.

Levi ran farther and faster than I’d ever known him to run. Caleb can’t have been more than a speck on the horizon when he started running.

He had gone to a foreign country, where he drank and partied and gambled his entire inheritance away. Before too long, he had nothing, and had to get a job. Since he hadn’t really worked his whole life, other than his studies with the rabbi, he didn’t have much in the way of skills; so eventually he ended up slopping pigs. It was dirty work, and the fact that we considered pigs to be unclean animals made it that much worse. He made barely enough to get by, and just about every night he went to bed hungry. He knew he had made a mess out of his life, but this was one place where he knew, even if he had to spend the rest of his life as a hired hand working for his father and brother, he would be better off than he was at that moment, alone and friendless, nobody but those filthy pigs to talk to day after day.

All the way home he planned what he would say to us. When Levi met him, Caleb started on the speech he’d prepared and rehearsed over and over: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you…”

But he never got to finish. Levi wrapped his arms around him and said, “Never mind, never mind. Come on, let’s go home. Everybody is there and we’re having a party!”

Caleb said, “A party? Why?”

“Everything is ready, and we’re going to celebrate that you’re finally home.”

“But how…How did you know I would come today?”

“Son,” Levi said, “We’ve had everything ready every day since you left.”

[1] Luke 15:11-32