May 17, 2015
“Handling Grace with Grace”
The Rev. Maren Sonstegard-Spray
25 “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27 He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 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. 30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31 Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”
Today we are hearing part two of the longest of the parables Jesus told. This is the part of the story that gets less attention.
All the splashy drama centers around the younger brother – he seems to be the one that the story is really about – but that isn’t true.
Let’s walk back in the Bible to start of this string of stories.
Sometimes when Jesus tells us stories, it is in response to something – and the event in this case was that Jesus was being criticized for the company he was keeping. In particular whose bread he was eating, whose home he was in, whose lives he was sharing.
Our understanding of meal sharing is far less profound these days – generally two meals of my day happen in the intimate company of my car or my computer.
We might have a meal with someone and never see that person again.
In Jesus’ day, who you ate with mattered – it was your family, the people you loved, the people whose lives you wanted to be a part of, the people you trusted – which is why, at the last supper, when Jesus sits down to table and says that one of the people sharing the meal with him will betray him, instantly there is this shadow, this painful burden on the meal – in this intimate space is an enemy.
To his criticizers, the religious elite, by doing this meal sharing Jesus was in essence saying that these unclean people, these sinful people, these people were ok. Of course they weren’t ok – God didn’t want those people, clearly, or their lives would look differently. God would not eat a meal with them.
So Jesus tells three stories – they are likely all pretty familiar to us. In one a coin is lost, one tenth of a woman’s wealth and she searches and searches and when she finds the coin she rejoices – of course she would – we would too.
In another one, a shepherd leaves the rest of his flock to search for one lost sheep. This one is a little harder to swallow. Every business has some losses and why on earth would you leave behind the bulk of your livelihood for the sake of the 1%. But the shepherd rejoices – and maybe we don’t agree with his business choices, but ok, we will rejoice with him.
Jesus tells us that both these parables are about repentance and about how God rejoices over every lost soul who is found.
The stories are pretty radical – God wants the losers, and the outcasts, and the sinners and the screw ups, and rejoices over them.
But the third story is different.
It turns out not to be about repentance at all. Nowhere in the story is repentance mentioned, and the one thing that connects all the characters and events is the father.
Jesus knows that the things that change people are stories and relationships – and this is a story about a relationship.
So the patriarch is the one we should keep our eyes on, because the story is not about the repentance of the younger son, or the righteous indignation of the older son, it is about the grace of the father – which is meant to tell us, the listener, what grace is all about.
And here is where you might tune out. You hear, “Grace, blah, blah, blah.”
So it is good to hear this story because grace is just so radical — so radical it might make you really angry, angry enough not to join in the rejoicing over the things that God rejoices over.
And it would have been so radical to the religious elite and anyone else hearing this story.
Because before Jesus, there was the God of the Hebrew scriptures who said, “I have loved you, my creation and my people, with an everlasting love, BUT . . . “ But you need to worship in a certain way, and you are sinful and you need to need to make up for that, and here are the rules to follow to be a community I can call my own. There was always love. So often we think of the God described in the Old Testament as the God of judgement and smiting, and the God revealed in the New Testament as the God of love.
God is always the same – there is plenty of love in the Old Testament, but for the people of God it felt like there was always a “but.”
And this is not such a foreign idea to us. Some of us still relate to God this way: “God I know you love me, but have I done something unforgiveable . . . “
“God, I know you love me, but I can’t do everything right” . . .
“God, I know you love me but, I don’t know if I have enough faith or the right kind of faith.”
I remember being plagued by this kind of doubt and fear when I was a teenager and handed my heart over to Christ – I wondered if I done it right, was I truly sincere, had I said the right words, did I do it with enough faith – so several times over the years I have done it again, just to make sure I was covered in case the first time didn’t work.
The younger son in this parable of the lost son is the one who asks for his share of his father’s inheritance, and this was the greatest insult a son could pay his father – dead or alive, you mean nothing to me, and I feel so little care for our family, for our heritage, and for our community, that I am willing to sell off a part of the family land which has sustained us for generations, and I will walk away and never return.
The younger son does terrible things, wastes a fortune, becomes an indentured servant tending to pigs and even thinks about eating the pig’s food (and if we were good Jews, we might be physically ill at this point).
He comes to his senses and decides to go home where at least he could be a well-treated slave.
He has a speech to recite, and whether he is even sincere is still in question. What kind of reception could he have possibly expected?
We know what people are like, and the people who were hearing this story for the first time knew what people were like.
One badly worded text or email, and there’s a friend lost for good . . . sometimes we don’t even know what we did wrong but we are still shut out, given the silent treatment, avoided in halls of school or at work.
While I was staying at the hotel this past week for a conference, I walked past a family trying to sort out their dinner plans. It was clearly a family gathering to celebrate the graduation of one of its members who was walking around with a graduation cap on. They were standing in a huddle and glancing over at someone else, and I heard one of them say, “Well, we can eat here but I am sitting on the other side of the room from them.”
This is what we do, and we feel justified and self-righteous – we are good at the cold shoulder, the silent treatment, and never forgetting.
The younger son would have expected to not even to be seen by his father, to be turned away at the door, and then have the community perform a ceremony to officially cut him out.
And the kicker is that the father runs out to embrace the son, before anyone in the community can exclude him, and he prepares to throw a party – and from the amount of food being prepared, it was a party that the whole community would have been invited to – a party, not in honor of the lost son, but in honor of the father who has had his son restored to him. Again, the focus of the story is not the wayward son, but the love and the grace and the forgiveness of the father.
But while all this is going on, the elder son is out working the fields – he is dutiful, he is responsible – and now he is irate.
But keeping our eyes on the father, we watch as he leaves his place of honor at the meal – would a patriarch really leave his table and his party to go plead with his pouting son to come in?
No, he wouldn’t. It is shocking and if we were the original hearers of the story, we would have already thrown up our hands at this man, and now we are even more convinced that he is a fool. We ask: to what depths of humiliation will he not go to, for the sake of ungrateful and disrespectful children?
The elder son cannot believe what is happening – he is so angry that he practically writes himself out of the family – “your son,” he says to his father, has returned (not my brother).
The verb that he uses to describe the work that he has done on behalf of the family is the language a slave used to refer to a master, and not a father.
He is mad, really, really mad – so mad that he may never go into that party that celebrates this father who he is not sure he even wants anymore.
What the father has done is offensive, and unfair, and just plain wrong – no one deserved to be treated with that kind of love.
We, along with the older brother, and the religious elite, we should be offended by this grace and this father – we should be indignant and self-righteous – this unremorseful worm gets the reception of the father’s most beloved – it is unfair, it overlooks every wrong, every betrayal, it forgets everything that came before.
And, oh yes, this is the exact same thing that is done for you in Jesus Christ.
You may be the one who wondered far away from God – that might be your story.
You might be the one who wonders what God really thinks of you.
Or you might be the Christian from the cradle – and you’ve been working at it, with more or less passion, all your life.
You can sometimes get so lost, even though you’ve never left home.
Sometimes you’ve forgotten that God has always been near you.
Whoever we are, it is not about us.
Let us take our eyes off ourselves, for a moment, as hard as that can be.
We are not the focus of the story – grace is the point – wildly offensive and deeply unfair grace – it is for us.
You’ve probably heard this before – it is not new, though it helps to be reminded about what is important. This time, let this news work a change in you — be different because of it – live it out, and pass it on. Amen.