By Rev. Jennifer Christenson
For Christus Lutheran Church, Greenville, Wis.
March 10, 2013
Lent 4C – Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke%2015:1-3,%2011b-32&version=NIV
A man had two sons.
This has been called the most loved of all of Jesus’ parables.
To be honest, I’m not so sure that’s really true. The times this parable has come up in the lectionary and I’ve preached a sermon on it and the times it’s been talked about in Bible studies, I’ve found that this parable more often than not just makes people really, really mad.
What I hear most often is, “I’d be mad too if I were the older son, he really got a raw deal, it’s just not fair!!”
And I GET that reaction, I really do. Because it’s true. It’s NOT fair.
But then, that seems to be the whole point.
A man had two sons. The youngest one day, out of the blue, did the unthinkable and told his dad, “I want my inheritance right now. I’m sick of farm life, I want to see the world, so pony up the cash old man so I can be on my way.”
Now, lest we think this was just something that happened all the time back in Jesus’ day, it wasn’t. Jesus opens up this story with a situation his hearers would have found utterly shocking and totally preposterous. A) No self-respecting son, younger or elder or middle, would EVER demand such a thing from his father…and B) No self-respecting father would actually give in and allow it to happen.
But that’s the story Jesus told, so here we go. The father gives in and son heads off to see the world. And, in what was likely NOT a shock to anyone listening, said younger son squandered his inheritance on loose living. Truly, it would have been more of a shock had the guy gone to a foreign land, invested his inheritance sensibly and returned an even wealthier man than when he’d left.
His wild lifestyle eventually took its toll on his pocketbook and the young man finds himself broke. And then his situation goes from bad to worse for now the land he has ventured off to experiences a famine. Meaning, as a broke foreigner, he is unlikely to get much help from anyone because no one has anything to share.
So, as the story goes, he gets hired on as a pig-feeder, which would have been another shocking and appalling element in the story for Jesus’ original hearers. God Jewish men did NOT associate with swine, much less serve as their caretakers. Pigs were unclean, impure beasts. As if that weren’t bad enough, Jesus then ups the shock and ick factor by allowing us a peek into the man’s mind…and we overhear him drooling over the slop he was feeding to the pigs.
So now he’s sunk about as low as he can possibly go. He’s hit rock bottom, if you will.
And, at rock bottom, he has an epiphany. He comes to himself and says, “Self, what are you doing?? The servants, even the day laborers in your dad’s employ live better than this. Go home, admit you did a dumb thing and pray your dad will let you be one of his hired hands.”
And this is one of the points of the story that gets a lot of us all riled up. We get riled up because we wonder, was he REALLY sorry or was he just hungry? Did he REALLY feel like he wasn’t worthy to be called his father’s son or was that just a ploy…did he suspect that his old man would take him back in a heartbeat? Was he truly a repentant and broken man…or just a manipulative little brat who knew how to work the system in his favor?
From a distance…who could tell? Or perhaps, in the spirit of the story, from a distance, who cares? Apparently not the man’s father. This father sees his son, a speck on the horizon and runs like a mad fool…and it was considered foolish and undignified for a man to run in that manner, or really for any reason, save possibly being chased by a wild boar and even then, if walking fast would suffice, that would be the better option…
He sees his son and does not, much to our chagrin, pause to wonder, “Well, well, well, look who has finally come crawling back…I wonder what will his story be?” or “Well, well, well, at long last will I finally get my apology?” He doesn’t pause to ask if his kid is “truly, honestly repentant”. He doesn’t care about any of that!! He sees his son trying to come back and so this father goes, runs like a crazy fool, robes flapping and embraces this wayward kid in a bear hug and plants a big old kiss on his cheek.
And it’s right here where we find the beauty and the scandal of this story. If this story is meant to give us a picture of how God works, to help us see and experience God’s grace from a safe distance, that means that for all of the emphasis we put on “true” repentance and the like, it turns out that God just wants us back.
God is the ever hopeful father, parent, who scours the horizon for the slightest evidence of our return and the minute God sees even a hint of our shadow, God RUNS, RACES toward us, no time to waste, and grabs us up and plants big wet baptismal kisses all over us and says, “My son, my daughter, my child, you’ve come home, you’re back, you’re here, at last.”
And that picture is AWESOME, for the sinner in all of us. For the wayward children we know we are, that picture is awesome and humbling and breathtaking and is such a sweet relief.
And it’s AWFUL too. Terrible, because, well, if God is soooo welcoming to wayward sinners, are there any standards anymore? Is there any point to moral, upright living? Following the rules? Working like a slave in the fields… Oh wait, that’s the elder son talking and it’s not his turn just yet.
So the father embraces the son, who then stammers out his rehearsed speech, Father I have sinned against heaven and against you; I am not worthy to be called your son…. But before he gets to his grand solution, “I know I’m not worthy to be your son, so I’ll just work as your servant…” his father interrupts. Or maybe the son, thrown off by his father’s actions, decided not to say that part after all.
Either way, the end result is the same. In this crazy story of extravagant grace and forgiveness and restoration…a partial restoration like the son was going to suggest, getting to see his family but not really, truly be a part of it any more, being servant, not son…was simply not good enough.
The father shouts orders at his servants, “Get this kid a robe and a ring and some shoes and let it be known to the world that MY SON has come home and is fully restored to the household…and now, let’s party!!!!”
Truth be told, if the story ended there, it would be just fine by many of us. A party is a great way to wrap things up. And it’s easy, too, with all of the flash and dazzle of the younger son’s story, to just kind of forget all about that other guy, the elder son. The faithful son. The righteous son. The obedient, not-a-little-brat son.
Speaking of, here he comes now, in from a hard day’s labor, to be met with an unexpected party. Surprisingly, he does NOT just go dashing to the house and join in the fun. Instead he grabs the nearest servant and demands to know what on earth is going on. The answer he gets displeases him. Greatly. He doesn’t rejoice, doesn’t tear off to the house to see his long-lost brother.
He, understandably, pouts. He does, from what I have heard with regard to this parable, what many of us might have done were we in his shoes too.
He doesn’t get to pout for too long though, for, lo, here comes that crazy father again, running out of the party, again, a most undignified thing to do, to greet his other far-off son.
Out he goes and here we get the full brunt of our, or rather the elder son’s wrath. “It’s NOT FAIR!!!! I did the work! I went to church, I gave my offering, I served as a mentor, I helped build birdhouses, I visited the sick, I served at the homeless shelter, I prayed, meditated, gave stuff up for Lent, didn’t give stuff up for Lent…I’M the good one!!! And for that I get squat. And this son of yours, he gets everything. Again. It’s. Not. Fair.”
And he’s right. It’s NOT fair. It’s totally not fair. That is the scandal of God’s gracious, loving goodness. It’s not fair, at all. The undeserving are treated like royalty. The sinful are redeemed. Jesus died for them while they were yet sinners even. It’s disgraceful, really. Atrocious.
And it’s something that the elder son had at his fingertips all along.
That’s the father’s bewildered, loving, gracious speech to him. “Son, all this love and tenderness and forgiveness and abundance…is yours, and has been all this time. You’ve never been apart from my love, not for a moment. But your brother, he was lost…and now he’s found…and so we have no choice but to celebrate his return.”
And it’s the same response to us, who consider ourselves “the righteous”. We have lived since baptism surrounded by the promise of God’s love, forgiveness, new life and grace. It’s never left us. It’s what has inspired us to be mentors, build birdhouses, help at homeless shelters, love our neighbors, etc. So why, oh why, should we get our proverbial undies in a bundle when some poor soul 30 minutes before dying gives it all to God. They had only 30 minutes of what we have had all along.
Is it fair? Really, who cares? From a distance, we’re all the younger son, and we’re all the elder son. And God sees us coming and sees not who is more righteous, or more perfect. God sees his kids, his children, his sons and daughters, and God in Christ Jesus, through the unfair, scandalous extravagance of the cross, runs headlong toward us, robes flapping, and gathers us up into his embrace and says welcome home, my dear child, welcome home.
And that’s scandalous that God should be this way. And unfair.
And that’s what makes it so very glorious.