Good morning. This is
a Sunday when we get to consider a parable which is familiar and
beloved for many of us; it’s often called the parable of the
Prodigal Son. We find it in Luke chapter 15, where it is the third
and final parable in a series of stories about lost things. Lost
-- it’s one of Jesus’ repeated themes: lost sheep. Lost
coins, lost sons, lost souls, lost hope, lost faith, lost love,
lost chances, lost sense. It’s a theme which resonates with
us because in some sense it is our story, each one of us. We all
know that we have been lost or are lost. We feel it every day: a
deep ache for which there are no words and an awareness that we
cannot see the road ahead. Thomas Merton captured this in the prayer
reprinted in our little prayer books which begins, “My Lord
God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead
of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end.”
If you have never felt this way, you are either very young, very
dependent, or you are kidding yourself. We have all felt this way
because this is the path to maturity. Being lost is part of the
process of leaving home -- whether we do this physically or not
-- and finding out who we are. This process is never -- let me under
line that -- never without pain. If you’re counting on your
parents to shield you from this, you haven’t really left home.
If you expect your spouse to protect you, then you have not become
fully your own person. If you expect God to keep your life pain-free
then you haven’t been paying attention to the Bible; certainly
not to the life of Jesus Christ.
I think there’s something for each of us in this parable,
depending on which character we identify with. Every neighborhood,
every school and every family has produced a prodigal. Most of them
aren’t famous; some are infamous. Tim grew up with a neighbor
kid who shot and killed his father and shot and paralyzed his mother.
Maybe others of you have notorious connections, but it doesn’t
have to be as dramatic as that. We all know or know of friends or
family members or church members who have struggled with infidelity
or f or addiction or financial ruin or other ways of being lost.
Maybe you are that person in your family.
And then there are those of us who have misbehaved in less public
ways. We have cherished our bitterness toward a friend or a co-worker
who let us down, an ex who betrayed us, parents who didn’t
give us what we needed. We might seem to be the opposite of prodigal:
we don’t squander our money or our friendship or our goodwill,
we hold on to it tightly, hoarding our hurts, wearing our wounds
with pride, wallowing in offense rather than risking forgiveness.
That, too, is a form of being prodigal -- squandering relationship
for the sake of holding on to resentment.
Last week I gave you a couple definitions which I’ll summarize
Justice is getting
what we deserve
Mercy is not getting
punishment which we deserve
Grace is getting something
good which we do not deserve
Got that? It’s a helpful framework to keep in mind. In fact,
most of us operate from this framework even when we’re not
aware of it. In an article with the catchy title “Free Beer,”
Nancy Rockwell maintains that this is precisely why this story is
so significant and so difficult: we’ve been taught that there
is no such thing as a free gift. What’s the catch? What will
I have to do in return? You keep your side of the bargain and I’ll
keep mine: you go first. This is why the older brother is so angry.
He’s spent his whole life keeping his side of the bargain;
and he’s worked hard at it -- especially knowing that his
younger brother has flamed out and not respected the bargain at
all. And now he finds out there is no bargain. There never was a
bargain. His father tells him, “Son, you are always with me,
and all that is mine is yours.” His father has always loved
him. No contract necessary. Well that stinks!
I hope you can understand why the older brother would be so angry
about grace. It doesn’t matter that he is loved just as much
as his younger brother. It isn’t fair! Grace isn’t fair!
And that is the truth of this story: grace isn’t fair. If
it were fair, it wouldn’t be grace, it would be justice. And
we are not saved by justice, we are saved by grace.
In the midst of the celebration of the younger son’s return,
we should contemplate some of the implications of grace. Theologian
Paul Tillich wrote this in the margin of his Bible in Luke 15: “When
the prodigal came home, I hope he didn’t stay too long.”
This is a perceptive comment. We might love a reformed sinner the
first time -- but how about the next time? How many of us mess up
just once? What about a couple months later when the prodigal son
is getting bored with being back at his father’s house and
says, “Hey Dad, I think I’d like to start a business.
Could you loan me the money?” What would it take to exhaust
So here’s a question which is not intended to be facetious:
Where is Jesus in this story? The literal answer is that Jesus is
the narrator: he’s telling this set of parables to a group
of tax collectors and sinners -- tax collectors are a sub-set of
sinners who are especially resented -- and the Pharisees, the elder
brothers who keep track of every little religious transaction --
are offended because Jesus is kind to sinners. Jesus sits and eats
with sinners and tax collectors, and doesn’t seem to be keeping
track of their transgressions at all. Outrageous! But beyond the
setting of Luke 15, where do we place Jesus in this story, and how
does that influence our understanding of grace?
Our typical reading is that God is the loving Father, running out
in the road to welcome sinners home with open arms. I have no problem
with this; it’s how it makes the most sense to me. But I don’t
see Jesus as either the irresponsible younger son or the self-righteous
older son. So maybe Jesus is one with the Father, extending grace
in the same way; or maybe Jesus isn’t telling this parable
about himself -- maybe it isn’t a complete theological understanding
of our relationship to God the Father and Christ the Son.
But let’s fast-forward -- about nine chapters forward to
Luke 23 and the crucifixion of Jesus. How are we to understand the
crucifixion in the light of this story of the prodigal son? Where
is the loving Father of this parable? One traditional Western understanding
of the crucifixion is this: that because God is just, God has to
punish sin, but because God is loving, God punishes Jesus instead
of us. Does that make sense? This understanding sets up an internal
tension between God’s justice and God’s mercy. I think
this understanding of the cross says more about our inadequate understanding
of justice than it does about God. What if the cross is not about
punishment, but about identification, solidarity, and love?
Instead of God having to punish someone, what happens to our understanding
of the cross if we see it as God loving us enough to become fully
human in Jesus Christ, and living a life like ours and identifying
with us completely. What if God loves us so much that he was willing
to become human and preach and teach and reach others in a way which
he knew would lead to suffering and dying the death of a criminal
-- and he did it anyway. That is prodigal love -- wasteful, extravagant,
over-the-top -- like we see from the Father in our parable. That
kind of love doesn’t have to punish anyone. It doesn’t
demand death; it is more powerful than death. That is the promise
of the resurrection, that God’s love is greater than our sin.
When we come to ourselves and turn toward God, we find that God’s
prodigal love is greater even than our ability to be lost. We once
were lost, but through God’s love we are found, and it is
grace will lead us home.
Accepting grace can be painful, if like the younger brother, we
have to come to ourselves and realize that we don’t deserve
what God wants for us. Accepting grace can be impossible if we,
like the older brother, cannot realize that it has always been ours
-- we never had to earn it. The love of God is greater than what
we can imagine or describe. Thank God for that prodigal love!