March 31, 2019
There's an old story about a man who went to the movies, and upon seeing the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer roaring lion, decided he had already seen that movie, and so left. And that's a danger for some of our gospel stories, especially the ones we hear every year during Lent. In today's gospel, Jesus tells a parable and you may know the parable as soon as he begins, "There was a man who had two sons.” It is one of the most familiar and well loved parables in the scriptures. But as we listen to it today, let's listen with fresh ears; listen with the realization that, while John describes the audience as tax collectors and sinners and Pharisees and scribes, it was most likely directed at the Scribes and Pharisees. So let's try to listen to it as new to our hearing and as his listeners would have heard it.
As I said, this was directed at the Pharisees and scribes. The lead up to this parable was their disapproval of Jesus eating with sinners/tax collectors. The lectionary writers omit ten verses with two parables, one about the man who had 100 sheep and when one wanders away, he leaves the 99 in search of the lost sheep. The second about a woman who lost one of her ten coins. She searches the house and when she finds it, she rejoices with her friends. What we do get to read is the familiar parable of the Prodigal Son. All three parables have the same basic story... something is lost and when it is found, there is rejoicing. There is a significant difference in the prodigal parable and you may have noted it... The father allowed the son to leave and did not go searching for his lost son. When the son returned, there was rejoicing and a party.
The usual take is that the older brother represents the Pharisees. Like the scribes and the Pharisees, the elder son did not rejoice in the recovery of what was lost but are irritated that their great faithfulness... at least in their own eyes... this faithfulness is not properly recognized; by his father or by Jesus.
So, who did you identify with in the parable of the prodigal? I have always identified with the elder brother. Anybody else? I like to be recognized for my faithful actions. I like to judge those who wander away from faith... at least the way I see that faith should be lived. I get jealous, I am self-centered, I often have a serious streak of Phariseeism in me. This doesn't define me at all times; I believe we all have times when we resemble the repentant younger son and times when we resemble the self-righteous older son. None of us, I hope, are locked into the role of the Pharisee.
Even as I say that, I often think the Pharisees have gotten a bum rap in many ways. When I am feeling mellow, I can see their strict adherence to their rules and laws as truly seeking to follow God faithfully. I can feel some admiration for their self-discipline and perseverance. And we remember that every time a group is lumped together with certain traits, not every in that group is the same. But Jesus didn't cut them much slack. He used the older son's reaction to the joy of “salvation” to show that too often their hearts were not about loving their neighbor as themselves, but about being better than their neighbor and that is not the fulfillment of the law. We know what Jesus said when asked what is the foremost commandment: Love God and love your neighbor, that is the sum of the law which is also written in our Old Testament. However, the Pharisees to whom Jesus directed this parable did not have that priority and that is the source of judgment upon them.
So how do do you think those Pharisees heard this parable? I believe that in their minds, the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost son were the sinners and tax collectors that Jesus was hanging with. Those are the ones who are lost. And the Pharisees would not have left the 99 to search for one such lost sinner. They would count themselves among the 99 sheep who did not leave the flock... they were the obedient sheep and were satisfied with their position as being “not lost”. They would not have rejoiced with their father when the prodigal returned. They would identify with the older son who had no need for repentance for they were never “lost”. They would rest assured in their own “not lostness” without the loving concern for their neighbor that Jesus calls for.
But I wonder if Jesus, as he shared this parable, didn't see the Pharisees as the things that were lost. Their trouble was, they didn't know they were lost. They didn't recognize the need they had for the touch of God's forgiveness in their life. If they were the prodigal; they would have failed to recognize their lostness. And I'm afraid that is an awfully easy place to find ourselves. We choose to go our own way much of the time. We take time on Sunday to recognize God, but the rest of the week, we are busy doing our own thing. We wander away from the things of God. Each week we gather and for some, this time with God doesn't change anything. We continue on our paths doing our own thing. And we don't recognize that we've left God behind here in the sanctuary. For some people, it takes reaching rock bottom before they really turn to God in repentance and obedience. But if we aren't in the pigpen eating the pods the pigs are eating, if we are comfortable in our routine, we may not even recognize that we have been walking away from God.
And the question becomes, how do we know when we are truly walking with God? I stopped here on Wednesday night writing my sermon. Thursday morning I read Peter Marty's column in The Christian Century. He was not writing about the Prodigal son or even particularly about grace and forgiveness. What he wrote does speak to how we read and understand this oh so familiar passage. “I often think of a divinity school professor who liked to remind us that anytime we read a passage in the New Testament and immediately find ourselves on the side of Jesus, we've probably misread the passage. That was his way of knocking down presumptuousness, encouraging a reexamination of assumptions, and limiting our tendency to believe we have all things figured out.” If we hear this parable and believe that we have it figured out, that we are living in God's will; if our assumption is that we are the good guys in the parables Jesus tells, watch out!
We are, in fact, both good guy and bad guy; the lost and the unlost; the Pharisee and the sinner. The scribe and tax collector. Today, we can see ourselves as both the lost son whom the father receives with open arms and a party to celebrate and as the obedient son who sees the celebration and is resentful. As the lost son who receives grace that is undeserved. And as the obedient son who wants the father's grace all for himself. The lost son who comes to understand his lostness and the obedient son who doesn't even realize he is lost.
If we read the parable in this light, it all looks a little different. It is harder distinguish the “good” son and the “bad” son. But Jesus' words are directed at both the lost and the unlost; to those who realize they are sinners in need of forgiveness and to those who believe they are pretty good people just as they are. If we look at the parable now, we want to guard against seeing ourselves as the “good” son. Because we will have a very difficult time receiving the grace offered by Jesus if we don't understand the need we have for God's grace.
There is another consequence to identifying with the obedient son. When we have experienced the grace and forgiveness of God, when we have accepted that God loves us and invites us as children... and if you are here, you have likely understood this... then we need to guard against understanding the grace of God as an “Us and Them” equation. If we identify as being right with God and then tend to judge those who aren't “in”, we are guilty of Pharaseeism. Jesus tells his followers in Matthew 7: 1, ““Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you.” The obedient son judged his brother; and he wasn't wrong. His judgment was correct. But his judgment lacked grace. Jesus is not saying we can't judge right and wrong even in the lives of others. But what we should be understanding is that the grace shown by the father in this parable is the grace we should be demonstrating in our lives. I read a little Max Lucado devotional, on Thursday this is what I read, “Where grace is lacking, bitterness abounds; where grace abounds, forgiveness grows.”
And here is, I believe, the heart of the parable. None of us has a corner on God's grace. None of us understands what another person is facing. And so the proper response is to live like the father in the story; showing grace and forgiveness before the son even asked; to love like Jesus as Paul explained in Romans (5:8), “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” Jesus didn't wait for us to realize we were stuck with the pigs, for us to come to him. Jesus came to us, came to earth to love us and to show us God's love and grace while we were yet sinners. The vather welcomed the son back into the family before a word of apology was uttered. I'm not sure the older brother would have forgiven the prodigal even if he begged for forgiveness. Jesus forgave us before we knew we needed forgiveness. Our “Assurance of Pardon” that Shirley read said it like this, “God’s forgiveness is extravagant for all, even though we don’t deserve it. Receive God’s forgiveness and pass it on to others.” So pass it on.
I ran across this story of pass in the gift of grace this week, told by a seminary professor. “A student of mine went jogging with his father in their urban neighborhood. As they ran, the son shared what he was learning in seminary about urban ministry, and the father, an inner city pastor, related experiences of his own. At the halfway point in their jog, they decided to phone ahead for a home-delivered pizza. As they headed for the phone, however, a homeless man approached them, asking for spare change. The father reached into the pockets of his sweat pants and pulled out two handfuls of coins. “Here,” he said to the homeless man. “Take what you need.”
The homeless man, hardly believing his good fortune, said, “I’ll take it all,” scooped the coins into his own hands, and started on his way. It only took a second for the father to realize that he now had no change for the phone. “Pardon me,” he beckoned to the homeless man. “I need to make a call. Can you spare some change?”
The homeless man turned and held out the two handfuls of coins. “Here,” he said. “Take what you need.”
The prodigal's father held out his hands, welcoming the son back into the fellowship of the family. Jesus holds out his hands, welcoming us into the family of God. We are to hold out our hands in welcome and in service to those around us. We are to obey the wonderful words of Micah, not to earn God's favor, but in response to God's grace. We are to “act justly, and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God." ... "May we so live out the grace we've been shown. Amen.
Hymn: What Does the Lord Require