Scandal of Grace
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; March 31, 2019
4th Sunday in Lent
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
In recent weeks, our readings from the Gospel of Luke have had a common theme: the urgent need to repent. Today’s text or pericope places us at the end of a series of parables—also sharing a common theme: how God receives the sinner’s repentance. In the parable of the lost sheep, the shepherd loses one of his 100 sheep and goes into the wilderness to find it. Once it is rescued, the shepherd calls all his neighbors together for a celebration.
In the parable of the lost coin, a woman loses one of her ten silver coins, and she searches diligently until she finds it. When she does, she calls together friends and neighbors, “Rejoice with me!” “Just so,” the gospel tells us, “there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
Now we turn our attention to the third parable in the series. It is one of the most well-known stories of the New Testament, commonly referred to as the Parable of the Prodigal Son. This parable offers us an opportunity to learn something about two brothers, as well as ourselves. But more importantly, if we have eyes to see and ears to hear, we will realize more fully the love of our Abba Father—a great, generous, even prodigal love.
“Prodigal” is an interesting word—one that is seldom used outside the framework of this story. While people assume it means “bad,” it can mean generous, abundant, or wasteful—so you see—prodigal isn’t always bad. We learn in Genesis chapter 1, for example, God creates species and resources abundantly or prodigally and it is good. Often, wealthy philanthropists like Bill Gates give money prodigally (generously) to a good cause. In the parable, the son has come to be called prodigal because he squanders his money prodigally or wastefully.[i]
With his father alive and well, the son goes to him and demands his inheritance. In Jewish culture, such a request is tantamount to saying, “I wish you were dead.” Nevertheless, the father agrees and divides his property between his two sons. The younger one takes his inheritance and squanders it in riotous living until, finally, he finds himself without a dime to his name, nowhere to live, nowhere to turn. In desperation, he gets a job feeding the pigs. In truth, he is so hungry, he would gladly eat the pig’s food. But then he comes to himself; sees himself for what he really is. It is in that pivotal moment that his true repentance begins—as he turns to take that first step toward home.
The older brother, well, he’s always been home—never left. And when he happens upon the grand celebration that his father is giving in their home, honoring that no-good, vagabond of a brother, he is none too happy. Angrily, he rants at his father. In today’s vernacular, his ranting might sound something like this:
For years I’ve slaved for you, never once leaving you or causing you any grief and you’ve never offered to throw a party for me and my friends. Yet, this son of yours who has wasted your money on who knows what, shows up after all this time, and you have the audacity to throw a big bash like this!
In a Sunday school class he taught on this parable, Fred Craddock offered a different version of the story: The father puts the robe and ring on the older brother; the reward goes to the one who stays behind as the dutiful son. It’s for him that the father kills the fatted calf and throws a grand celebration. Craddock said that after he described this alternate version in the class, a woman seated near the back shouted out, “No, but that’s how it should have been!” Not at all what Craddock expected! But then, truth be told, what happens in the story isn’t what either one of the sons expect—for they both expect about the same thing we would—that the son who has squandered his inheritance has gotten what he deserves.
It’s about time he learns his lesson—bad behavior has consequences! Oh, he can live here, he can even have his old room back. But out in the fields he will go until he learns his lesson; until he earns—you heard me—earns—his place at the table again!
In the setting in which Jesus tells the parable, the behavior of the oldest son represents the ungracious attitude of the religious leaders who have been complaining about with whom Jesus breaks bread and spends time. Like the older brother, they feel they’ve earned their positions in life and “those sinners,” well, they got what they deserve.
We, too, may be guilty of acting like the religious leaders—especially if we have the tendency to draw lines in the sand to mark who is in and who is out. But a word of warning is in order: Drawing lines to exclude folks can be risky business because Jesus is notorious for being on the other side—on the side of the outcast, the downtrodden, the excluded! Through the eyes of Jesus, we see our Abba Father as a God of deep, abiding, boundless, even desperate love for those created in God’s image—for us. It is a love that comes in search of us; a love that allows for humanity’s free will; a love that is vulnerable.
Being a parent is hard work, isn’t it? We want the best for our children. We work and play and teach and pray—and it doesn’t end when they are all grown up—oh no—it lasts a lifetime! And often, it grows to encompass those whom our children marry…and then, there may be grandchildren to consider. Kinney and I are blessed to have four children who have brought us much joy. Oh, they aren’t perfect, but they have given us endless reasons to celebrate—from that first moment when we learned a little one was on the way, to the day of his or her birth, and then all those big days like kindergarten, school plays and musicals, birthdays, awards ceremonies, and graduations and weddings and grandchildren…
As I look back, I am humbled by the good things God has given us to celebrate as a family. But for the life of me, I cannot recall one time we had a party to celebrate anyone’s failure. Had one of our children brought “shame to the family name,” I can’t imagine us even thinking about a party. But the Prodigal, Generous Father—he will stop at nothing to welcome home the son who was lost. What extraordinary love! Even though the youngest son insults him by asking for his inheritance early, even though the son has been gone for who knows how long without a word, even though he loses everything and ends up bedded down with unclean pigs—still, when the father sees him coming over the ridge, he breaks into a run. He can’t get to him fast enough. It’s as if the father has been keeping vigil, praying for his son night and day, hoping against hope he might return.
What extravagant love! We would say, welcome him home, but be reasonable. But for God, that just won’t do. As one scholar notes, “Joy must be made all the more complete by abundance: the best robe, the finest ring, the fatted calf. This is the amazing thing about [God’s] grace, that while we remain bound in both body and soul to Adam’s sin, the Spirit of God enables us to utter the word of salvation—“Father”—and God [comes running to meet us]…”[ii]
While visiting a museum in Russia, Henri Nouwen had a chance to sit for a while and meditate on Rembrandt’s marvelous painting, “Return of the Prodigal Son.” It is the image that is provided on your bulletin cover this morning. I invite you to take a moment to examine it. [Silence is kept.] While gazing at the painting, Nouwen saw the story in a new and astounding way. There was the Father and there was the Son, Jesus, who became something of a prodigal for us all. Nouwen writes,
He left the house of his heavenly Father, came to a foreign country, gave away all that he had, and returned through a cross to his Father’s home. All of this he did, not as a rebellious son, but as the obedient son, sent out to bring home all the lost children of God…Jesus is the prodigal son of the Prodigal Father who gave away everything the Father had entrusted to him so that [we] could become like him and return with him to his Father’s home.[iii]
What scandalous grace is this! God’s great embrace, God’s love, compassion, and justice are deeper and wider than our hearts can imagine. God our Father is watching, waiting, and hoping that we will rush into his arms and remain there now and forevermore. Amen.
[iii] Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son, 55.
*Cover Art “The Return of the Prodigal” by Rembrandt via Wikimedia Commons; Public Domain