Lent 4C 2019

Lent 4C 2019

Texts: Joshua 5:9-12

Psalm 32

2 Corinthians 5:16-21

Luke 15: 1-3, 11b-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.”

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.  Amen.

I have a friend who just happens to be the Bishop of the Diocese of Western Louisiana.  His name is Jake Owensby. Jake and I first met when we were rectors of adjacent parishes back in St. Louis. And it just so happens that I did an interim period in one of the churches in his diocese a few years after he became bishop.  It turns out that I was also the interim rector of the church in St. Louis where he had been rector several years earlier.

Jake is a wonderful writer. I have read all of his books and when I do I hear his gentle southern accent in my head read the words.  The other day I was reading one of his essays when he wondered how many people would read or remember this Parable of the Prodigal Son if it had instead been called, The Parable of the Religious Jerk.  How many indeed.

This parable of the prodigal son is one of the best known stories that Jesus tells and which the evangelist Luke shares with us.  I would propose that the name we have given to this parable is all wrong-let alone that it does not truly describe, or really even hint at the real leading character in the story.   And how many even know the true meaning of the word ‘prodigal’?

This parable is not only one of the best known in scripture, it is also one of the most offensive, one of the most scandalous that Jesus tells.  

There were two audiences that day, the tax collectors and sinners, and the Pharisees and scribes.  Both groups came to hear Jesus to find out what he was about, to see and hear for themselves if all they had heard was true.  One group was trying to figure out if they truly belonged and one group was trying to figure out if Jesus really belonged. One group was questioning and one group was grumbling.  

So Jesus begins to tell a story.  A man has two sons, one is delinquent and the other diligent. The younger is wasteful while the older is working.  The younger son decides he has had enough of working in the family company and wants out. He wants to travel, see the sights, really live and so he goes to his father and tells him he wants his inheritance, he wants what he believes is owed to him not after his father dies but right now.  He needs to finance his adventures. Off he goes to a distant land, a Gentile land, to whoop it up and have a great time.

How offensive!  The groups listening in on Jesus tell this story would  have been outraged! How could the son ask for such a thing? It was just like telling his father that he was dead already.  No self-respecting, law-abiding, decent child would have asked such a thing. It just wasn’t done!

Then Jesus tells us that after a while things didn’t turn out so well for the younger son.  He spent everything, his entire inheritance. And his timing couldn’t have been worse. The crop harvest was horrible and there was nothing to eat, and even if there was, he had no money to buy it.  The younger son finds himself a long way from home, starving, and so he hires himself out-surely someone has some need of help. He winds up feeding pigs, in a Gentile land. The pigs get fed first.  The pigs get to eat before he does. For a Jew to feed pigs was as low as one could go. Talk about offensive! No one would have wanted to be this son.

Despised and destitute he realizes he has made a huge mistake.  He wonders if he can go home. At least if he is a slave back home he wouldn’t starve to death.  He rehearses what he wants to say. He repeats it over and over and over again as he makes the long trek back to his father.  

“Father I have sinned against heaven and against you and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired hands.”

“Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you and I am no longer worthy to be called your son.  Treat me as one of your hired hands.”

“Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired hands.”

Step after step, mile after dusty mile, he repeats what he wants to say, not knowing if his father will listen to him, but if he was to have any chance at life again he had to say it.

As he is walking towards home his father sees him on the horizon.  Is it a mirage? Is it a miracle? Is it really, could it possibly be his son?  The old man takes a step and then another and another, until he is running to reach him.  Running? An old man running? Old Jewish men did not run. How undignified! How offensive! It just wasn’t done!

As the son begins to try and tell his father all he has repeated to himself his father is crying and hugging and kissing him and telling his servants to get new clothes on him, to put sandals on his feet and the family ring on his hand, and by the way, all that still isn’t good enough, doesn’t capture the joy the father has at his son’s return.  Kill the fatted calf, invite the entire town, this calls for a celebration the likes of which has never been seen. The father doesn’t want to be the only one celebrating this amazing thing, the father wants to share it with everyone, he wants everyone to share in the joy of his son’s return.

Whoa! Jesus! Hold on now! A party? This delinquent son who turns his back on his father and his family gets a party?  We can understand a hot bath, a meal, letting him sleep until tomorrow when we will have a long, difficult conversation. But a party? How scandalous! How offensive! This just wasn’t done!

The older son, the diligent one, hears all the celebrating and wonders what is going on.  A servant tells him his brother has returned and the father is throwing a celebration for the entire town to welcome him back.   The older son can’t believe his ears. And his anger burns hot and righteous. How dare he!

How dare his father offer all this to someone who despised him enough to leave him and the family.  How dare the father give more to the son who squandered the family inheritance and left the family open to ridicule and judgment! How offensive!  It just shouldn’t be done!

Well, if the old man wants to celebrate, so be it, but he had too much self-respect to join in.  If they wanted to party, let them party, but he was not having any of it! He refuses to go in.

The father goes out to talk to him.  “Please, please, come in! Celebrate with everyone.  The party isn’t the same without you.” And as the father talks to him he just gets angrier and angrier until he can take it no more.  “Listen,” he says pointing his finger in his father’s face, “I have done everything you have ever asked of me. I haven’t complained one iota.  I’ve done everything right. And do you celebrate my staying? Do you even think to throw me a party for being the good son? The faithful son? The dutiful son?  No, old man. You can have your son and your celebration, but you can’t have me too.”

This poor father, loses one son only to get him back and in the process loses the other son, the son he loves just as much as the one who left.  He loves the son who disrespects him in front of the entire town as much as the one who disrespected him by leaving in the first place. It is enough to make one wonder if the father ever felt like running away and saying, “Here, deal with this yourselves. I’ve had enough of you two.”  

Why, it’s as if there was only so much love and forgiveness to go around and if one got those things another didn’t or couldn’t.  Why would such love and forgiveness be squandered on someone that doesn’t appreciate it, doesn’t deserve it? How offensive! How scandalous!  

But that is the whole point.  God’s love is scandalous. God’s grace is offensive, especially to those who do everything in their power to earn it and then see it being given freely, overflowing in its abundance to others who don’t try to earn it and might not even recognize it.  

God’s mercy is offered to everyone whether we like it or not, accept it or not, whether we think it is deserved or not.  “The acceptance of sinners is not a rejection of saints. Ours is a both/and God not an either/or God.”  God loving others does not mean that we are loved less.  

Frederick Buechner has written, “Such misers of miracles are we, such pinch penny guardians of grace.”

This parable would have left Jesus’ audience speechless.  It would have left them angry. It would have offended them to their core.

My friends, grace still offends.  God’s unlimited, unmerited, unearned grace still offends.  We want God’s grace for ourselves, but we are still slow to want it offered to those we deem less deserving.

The scandalous grace of the gospel, the scandalous grace of God, is that no one, no matter how far we have fallen, no matter how deserving or undeserving of it we may think we or others may be, can fall out of the loving grace of God.  And neither can we rise above it.

How thankful we should be for the offensive, scandalous love and grace of God.


Robin Whittington