11 Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. 13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16 He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17 But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father's hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” ’ 20 So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21 Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe — the best one — and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. 25 Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27 He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31 Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 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.’ ”
(Luke 15:11-32, NRSV)
Many years ago there was a conference in England on comparative religion. Scholars from all over the world and from many different religious faiths were present. One of the things they discussed was what unique contribution Christianity had made. Someone suggested the incarnation; but it was pointed out that other religions had examples of gods becoming incarnate and appearing among the mortals. Someone else suggested resurrection; but again, it can be shown that there are examples of people coming alive again in other religious traditions. The debate went on for some time until C. S. Lewis walked into the room and asked, “What's the rumpus about?” On hearing that his colleagues were discussing Christianity's unique contribution, he replied, “Oh, that's easy. It's grace.”
Philip Yancey in his book What's So Amazing About Grace? points out that the idea of grace has seeped into our culture in a number of places and can be seen in the variety ways that the word (or its derivatives) is used. We say “grace” before meals. We are “grateful” when someone is kind to us. We are “gratified” by good news. When someone is successful, we “congratulate” them. When someone comes to our home we try to be “gracious” to them. Credit card companies give us a “grace period.” A magazine company might give us an extra issue free of charge, or “gratis.” When we leave a tip at a restaurant we call it a “gratuity.” A composer of music will add “grace notes” — notes that are not necessary to the melody but are “gratuitous.” And we might address royalty as “your grace.”
Conversely, when people are not thankful, we refer to them as “ingrates.” Awkward people are “graceless,” rather than “graceful.” When great people have been humiliated through their own fault, we say that they have been “disgraced,” or that they have “fallen from grace.” When the U.S. government discovers that one of its trusted employees has acted treacherously, he is declared “persona non grata:” a person without grace. And we say that even despicable people might have some “saving grace.”
Many words in the English language have changed their meaning and lost their power over time. The word gentleman comes immediately to mind. It used to be that a gentleman was a person who had considerable land holdings, who was well educated, and who conducted himself with a certain reserve and dignity. Today, every adult male is a gentleman. Or the word comfort. Today “to comfort” someone is a sentimental idea, but originally it meant to make the person strong, to fortify the person. The word grace — and all of its derivatives — has not suffered from this tendency toward devolution. It has remained constant. Grace is the gift that we do not merit. It comes free of charge with no strings attached. It can cost the giver everything and the recipient nothing.
Grace is at the very heart of the gospel. C.S. Lewis was right when he said that grace is Christianity's unique contribution. All the other religions offer a way to earn God's approval. We see this in the Buddhist's eight-fold path, the Hindu doctrine of karma, the Jewish idea of a law-based covenant, and the Muslim code of law. But God in Christ offers us reconciliation with the father that does not have to be earned — in fact, can't be earned.
This aspect of the grace of God probably received its finest expression in the parable of the Prodigal Son. Some have called this the greatest short story in the world. It seems to be a very simple story, but it is deceptively complex, and it has a number of layers of meaning. It pays returning to it again and again to draw all the meaning out. And I won't attempt to exhaust its meaning this morning, but let me point out a few important things.
First of all, it is probably misnamed The Prodigal Son, because there are three important characters in the story: the Father and two very different sons. The story has three parts: the story of the renegade son, the return of that son, and the reaction of the elder son. In all three sections the father plays a crucial role, so this story might be better named (as William Barclay suggests), The Story of the Loving Father.
The character who begins the action is the younger son. He is a rebellious son, a real wretch. He asks for his share of his inheritance. In ancient culture, a very old man might divide his estate between his sons if he wanted to retire. Otherwise, the sons would receive their inheritance on his death. So for the younger son to demand his inheritance while the father was still living was a sign of tremendous disrespect. In effect, he was wishing his father dead. Remarkably, the Father does not argue with his son; he simply gives him his share. Perhaps he felt that some things need to be learned by experience. The book of Leviticus gives the elder son a double portion; the share of a younger son therefore was one-third of the estate.
So the younger son went off to a distant land (i.e. a gentile land) and soon squandered his wealth in wilding living. Famine strikes the land, and the man has to hire himself out for the most demeaning job possible for a Jew, tending to pigs. When he reached absolute bottom so that he longed to eat the pigs' food, he finally came to his senses. He recognized that he had been a profligate fool. He had wasted his inheritance and ruined his relationship with his father. So he prepared a little speech to give to his father, begging his forgiveness and asking to be hired as a servant. A hired servant may have actually been considered a lower position than a slave. A slave could be considered as nearly a member of the family; and all of his needs would be met year-a-round. A hired man, on the other hand, worked from day to day; and if hard times struck, he would be out on his own. So the prodigal son aims to be taken back at the lowest possible position in his father's household.
The story now shifts to the father. He sees his son a long way off. He knows that if the son walks along through the community until he arrives, everyone is going to heap abuse on him. So he forgets his own dignity and runs to meet his son. Older men in that society did not run. Then he threw his arms around him and kissed him — both signs of his total acceptance. The prodigal son then gives his rehearsed speech of repentance. The father allows him to give his apology, but he doesn't let him go on to ask to be a hired servant. Rather, he interrupts the son to show him that he has been fully accepted. He calls for a robe, a ring and sandals — all symbols that he is being accepted back as a son, not a servant. And he calls for a feast and the killing of the fatted calf. This father was truly happy — even overjoyed — that his son had returned. So he throws a lavish party where there would be music and dancing. For his son had been dead, but now he was alive.
The Father's Grace
Jesus told this story to make several points, but surely one of them was to say something about the nature of God. People ask the question: what is God like? The simplest and clearest answer is given in the story of the Prodigal Son — or better, The Story of The Loving Father. God is love, and he rejoices when sinners repent and turn to him. The word repent has within it the idea of turning, or returning — in this case returning home to reestablish a relationship with the father.
If someone asks the question, “What must I do to be saved?” The most common answer given is “Be good.” But this is not what Jesus is saying in this story. His answer is not “Be good,” but cry “Help!” People often feel that they must first clean up their acts, and then they can come to church. But Jesus reverses this. He is saying, first come home, reestablish your relationship with the Father, and everything else will follow.
Karl Barth was probably the greatest theologian of the twentieth century. He wrote a commentary on Romans after the First World War that completely changed the theological landscape of our time. He was one of a small group of church leaders in Germany who stood up to Hitler in the 1930s by, among other things, writing the Barman Declaration. He wrote dozens of books, and his Church Dogmatics runs to many volumes and thousands of pages. In the early 1960s when he came to the University of Chicago, he was asked at a press conference, “Dr. Barth, what is the most profound truth you have learned in your studies.” Without the least hesitation, he said, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”
I need to be careful here and say that I am not talking about “cheap grace” — the idea that there is acceptance without repentance, or that there are no standards on which God will insist. The father accepts the Prodigal Son back, but he doesn't say that what he did doesn't matter or has no consequences. The father clearly accepts the son back, giving him all the honors of a son, but he doesn't give this son another third of his estate. In fact he tells the elder son: all that I have is yours. God is just, and sin has consequences. But when God accepts us back it is with joy and without reservations. He doesn't hold grudges. He doesn't hold the Prodigal Son's sins over his head. He fully and complete accepts him — that's grace.
The church, it has to be said, is not always very good at this. We often have difficulty distinguishing between the sin and the sinner. We have difficulty accepting at the same time God's free grace to sinners, and his high demands for the faithful. We are told on the one hand not to judge others; and on the other we are told to hold one another accountable in love. We are a community of fallen sinners, but we are also a community striving for holiness. Christians can be hypocrites by not accepting sinners; but sinners in the church can be hypocrites by denying standards and refusing to be accountable. In an era that speaks so glibly of “family values” and “culture wars,” it is easy to caricature each side: some are legalistic Pharisees, and others would merge the world's culture with the church's. One sympathies with the little English girl who prayed: “O God, make the bad people good, and the good people nice.” Still, for all of the difficulties of putting it into practice, the church should be a place of grace. The Christian writer Gordon MacDonald said: “You need not be a Christian to build houses, feed the hungry, or heal the sick. There is only one thing the world cannot do. It cannot offer grace.”
The Elder Son
This takes us now to the elder son. He had been in the fields, and when he heard the sound of music, and learned that a party was being held for his returned brother, he was angry. The younger son had gone to a far country, and the distance symbolized the separation and alienation between him and his father. But now the elder son is staying outside and refusing to come in. This symbolizes his separation and alienation, too.
The father did not plead with the younger son when he wanted to go away, but he pleads with this son. He also humbles himself a little by going out to meet his son, when the son would not come to him. The younger son, even when he was in rebellion, always addressed his father as Father. The elder son doesn't address his father at all, he just says, “Listen” He also refers to his brother as “your son.” In Jesus' telling of the story, the younger son squandered his wealth in wilding living, but in the elder son's florid imagination he has squandered it in prostitutes.
But despite all this provocation, the Father pleads with his son. He addresses him as son. He shows his justice by saying that the whole inheritance is his. And he refers to his younger son as “this brother of yours.” The elder son may have been a righteous and dutiful son, but he lacked love. He needed to reestablish his relationship with both his father and his brother. At the end of the story, we are not told if he went into the party or not. Jesus leaves us hanging because he is addressing the Scribes and Pharisees and all self-righteous people, and it is not clear if they will go in or not.
In the parable of the Prodigal Son, Jesus is first of all highlighting the grace of God. But then we see, in the story of the elder son, he is also highlighting the need for grace to be practiced among each other. Grace has both its vertical and its horizontal dimensions.
Ernest Hemingway wrote a short story entitled “The Capitol of the World.” The story takes place in Spain. A father decides to reconcile with his son who had run off to Madrid. So he takes out an ad in a newspaper: “Paco meet me at the Hotel Montana noon Tuesday all is forgiven Papa.” Paco is a very common name in Spain, and when the father goes to the hotel he finds 800 young men in the square waiting to be reconciled to their fathers.
Hemingway knew something about the ungrace that often exists in families. His parents were very different sorts of people who tried to pull him in different directions in life. His mother had a very devout Christian background, and she detested the bohemian lifestyle that he was leading. She refused to allow him in her presence. One year for his birthday she mailed him a birthday cake and the shotgun his father had used to kill himself. Another year she wrote to explain that a Mother's life is like a bank. “Every child that is born to her enters the world with a large and prosperous bank account, seemingly inexhaustible.” The child initially makes withdraws but no deposits. When the child is an adult, he must replenish the account that he has drawn down. She then listed all the ways that he should do this: birthday cards, flowers on mother's day, and above all not “neglecting your duties to God and your Savior, Jesus Christ.” Not unnaturally, Hemingway hated his mother, and he completely rejected the Christian faith. And later he used his father's shotgun to take his own life.
We all want God to be gracious to us, but we don't necessarily want to be gracious to others. Perhaps the reason for this is that grace by its nature is not fair. In the story of Job, Job wonders why a good God could allow all those bad things to happen to a perfectly righteous person — himself. In the movie Amadeus, we see the inversion of the Job story. God seems to select a perfect brat, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, to give an incredible gift for music. Amadeus means “beloved of God.” Why does God chose a delinquent like Sampson for the gift of strength? Why does God choose Solomon, the issue of an adulterous relationship, for the gift of wisdom? Why does he choose a persecuting Pharisee like Saul to become the Apostle to the Gentiles? Why does God send his rain on the good and the evil?
Grace, grace, grace — the mystery of grace.
We find it throughout the Bible. We find it woven into the fabric of the universe. We find it in our lives, often in the least expected places. Every piece of beauty, every blooming flower, every score of music is an act of grace. We don't deserve it. We haven't merited it. As one wag has it: Grace happens. Why? Because as the parable of the prodigal son tells us, we have a loving and gracious father who calls us to be loving and gracious, too.
(Shortly before I wrote this sermon I read Philip Yancey's excellent book, What's So Amazing about Grace? Some of the ideas and illustrations in my sermon are taken from this study, which I heartily recommend for further reading on this subject.)
The foregoing sermon was given by Rev. Michael Parker at the United Parish of Bowie.
© 2007 Michael T. Parker