Sermon - Fourth Sunday in Lent (3/31/2019)
Josh. 5:9-12; Ps. 32; 2 Cor. 5:16-21; Lk. 15:1-3, 11b-32
“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.”
According to Luke, Jesus tells this parable to the devout religious scholars who were complaining about the way Jesus welcomed tax collectors and outsiders, people whose lifestyles made them unworthy of entering synagogue and temple, people who seem condemned by God’s Law. And Jesus tells them his most well-known story, a story of a father whose unconditional love for both his sons has no limits. This father’s love cannot be lost, and cannot be earned. The message to the grumblers is clear: God loves sinners like a father loves his wayward son. Not only that, but the father loves his insufferably self-righteous son too. So get over yourselves and join the party.
That, at least, is the most obvious lesson of this parable for the original people to whom Jesus addressed this story. And it’s true, as far as it goes. God does indeed unconditionally accept everyone. God’s love is indeed for everybody, saint and sinner alike – and that is good news for all of us, who are each some combination of saint and sinner. There is good news for everyone in this story – well, perhaps not for the fatted calf, but for everyone else there is a happy ending, or at least an invitation to a happy ending.
And yet, I think there is another dimension to this parable, something that is even deeper than a story about God’s unconditional love for all of God’s children. Because it is also a story about how resistant all of us are, in our own ways, to God’s unconditional love, and just how far God will go to overcome our resistance.
Consider this. The younger son asks his evidently wealthy father for his share of the inheritance. The father is hardly on his deathbed, but he agrees and implements his last will and testament at once: he divides everything he has and gives it to his two sons. The younger son then sells his share, takes the cash, and leaves the country. In the culture of the Middle East, where family loyaly and honor are the highest virtues, what the younger son did was deeply reprehensible. In effect, he is wishing that his father were dead. He has rejected his father, his family, and his community. It is the ultimate betryal.
And yet the father agrees. Like God, the father lets his son make his decisions and live with the consequences. And here the consequences are awful. For a Jew, ending up so hungry that you wish you could eat the pigs’ food is about as bad as it gets.
And when the son decides to come home, the father does not do what any self-respecting patriarch of a wealthy Middle Eastern family would do. He does not make his son come before him and grovel. He would have every right to insist on that – the father is the injured party here. But no, the father sees his son coming and runs off to meet him outside of town. Why? Because the father knows how the people of the town would treat his traitorous son if the boy came back into the village alone. The only one who can spare the son that indignity and rejection is the father, and the father can do it only by putting his own dignity and honor on the line.
And so the father runs to meet his son outside of town – even though in the Middle East, dignified men of a certain age wear long heavy robes and never, ever run. The father falls on his son and kisses him – in that culture, maybe a mother could do that, but not a father. And he puts the finest robe and ring on the son before walking with him back into town – the son walks through the village under the protection of the father’s honor.
But the father’s work is not done. The older son hears the sound of celebration and refuses to go in. Now the father is humiliated again, in front of all his guests, by his other disrespectful son. Once again the father takes upon himself the responsibility of bringing together his wayward family, of making peace between his sons, between these two brothers. Neither of these brothers respects their father, nor do they respect each other – yet the father takes upon himself humiliation and pain in order to reconcile two sons who have each, in their own way, deeply wounded him.
This, Jesus tells us, is who God is: not only someone who loves us unconditionally like a parent, although God does. No, God is someone who would do anything, accept any humiliation, bear any burden, take any risk, in order to make peace with God’s children whose relationship with God, and whose relationship with each other, has been utterly and completely broken. Or as Paul put it in today’s second reading: “in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their tresspasses against them.”
And so, yes, this is a parable of God’s amazing grace that saved a wretch like me. But, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer liked to say, just because God’s grace is freely offered to everyone does not make it cheap. For God, it is quite costly. Like the father in the parable, God pays a steep price in order to search us out, find us, and lead us home.
In fact, if the father in this parable represents the One Jesus called Father, the one who in Christ was reconciling the world to himself, not counting our tresspasses against us, then perhaps Robert Capon was right to suggest that the character in this parable that mostly clearly represents Jesus is the fatted calf. That God goes even farther than the father in the parable in order to reconcile us to God and one another. For the father in the parable sacrifices his prized calf to make a meal to celebrate the death and rising to new life of his son, but God actually becomes flesh, suffers death, and becomes Godself the meal of celebration of new life, God’s very body, broken for you, God’s very blood, God’s very life, poured out for you. This is how far God will go to give grace to you, and to me.
“All this,” Paul writes, “is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” After all, as the father in the parable said to the older son, “You are with me always, and everything I have is yours” – the father’s goods and the inheritance, the father’s work and his mission of costly reconciliation – everything God has is ours.
And so we are called, again and again, to the table of word and sacrament that embody God’s costly grace offered to us, to remind one another of the amazing grace of God that saves and sets us free, and that reconciles us not only to God but also to one another. In this congregation today we recognize those whom God has recently led to join us, and in doing so we give thanks to God who continues to call people and our community to appeal to one another and to a broken world: Be reconciled to God.
(Some of the retelling of the parable here is indebted to Jirair Tashjian’s summary of the excellent work of Kenneth Bailey on Luke 15, found at http://www.crivoice.org/lectionary/YearC/Clent4nt.html)