Cross of Grace

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Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)

Filtering by Tag: The Prodigal Son

Prodigal Grace

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 (NRSV)

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

So he told them this parable:

“There was a man who had two sons. The 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. 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. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 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. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 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! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ 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. 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.’ 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. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.

“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 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. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father[e] said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 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.’”

What an obnoxious man. What an obnoxious and irresponsible man. What was he thinking? Can you believe he did that?

Oh, sorry, some of you have blank looks on your faces. You know who I’m talking about, right?

You might assume I’m referring to the younger brother. After all, he’s the one who goes to his father and demands his inheritance (which is essentially the same thing as telling his dad he wished he was dead). And then he goes off and loses all his money on gambling and other examples of loose living. There he is starving to death and thinks, “I know, I’ll go back to dad, say I’m sorry and then he’ll forgive me for my unforgivable actions.” And by the way, we can’t even be sure that his apology was sincere. And then, what, he thinks he’s worthy of the huge celebration his dad throws for him? Give me a break. Yeah, he’s pretty obnoxious and irresponsible; but actually he’s not who I’m thinking of.

You might assume I’m referring to the father. What a gullible and irresponsible dope. What, he can’t say “No” to his son? He didn’t have to give him the inheritance. Oh, and don’t forget that when he saw his son approaching, he ran to him. A dignified and wealthy man of his time would never run. It’s so inappropriate – it was something only poor people would do. And he certainly didn’t have to forgive his son. Well, not only forgive, but throw a party? Give him the best robe and the best meat? Certainly not! He can’t even be sure that his son’s apology is really sincere. What a obnoxious and irresponsible man. The word “prodigal” means “wastefully extravagant.” Maybe the story should be called the “Prodigal Father?”

Sometimes I scratch my head wondering why this is one of the most well-known stories in the Bible because it bears such little resemblance to what actually happens in the world.

First of all, in the real world, people rarely go to such great lengths to say they are sorry. Most people just can’t bring themselves to say that they are sorry; even when they know they are wrong. As a society we put such a high value on winning that we condition everyone to be afraid of saying “I’m sorry.” We are taught that it is a form of weakness and vulnerability.

The other thing that is odd about this story is the enthusiasm which the father displays. Is anyone really that eager to forgive someone who has offended them? I mean, if someone told me they were sorry I would be happy, but I certainly wouldn’t go throwing them a party. I wouldn’t hold them in higher esteem than I did before they wronged me. There’s still a little bit of guilt we can hang over their heads, right?

Well, maybe this is exactly why this is such a well-known story – because it illustrates just how radically different God is from what we would expect. The world teaches us to believe certain things about human nature. But here, as the Word of God often does, we are confronted with the true reality and the good news that God is not beholden to our ideas of justice and forgiveness.

No matter how low we are; no matter how much of God’s blessings we have squandered; no matter how captive we are to sin; God is ready to run to us with open arms, sweep us off our feet, and throw a feast in our honor. The apostle Paul says that nothing can separate us from the love of Jesus Christ. There is no “rock bottom” from which God cannot pull us out.

As it turns out, the prodigal father and the prodigal son are actually very accurate representations of the Christian faith.

So, which person is actually the obnoxious and irresponsible one in the story? The older brother. Boy, jealously does not look good on him, does it? Why is he so bitter and ungrateful? Just a reminder, this family is rich… filthy rich. And his dad says, “Everything that is mine is yours.” But is that enough? No, he wants a party too. He just can’t allow himself to forgive his brother so he goes off and throws a temper tantrum in response to the extravagant love demonstrated by his father.

Whereas the father and the younger brother show us how ridiculous the Christian faith looks in relation to worldly standards; the older brother shows us how ridiculous worldly standards of entitlement and justice look in relation to the Christian faith.

The older brother felt entitled to something greater than the grace and blessings which he had already been shown. And that is perhaps the greatest sin of all. What could our lives look like if we lived them in full realization that the love, acceptance, and grace we so desperately seek for our lives is found in God alone?

May you, like the younger brother, be surprised by the extent of God’s grace and love.

May you, like the father, breathlessly pursue opportunities to lavish forgiveness on those who have wronged you.

And may you, unlike the older brother, be eager to celebrate with those who experience God’s grace that is freely bestowed equally to all people.


The Rich Man and The Prodigal Son

Mark 10:17-31

As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

I hope you’ll bear with me today, because this might be a stretch and a little bit strange and it’s something I’m still making sense of myself, but this week I feel like I learned a new thing - or noticed a new thing - and I want to share it with you. I found myself drawing connections between this morning’s gospel story in Mark and the Parable of the Prodigal Son, as most people know it, in Luke’s Gospel.

I think most of us know enough about this one without having, even, to break out our Gospels of Luke – the only place in Scripture where Jesus tells that particular parable. There are a million details that matter in this oldy but goody, but the short of the long is this: there’s a father who has two sons, the younger of which comes to his dad and asks for his inheritance, even before his father has kicked the bucket. And the generous, loving father gives the young son half of what he might inherit when the time comes – presumably no small amount of money, stuff and valuable things – and the kid hits the road, spends, uses, and wastes it all on “dissolute living,” as the story goes. (In other words, ‘what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas’ kind of living.)

And when he can no longer take care of himself – when he’s out of money, things and stuff – when he’s as broke as can be – when he finds himself slopping it up with the pigs – the young son comes back to daddy, broken… ashamed… empty in every way – and asks to be let back in to the family’s good graces. Which happens, because remember the young man’s dad – who plays the part of God in that parable – is a generous and loving Father. It’s a beautiful story about the nature of God’s abundant grace and mercy, love and forgiveness. It points to a vision of what life in God’s kingdom is like, or can be for us.

And, if Jesus is anything like the rest of us, he knows a good story – a good sermon – a good lesson – when he hears one. So I have to think, even though we only hear him tell this parable one time, in Luke’s Gospel, that Jesus probably told that story and taught that lesson more often. And even if he didn’t, Jesus had it in his back pocket and he knew the power and impact of the lesson it held.

All of that to say, I couldn’t help but imagine that this oldy-but-goody is swimming around in the head and heart of Jesus when this strange, rich man interrupts him as Jesus is apparently packing for his next road trip. “Good teacher,” he says, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “How do I get my cosmic inheritance.” “What do I need to do – what’s the silver bullet – what’s the magic pill – is there a BuzzFeed list of 12 things that can tell me the way to eternal life?”

Of course, there is no list. Even the 10 Commandments wouldn’t cut it, according to Jesus. The man implies that he’s kept all of those his whole life long and Jesus says, “You still lack one thing. Sell what you own, give the money to the poor, and you will find treasure in heaven. Then come and follow me.”

Do you see the connection to that other story?

Something about an inheritance, and then “take what’s been given to you. Unload it. Be rid of it. Empty your coffers until there’s nothing left. And you will find treasure in heaven. THEN come back and follow me.”

The solution is the same for both the Rich Man this morning and for the Younger Son in the parable: we will find out what really matters when we stop pretending that what really matters is money, wealth, things and stuff. We will find our way to the Kingdom – we will inherit eternal life, in this world and for the next – when we stop valuing the things of this world, when we lose our attachment to them, when we remove their power over us, and when we, instead, leave ourselves no other option but to follow and rely on and trust in the ways of Jesus.

(And it’s important to notice that it doesn’t matter one bit that the Prodigal Son lost his wealth to dissolute living and that the Rich Man was commanded to give his wealth to the poor. The common ground for them was not in their righteousness, in their good works, or lack thereof. It wasn’t about whether they did the right or wrong thing with their money. Their common ground – their way to the Kingdom – as Jesus sees it, is found in their poverty, plain and simple, however they accomplished it. Their way to the Kingdom would come through their loss of what they valued most; through their giving up of what they thought would save them.)

See, the power and challenge for me, then, in recognizing that both of these stories come from the lips of Jesus lies in the hard truth that, the more money and things and stuff I have – and whatever safety and security and status they afford me … along with the striving I do to get and hold onto them – all of that actually keeps me from the Kingdom; it removes me from the fullness of joy God intends for me; it limits my access to eternal, abundant life as God hopes I’ll experience it on this side of the grave – not just the next – which is the other reality check for me this morning.

Because, I wonder, when you think of eternal life, what comes to mind? When you consider the Kingdom of God, what do you imagine? When we hear the rich man in this morning’s Gospel ask about how he can inherit eternal life, what do we presume he is asking?

(My hunch is that most of us – like the guy who asks about it this morning – think about eternal life as something we’ll experience or be assured of after we’re dead and gone. My hunch is that most of us think about the Kingdom of God as having an address somewhere up there and out there and on the other side of our tombstone.)

 But, we’re meant to believe, with the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus, that God has already broken ground on the establishment of heaven’s kingdom, right here on earth as we know it. And if that’s the case, we don’t have to wait to experience the joys of that kingdom, until after we’re dead. And we don’t have to wait to start sharing the joys of that kingdom with the world around us until this life, as we know it, is over, either.

So all of this is about getting rid of our money and being generous. It’s not about works righteousness or buying God’s love or earning our way into heaven. This is about going without, doing without, becoming less and relying more on God’s provision than on our own. This is an invitation, if not a command and a double-dog-dare from Jesus, to experience the joys of selflessness and generosity – to practice poverty, if you will – in order to trust in God’s abundance and to experience the very Kingdom of God in our midst – on earth as it is in heaven, you might say.

I think one of the reasons our work in Haiti is so compelling for me – and to anyone who’s been there – is because we get a glimpse of the Kingdom in Fondwa, where possessions are hard to come by; where wealth and riches aren’t even a possibility; and where we are reminded about what we can live with and what we really can and should live without more often than we do.

I think the Kingdom comes to earth for those who participate in our Agape Ministry, too, because when our people serve and sit with the prostitutes on the city’s east side, what we think matters so much about our identity on this side of the tracks – what we do for a living or where we live or what kind of car we drive – couldn’t mean much less on that side of the tracks.

And I think the Kingdom is alive and well in the midst of our SonRise Bibe Study ministry, too, because none of the measuring sticks that matter to the rest of the world mean a lick to those adults with physical and intellectual differences and disabilities, who share in and celebrate the grace of God, just as fully, if not moreso, than you and I are able to a lot of the time.

Jesus dares us to rid ourselves of whatever the world tells us is valuable – our money, our things, our stuff, and our status – and to rest in and rely on what God can accomplish through all that we give up, give away and do without. Jesus invites us to follow him toward this kind of selfless generosity. And Jesus promises us that when we do, we will experience the Kingdom of God, here and now, where less is more; where the last are first and the first are last; where death becomes life, even, in this world and for the next, thanks be to God.


All Rights Reserved. Background image by Aaron Stamper. © Cross of Grace Lutheran Church.