Cross of Grace

A community of grace sharing God's love with no strings attached.

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Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)

Filtering by Category: Gospel of Luke

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.


God’s Will for Grace and Second Chances

Luke 13:1-9 (NRSV)

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

I found myself wondering this week about “these people” who are talking to Jesus today. Just before what we heard in chapter 13, Jesus is talking back and forth to the disciples, to the crowds, about the Pharisees, to Peter individually, and so on.

And then, here, we’re told there were “some present” – some number; a handful, maybe; a group of friends, perhaps; some strangers passing by who wanted to see what the gathering as all about. Whatever the case, they seem to be separate from “the crowds” mentioned before. They aren’t the disciples. It wasn’t Peter or the Pharisees, it seems. Just some people… wondering some things… asking some questions… thinking out loud, perhaps… challenging Jesus, maybe, to make some sense of some hard stuff they’d been hearing about and dealing with, lately.

It doesn’t really matter so much, except that I like to think they were just some average bears, like you and me, asking some hard questions about what was up with the world these days.

In those days there was more than one occasion where political unrest led to some ugly uprisings between Roman officials and the local Jews, Samaritans, and other people of Galilee living under Rome’s rule. These uprisings often led to the deaths of many people. So, when the locals talked about “the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices,” they were probably talking about the latest news cycle.

And even though we don’t read about it anywhere else in the Bible, there was also, apparently, some recent news about the Tower of Siloam collapsing. We do know there was a Pool of Siloam, where Jesus once gave a blind man his sight back, somewhere on the southside of Jerusalem – maybe near the Slippery Noodle or by Lucas Oil Stadium. Apparently, at some time in the days prior to this Gospel story, a tower in the city wall near those pools collapsed and 18 people died.

So, Jesus asks some rhetorical questions about these events – and answers them for whoever’s listening. And anyone around would have known what he was talking about. “Did the Galileans who suffered in this way bring their fate upon themselves?” “Did they deserve to die because they were trouble-makers?” “Should they have kept to themselves?” “Should they have known better than to get into it with the Romans?” According to Jesus, the answer is “no.”

And what about the people who were crushed by that falling tower? “Do you think they had it coming to them?” “Was their number up because they deserved something the rest of the city didn’t?” “Was God waiting for those 18 people to be in the right place at the wrong time so they could be smited for their sins?” Again, according to Jesus, the answer is “no.”

If you’re still having trouble making sense of this – if you can’t quite get yourself back into first century Palestine – fast forward to March 24, 2019. If Jesus were having this conversation with us today, we might say, “What about those 50 people who were gunned down in those mosques in New Zealand – at the crazy hands of that white supremacist terrorist? Did they deserve it? Was it God’s will?”

“Or what about the handful of people – 4, I think – who were killed in the floods in Nebraska and Iowa? Is their suffering a sign that they are somehow worse sinners than any of the rest of us?”

“Or, what about the 23 who were killed because of that tornado in Alabama at the beginning of March? Three of them were children. What could they possibly have done to deserve that?”

“Or what about all those still homeless and hungry and hanging on by a thread in Haiti? Or how about the many who go hungry in our own country? Or what about all those who will shiver their way through the cold and rain that’s on the way this afternoon? Is their suffering a sign that they are worse sinners than you or me?”

And what about Joe Richards? What about his parents, Pete and Sally? What about Sam Rigsbee and his family? Or the long list of prayer concerns in our bulletin? What about all of that cancer? How about all of those surgeries? What about all of the sickness and struggle that’s sitting right here beside us today? At some point – and in instances so close to home – the rhetorical questions Jesus asks are hard to swallow – if not, even, a little insensitive.

But all of that is just how Jesus means to get our attention and to assure us of something powerful. No, God has not arbitrarily chosen to punish some and not others. No, when people die by the sword or by accident or by natural disaster or by way of stroke or heart-attack or cancer, God isn’t trying to teach them a lesson or heap vengeance upon them or show them who the boss is. No, when bad things happen to good people – or when bad things happen to bad people – it’s not a test or a sign or a chance to weed out the good, the bad, or the ugly.

Bad stuff happens and Jesus doesn’t try to explain it, or rationalize it, or pretend we can avoid it. He holds it up before our eyes and reminds us that, more often than we’d like to admit, the gift of our lives is fragile and, more often than we’d like to admit, our lives come to their end – or at least encounter all kinds of struggle and sadness and disappointment along the way – without warning, without notice, without preparation, and without a whole lot of apparent mercy, too much of the time.

And then because of all of that… and because he’s Jesus... – when he tells that strange story of the fig tree and the gardener and the owner of the vineyard? – it seems like a non-sequitur, this parable, but with it, Jesus gives us something faithful and loving and gracious to do about it all in the meantime.

See, too many in the world would chop down the tree that wasn’t producing and too many expect God to do the same. Which is why, I think, we are so inclined to blame collapsing towers and unexpected disasters and deadly diseases on “fate” or “doom” or “the will of God.”

But Jesus reminds us that “God’s will” is really all about grace and second chances. God is like the owner of the vineyard, who gives us another year, or another day, or another minute to try again. To repent. To turn over new leaves. To plant different seeds. To try new ways of being in the world. To live new lives, in spite of ourselves.

Because repentance means to change and to be changed. To turn and to be turned around. To live differently.

I think repentance might mean we let ourselves be changed by struggle – our own struggles and the struggles of others, too; that we open ourselves to the hardships that surround us; that we change our lives in order to make a difference in the lives of others. We can repent by being more generous. We can repent by doing with less. We can repent by living more humbly… by confessing our sins and meaning it… by receiving forgiveness and offering it up in ways that matter.

We can repent by acknowledging that our lives – however long or short they may turn out to be – are blessed, generous, grace-filled gifts from God. And we can repent by not pretending we’re owed any of this and by not taking any of our blessing and good fortune for granted, for one more moment.

And Jesus, the Gardener in the parable, has our back. The love of Jesus means to care for us; to tend to us; to nurture and to nourish us, like a Gardener tending to a less-than-fruitful fig tree, until we begin to turn things around, until we begin to live differently, with a meaningful, life-changing, life-giving kind of repentance.

As we continue our journey to the cross… as we continue to repent and to receive the forgiveness that’s promised to us there, we continue to draw close to this Jesus who doesn’t deny that evil exists, who doesn’t deny that death will come, who doesn’t pretend that this life of faith is easy every step of the way. (The cross of Calvary and his crucifixion make that clear.)

What we are promised is that ours is a God of second chances: second chances for turning, for repentance and for change; second chances for love; second chances for forgiveness. And second chances – in spite of ourselves and the world where we live – for new life, for hope, and for joy in the love of Jesus Christ, who keeps tilling the soil of our hearts; who keeps working the land of our lives; who keeps patiently planting seeds and pulling weeds and choosing to give us another chance, until we get it right…until we rest assured in the hope of God’s life everlasting, in this world and the next.


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