Equipped to Serve: Prodigal Grace
March 19, 2017
There is a particular memory from the first few days in the hospital after our son Micah was born. I remember on the morning when we were preparing to leave….a nurse came in our room with a DVD. She said she was required to show us this short video on ‘how to be a parent.’
The video was 7 minutes long.
Who knew that learning to be a parent would only take 7 minutes? Most of the video was about not dropping your baby, or shaking your baby, or forgetting your baby…all really good stuff…but let’s face it…it takes a lot more than seven minutes to learn how to be a parent.
And so when the nurse announced that we were all set and could go home. I remember thinking…”That’s it??? They are letting us go home with this little creature?” I need more than seven minutes! He doesn’t come with an instruction manual or something?
And really, how could they? Each manual would have to be written specifically for each child. As parents and children alike, we know that one size does NOT fit all when it comes to kids. As soon as you figure out one child, another comes along…and you have to go in search of a completely new manual.
How comforting it is for me to instead read a seven-minute passage from scripture…to remind us that our problems were their problems too. That children are different…that there weren’t instruction manuals back then either…that they lost stuff too. Maybe not keys, but stuff went missing…just like it does for us today…
Jesus draws from everyday things…to remind us that our everyday is not so different from their everyday. Sheep…coins…sons…these are the things that made up life when Jesus walked the earth…and that make up our life today. (Ok, maybe not the sheep as much in this part of the country…but you get my drift).
In the text that was read for us, we are once again reminded that we share in the Scripture story. Because we can all relate to losing something…and we look and look and look…and we just. can’t. find. it. And then there’s always someone who says, “Have you retracted your steps???” So annoying…of course I’ve retracted my steps…and then I go and secretly retrace my steps…
Jesus tells these simple stories because they translate across time…and social class. The crowds are pressing in, but not just any crowds…”tax collectors and sinners” are coming near.
And the Pharisees and Scribes don’t like it. They start grumbling and saying, “This guy welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Can you imagine? He welcomes sinners…and even more…he eats with them!
The parental translation of this verse is, “IT’S NOT FAIR.”
Ahhh…”It’s not fair.” How I wish that 7 minute video would have devoted at least 5 minutes to the virtue and vice of hearing the words, “It’s not fair.” This passage is literally dripping in “It’s not fair…”
Jesus is hanging out with sinners….it’s not fair!
The shepherd leaves 99 sheep behind to seek out one…it’s not fair!
The woman searches all over for one tiny coin…with seemingly no appreciation for for the nine that are in her purse…it’s not fair!
The younger son squanders his father’s wealth and is welcomed back with no consequences…It’s not fair. Because its not.
This is a tough passage, especially for those of us who have stayed in the fold, in the wallet, those of us who have been the obedient child…this is a big ol’ lesson in life not being fair. And I think its okay to name that. A friend of mine shared with me this week that this really has never been one of her favorite stories…because it makes those who have been faithful and obedient feel like it was all for nothing!
This younger son…we’ve all met him before. We know the type. The free spirit…the wanderer…the rule breaker. We first meet him in the heading, “The prodigal son.”
It won’t come as any big surprise to you that the authors of the Bible did not number their sentences as they wrote them…or put titles on their headings. Those were all put in later…and whoever was in charge of dividing up Luke decided to name this section after the son.
Now I have to admit I really didn’t know what prodigal meant…I mean, I kind of got the gist: lost, sinner, privileged younger brother, etc. But in fact, it means ‘recklessly wasteful.” Prodigal is exact opposite of frugal. The son in this passage is named not for his sin, but for his wastefulness.
In Jewish culture, it was customary for fathers to split the family fortune between his sons. The older son would get two-thirds of the wealth and the younger son would only keep about a third. It was very rare to break up the property until after the father died. Once the father gave up his land, he had no more power or influence over his children. He would become dependent on their kindness. Since there was no Social Security in those days, fathers were obviously reluctant to let go of everything they had.
So essentially in asking his father for his inheritance, he is asking him to the commit financial suicide. Not only that, in effect he is saying, “Dad, I wish you were dead already so that I could get on with my life.” I cannot imagine the pain the father must have felt at that moment. His son had chosen money over him.
Most of us would have laughed in his face and sent him to his room without dinner…but this father is different from the rest of the parents in the neighborhood. Instead he gives his son all his cash and liquid property, so that the older brother can keep the family farm. He is trusting that his boys will stick around and take care of him, but the youngest disappears almost immediately.
Soon, rumors trickle home about how he is wasting the money that the father worked so hard to accumulate. All the people in town call it a shame:
shameful that the youngest son would act that way; shameful that the father would be foolish enough to trust his youngest son!
We all know what happens…the money is spent, a famine descends, and in a favorite scene that has been acted out in one million youth group skits over the years…the son is left feeding pigs, longing to eat what the pigs are eating…and decides to return home and become one of his father’s slaves.
The Father sees his youngest son returning home and he runs out the door to meet him. You get the feeling that he was waiting and watching for his youngest child. It was inappropriate, even reckless, for the father to chase after his son. Respectable old men did not run in the streets, especially to hug someone who should have been shunned.
You would expect the Father to be waiting at home, arms crossed, with a disapproving look on his face, waiting for an apology. As the son tries to offer that apology, he is cut off by his dad. The son had rehearsed his lines all the way home, and now his Father stops him before he can finish. All he wants is his son back.
I wish we could rename this passage. Sure the son wasted money on wine, women, and gambling. Yes, he was reckless in how he treated his father.
The son was a prodigal.
But his father was too. He is the prodigal father. That’s what this passage is all about. It makes no sense that he would give away his fortune in the first place…he gave up so much. The son hadn’t even earned it…he took his inheritance and squandered it. The father should be furious…make him pay it back, maybe some sort of installment plan…make him work to win back his father’s favor…
But no. He recklessly welcomes him back. He kills the fatted calf and throws a party. Because his son that was dead, is now alive.
He is the prodigal father.
The embrace of his son is unconditional. No consequences, no payment, no debt.
No fair! …the elder son’s words can be heard from a distance.
He heard the commotion from the party as he was coming in from a day of hard work…and when he finds out what happens he mutters what so many of us would mutter…”No fair.”
The older son is understandably angry. His brother has thrown away any sense of family responsibility while he has had to stay at home…he’s been working hard while his brother has been partying hard…and now his brother is welcomed home with open arms.
And so he does what any good oldest child does…dons his best passive aggressive self, crosses his arms, sticks out his lower lip, and refuses to come into the party.
And so he goes out to see his oldest son…who promptly launches in, “I work out the fields all day…and you don’t even appreciate it! You’re doing all this stuff for him…but you have never even given me a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends…” AKA…It’s not fair…
But I love the father’s response, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”
What the older son did not see was that his father was every bit as lavish with both of his sons….he had given both of them his inheritance…both were lavished on. The older son did not realize the multitude of blessings that were already his.
The problem is…we like to think we deserve it, we earn it, we ‘gold star’ it… and so when we see our lazy, no-good siblings getting the same thing…we cry foul.
Why is it easier to see the bounty of God’s generosity in someone else’s life than in our own lives? Why is it so easy to feel jealousy and resentment?
Why is it so easy to feel like its not fair?
I tried my first hot yoga class a little over a year ago. It’s exactly what it sounds like…yoga in a room around 98 degrees. I was careful to find a spot way over in the corner where people couldn’t see me. I was way too mindful of the fact that the other people in the room shared an average clothing size of around 2 and a half. As I lay on the mat before the class was about to begin, I looked over to a wall where people had written quotes of inspiration. And one in particular caught my eye, “Comparison is the thief of joy.”
Wise words before a class that would literally stretch me to the limit.
Comparison thieves our joy.
It took away the joy of the older brother: how come he gets so much???
And it takes away our joy too: how come their life is easier? How come she this? How come he that?
What’s worse…we have a tendency to compare our private life to other people’s public life. We put that the perceived perfection of others next to our messy lives…and assume the worst. And it’s not fair…to us.
Comparison feeds off of a ‘no fair’ mentality.
Jesus invites us into a generous posture…one that does not operate out of comparison but compassion. One that calls us to be prodigal—reckless in our love, our embrace, our grace.
Starting with ourselves…and stretching out to everyone we meet…and maybe even first the closest to us…
The older brother didn’t realize that the same grace that was extended to his younger brother was already available to him…not because he deserved it…but because it was freely given.
When we’re in the fold it is easy to miss the grace that is right in front of us.
Grace that has been lavished on the 99…and the one. The ten…and the one. The older brother…and younger brother.
It’s not fair. Thanks be to God.
The fact is…we wouldn’t want it to be.
If God was fair…there would be no room for grace.
God is not fair with us…he is prodigal with us…with his love, his compassion, his grace….it is lavish, it is reckless.
He is the Prodigal Father. And he welcomes us home.
Our call, then, this morning is to be prodigal fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers, daughters and sons…
To go in search of those who are lost and lonely…
To be reckless with God’s love…because he was first reckless with us.
It’s not fair. It’s grace.
Thanks be to God.