Frustrating Grace


2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Sermon

Good morning. Our reading from the Gospel of Luke is one of the most familiar stories, the prodigal son. It’s so familiar that many of us just lean on an old Sunday school interpretation and we don’t really engage with the text. Many pastors have to figure out how they’re going to pull something new out of this story. But not me! I’ve never preached on it before.

When this story came up three years ago, I was away on study leave. The last couple weeks have been crazy, and I wish I could’ve recycled an old sermon today, but I don’t have anything for you.

I have trouble relating to this story—I’m an only child. I never had to compete with a sibling for attention. Plus, I was the only grandchild on my mom’s side. And on my dad’s side, I was the only grandchild who was close by. So I had lots of toys and attention.

But there’s no valuable property to inherit.

I only get the baggage. All of it.

And I had to do all of my dissolute living on my own dime. Everyone else has it better than me!

(Note: At precisely this moment, one of my elders stood up and challenged me.)

Pastor!

Yes, Paul?

That’s a load of garbage!

What do you mean?

Everyone has problems in life. Just because you’re an only child, that doesn’t mean your life is any harder or easier than anyone else’s.

Huh. Really?

Really!

Are you saying I need to look at things through someone else’s eyes?

Exactly!

It’s funny you should say that, Paul, because that’s exactly what this parable does.

The word, parable, comes from a Greek word that means, to cast alongside. Jesus' parables invite us to cast ourselves alongside the characters in the story. A useful way to examine any parable is to cast yourself in that story: which character are you in this parable? It's almost like a Facebook quiz!

But here’s the catch: you have to read the parable from the perspective of every character. If you just pick one character, you might settle on a story that confirms your own sense of righteousness.

Consider the parable of the Good Samaritan. I know that’s not the text for this Sunday, but I’m sure most of you are familiar with the story.

The self-serving way for me to read this parable is to think of all the ways I’m like the Samaritan, which validates my own sense of righteousness. Or maybe, if I feel like I’ve been treated unfairly in some way, I might see myself as the traveler in this story. But if I’m more honest in my reading of the parable, I can see all the ways that I’ve been like the priest and the Levite, who went out of their way to avoid the wounded traveler. That’s how I get past the trap of hearing what I want to hear and that’s how I learn to see beyond my own perspective. That’s why Jesus’ parables remain so powerful.

We don’t use the word, prodigal, in contemporary, American English very often. Prodigal means wastefully extravagant. If we read the parable from the prodigal son’s point-of-view, then the father is generous and forgiving beyond all measure. If we see ourselves as repentant sinners, this is a very appealing way to read the parable. It means that no matter how we squander God’s blessings, if we repent, we will be welcomed back. God will clothe us in the finest robes and throw a big huge party to celebrate our return to faithfulness.

If we examine this parable solely from the perspective of the younger brother, we might want to give it a new title. We might call it “The Parable of the Awesome, Forgiving Dad,” or “The Parable of the Son Who Returned Home and Learned a Valuable Lesson.”

But we can’t stop with that reading. We have to approach this story from the other perspectives, too. Clearly, the older brother feels like he got the short end of the stick. He might call it “The Parable of the Dutiful Son Who Gets Nothing,” or “The Parable of the Faithful Son Who Is Completely Ignored by His Father.”

This reading might appeal to those of us who feel like we’ve played by the rules. We’ve played by the rules, while other people who don’t follow the rules still seem to come out ahead. It’s almost like the younger brother got over on the older brother. The younger son never asks his brother to forgive him. Honestly, from the older son’s perspective, dad seems kinda clueless in this parable. Even if the older son ultimately comes to understand that the story is about the father’s grace, a better title for the parable might be, “Frustrating Grace” or “Confounding Grace.” I’m not sure the older son ever quite gets it.

One of the common interpretations of this parable is that God is the father in the story. That’s a good interpretation, but we shouldn’t let that stop us from reading ourselves into that part of the story, too. After all, many of us like to believe that we’re generous and gracious. We want our human children to love us, so we forgive their transgressions. If we approach this story from a human, parental perspective, we might call it, “The Parable of the Greatest Dad, Ever!” Or, “The Parable of the Father with a Resentful Son.”

I imagine that any of you who have more than one child can relate to these titles. How much time have you spent refereeing disputes between your kids? I’m told that’s true for nearly every family, even under the best of circumstances. Of course, some families face greater stresses.

Imagine the family with two or three kids, and then one of the children develops cancer or gets diagnosed with a rare genetic disorder. The sick child necessarily gets more attention, time, and energy from both parents. And sometimes one of the other kids grows to resent all the time and attention that the sick kid receives. It can happen to the best of families.

Of course, everyone recognizes that cancer is cruel and unfair. Now imagine the family whose child suffers from a mental illness, or addiction. Those dynamics are hard enough to understand within the family, but the families of addicts and the mentally ill also face scorn from the broader community. The parents just hope that their child will be made whole, will be returned to them. Of course, they’re going to have a party and kill the fatted calf if their child makes it out of rehab and stays sober. The siblings, however, might not be so joyful.

This is the power of Jesus’ parables. When we spend time with them, we are invited to step out of our bubbles, our own little realities, and empathize with the others. That’s not easy.

The parable ends with the father saying to the older 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.” This is an explanation of grace, yet the story is incomplete.

The parable doesn’t show us any reconciliation between the two brothers. Maybe the older son understands what the father says to him, but we never see the two brothers embrace; the older son never says, “Welcome home, brother!”

It’s only after we look at this parable from all the different perspectives that we may catch a glimpse of how we’re supposed to live into the grace that’s described in this story. The truth is, we are never just one character in the parable. Instead, we inhabit the spaces between the characters.

Yes, this is a story about repentance and grace. It’s also a story about reconciliation. Jesus reconciles us to God. It’s up to us to continue the work of reconciliation, to step into the spaces between brothers and sisters who are not reconciled to one another. And this work is often frustrating. Like God’s grace.

In last Sunday’s reading from Isaiah, God says to the people of Israel, “my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are my ways your ways (55:8).” And in today’s reading from 2 Corinthians, Paul instructs the congregation at Corinth: “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view,” because we are reconciled to God, through Jesus Christ. This is why we are entrusted with the ministry of reconciliation. This is why we are called to mend the breaches.

If we are to share this message and live into the grace that is offered to us, we must learn to see every other person as God sees that individual. God’s thoughts are not our thoughts and God’s ways are not our ways, but we can move closer to God’s ways and thoughts by approaching every story and every person from as many perspectives as we can. That is our challenge in Lent and always. Thanks be to God. Amen!

Benediction

Now, beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that we are called to see one another as God sees us. Of course, we can never do this perfectly, but if we are to carry on Jesus’ ministry of reconciliation we must work toward this goal. So, go forth and be instruments of God’s peace and love and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!

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First Presbyterian Church of Freehold

732-462-0234

fpcsecretary2@gmail.com

118 West Main Street

Freehold, NJ 07728

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