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.