God's Grace Fair?
A sermon on Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 by Nathan Nettleton, 18 March 2007
God's grace is lavished on all who will receive it, but some of those who have every right to it refuse to receive it unless they are singled out.
One of the tough things about being a follower of Jesus is that it often feels as though God takes us for granted. Sometimes it feels as though, no matter how dedicated, faithful and diligent we are, God seems to give the really big blessings to other people, while all we get is the occasional token pat on the back. Why is that?
The parable we have just heard read is probably the best known and best loved of all the parables of Jesus, or if not then second only to the Good Samaritan. It is one of the more complex parables in that it has more than one point obvious within it; it has more than one focus. It is, if you like, several stories within one, each with a different main character, and you tend to hear one or the other most prominently depending on what's going on in your life. For example, if you are the parent of a runaway child, you may hear this parable from the perspective of the waiting father and relate to him. The story could have become known as the parable of the Waiting Father; the parable of the Prodigal Son; or the parable of the Older Brother. I even heard one preacher suggest one time that he might try preaching on it from the perspective of the fatted calf!
The reason that it has become best known as the parable of the Prodigal Son is probably because it makes such a great text for evangelistic preaching. It is easy to get people relating to the son who has run away and stuffed up his life and needs to find a way back to somewhere where he'll be safe and secure and maybe even loved. There is nothing wrong with hearing the story from that perspective, and of course, it is the most encouraging and affirming perspective to hear it from. It's hard to get tired of hearing that God loves us and yearns for us to be close and is always ready to come running to meet us with open arms and an instant party ready to celebrate our homecoming. I suspect that Jesus told this story lots of times and that on many of those times that's exactly the angle he was working for the people who were listening at the time. However, it may come a surprise to you to realise that this best loved of parables appears in only one of the four gospels - Luke - and for an even bigger surprise, the emphasis actually falls on the angry brother.
Why do I say that? Well look at the context. When we all heard this in Sunday School they didn't tell us the context, but the context is clearly spelt out. The devout religious people are taking offence at the kind of company Jesus is keeping. They reckon that he should either be steering clear of the "tax collectors and outcasts", or else giving them harsh sermons about their need to repent and mend their ways whenever he crosses their paths. Instead they see him relaxing in their company and enjoying food, drink and conversation. So far as they are concerned, this behaviour proves his lack of religious credibility.
In the face of their objections Jesus tells three stories. The first two and a half are pretty much reruns of each other. The first is the story of the shepherd who looses a sheep and leaves the other 99 until he finds the lost one. When he finds it, he's so happy he wants to throw a party with his friends. Jesus concludes it by saying that all heaven rejoices over one sinner who returns to God. The second is the story of a woman who loses a valuable coin and spends the whole day searching the house for it. When she finds it, she's so happy she wants to throw a party with her friends. Jesus concludes it by saying that all heaven rejoices over one sinner who returns to God. Then the third story begins along similar lines. The main difference is that this time we are dealing with a story of an actual sinner who gets himself in a complete mess, and it's entirely his own fault. The story though is similar because we have a man who has lost his son and desperately wants him back. And then he gets him back, the one who was lost is found and the man is so happy, he's throwing a party with a big spit roast and singing and dancing.
This time, though, Jesus doesn't stop with the party. There's another character in the story - the elder brother. One of the techniques used by traditional story tellers is "broken repetition". You'd know it from the many jokes that work that way. You have a build up that keeps repeating the same line or pattern over and over until the punch line that breaks the pattern with a funny twist. The technique doesn't only work in jokes though, and Jesus is using it here. One story, two stories, three stories, and then the twist that packs a punch. The lost is found - let's celebrate! The lost is found - let's celebrate! The lost is found - let's celebrate! "I will not celebrate!!!"
So suddenly, Jesus is not just saying that God and all the company of heaven celebrate over every sinner who turns back to God; he is contrasting two very very different reactions to the sinners who turn back to God. In a sense, the prodigal son himself is not the point at all. The focus is not so much on him, but on the two different reactions to his return. Perhaps what we have then, at least on this particular occasion when Jesus told the story, is really the Parable of the Loving Father and the Angry Brother. And in the face of the hostile disapproval being voiced by the devout religious people, that is one very pointed parable to tell!
The angry older brother, with steam pouring out of his ears, says "What are you doing throwing a party for that sinner and eating with him?" And the scribes and pharisees are saying to Jesus, "What are you doing throwing a party for those sinners and eating with them?"
So who is Jesus addressing this story to on this occasion? That's right, the scribes and pharisees. The devout religious people. A group of angry older brothers.
So let's look at the angry brother's complaint for a moment. "All these years I've been working like a slave for you, I've never disobeyed you even once, and yet you've never even given me a young goat so I can party with my friends. And yet when this low life son of yours, who took off with all your money and blew it in casinos and brothels, comes home, you crack open the Grange Hermitage for him!"
Now I don't know about you, but my first reaction to that is "Fair Call Mr Umpire!" The man's got a case. What do you reckon? Who else can relate to this? I mean, many of you have been in the church all your lives. And you've worked pretty hard to do the right thing. The money your peers blew on debauched parties you put in the offering plate. The summers they spent surfing and passing the bong around on the beach, you spent on Scripture Union beach missions. The Saturday nights they spent getting wasted in night clubs, you spent running a coffee house for street kids. You've taken it seriously. You kept yourself for your marriage partner. You turn the other cheek. You've hardly missed a daily prayer time, apart from on holidays, for eleven years. You're always first to put your name down for working bees.
And you walk into the house, and stagger me, Jesus is throwing a party for Paris Hilton.
What do you do? Exactly. You spit the dummy! You feel completely ripped off. Where's the reward for all your hard work? A fair days pay for a fair days work doesn't seem to much to ask, does it? So how come the Grange Hermitage is opened for her?
Yeah, we can relate to the angry older brother all right. And the reason we can, is that we continue to make exactly the same mistake he did. We misunderstand our father just the same as he did.
"My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. Everything."
If the old man had been somewhat less gracious and conciliatory he would have said, "What do you mean, I never gave you a goat for a party? Listen son, they're your bloody goats. If you never got a goat for a party with your mates it's because you're a miserable sod and you're too stupid and too stingy to invite them around. So we killed the fatted calf for him. Well we'll fatten another one. Everything here is yours, but you're such a whinging miser you don't even know how to enjoy it anymore!"
Fortunately, God is rather more gentle with us than that! But that is the long and the short of it. We keep forgetting that we are not the ones who missed out out. We are the ones who have the jackpot in our hands. But the fact is that if you spend your time counting it and worrying that someone else might not deserve it as much as you, you'll never enjoy it. And if you never enjoy it, you've kind of missed the point of having it, haven't you?
You see, God is not actually in the business of adding up the time sheets and making sure no one gets overpaid. People who do that are called accountants, and with all due respect to any accountants among us, God is not an accountant! What God is in the business of doing is reconciling the whole universe to himself. And when you're in the business of reconciliation it doesn't much matter what time the last person gets in, when they do it's party time. The father in the story didn't throw the party because he liked the younger son better than the older son. He threw the party because what he wanted most of all was both his sons and finally he's got them both again. Unless, that is, we storm off in a huff and break his heart all over again.
If you spend your life turning up your nose at God's grace because you're not given the seat of honour in recognition of all the hard work you've done, it will only be yourself that you are hurting.
"Everything I own is yours." God's grace is all yours. It's lavished on everyone who will receive it. The only way to miss out is to refuse your seat at the table. One son nearly missed out because he ran so far from the table he nearly didn't find his way back. The other may yet miss out if he refuses to sit at table with the first. The God and father of our Lord Jesus Christ will not be able to give himself over entirely to rejoicing and celebrating until both - until all - are seated at the table.