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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Lent - 3/18/07

   Charles Dickens, a pretty good story teller in his own right, calls the Prodigal Son the greatest story ever told.  Some call it the finest short story in all of literature, a flawless piece of art; all of which is pretty high praise for Jesus.  He was good.  But it’s also a reminder to us that Jesus for the most part didn’t offer theological discourses or lectures, he told stories.  He told stories and then pretty much left people to draw their own conclusions about what they meant.   

Often the context in which Jesus told these stories is significant and that is certainly true in the case of the Prodigal Son.  Today’s gospel starts with tax collectors and sinners gathering to listen to Jesus which of course sets off the scribes and Pharisees who look down on such people.  As far as they’re concerned Jesus can’t be a real man of God, like them, if he’s associating with such people. 

So…recognizing that the scribes and Pharisees don’t understand why he is hanging around with these undesirable people, Jesus tells them a story, first about someone having 100 sheep, losing one and then risking the other 99 to go and find it, then celebrating with his friends and neighbors when he does find it.  The puzzled expressions of the scribes and Pharisees tell Jesus that they still have no idea what he’s getting at.  So he tells another one about a woman who has ten silver coins, loses one and searches night and day until she finds it at which point she too throws a party.  Still…no reaction.  So then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons.”

The text doesn’t say if the scribes and the Pharisees “got it” when Jesus was done with the story of the two sons and their father.  All we can say for sure I guess is that they had something to think about and all the generations since then, including us, have thought about it too and maybe that’s all we’re supposed to do.  Maybe we never “get it” if getting it means figuring out the moral of the story. 

I think getting it has less to do with figuring it out and more to do with causing us to realize that there is another way to think about things, different from the way we usually think about things.  It’s the God way, the Jesus way and we all resist it…first of all…because we are trapped in the world’s way, comfortably trapped most of the time though, I must say; we’re OK with it;  but second, we resist it because the way of Jesus is too much about God and not enough about us and maybe we think we like that but on the other hand maybe we don’t because it means admitting that we can’t manage things on our own.  Control lies somewhere else. 

The two brothers in this story are trapped, in different ways, in the reality of their world.  Both of them are resistant to or incapable of thinking that it could be different.  Let’s start with the older brother.  First of all, he’s not such a bad guy.  He just wants the world to be fair; a day’s work for a day’s pay; the good are blessed, the bad are punished; loyalty and obedience are rewarded; if you’re disobedient, you suffer the consequences.  That’s how the world is supposed to work. 

So he says to himself, to his father, to anyone who will listen, “Little brother messed up in a big way.  OK, we all make mistakes.  I’m not saying banish him to the outer darkness where there’s weeping and gnashing of teeth, I’m not that mean spirited and unforgiving; but there’s a penalty to be paid here.  Let him come home but he’s got to earn his way back; start at the bottom and show that he deserves trust.  But his inheritance is gone.  He blew that.” 

That’s how the world works, right?  You make your bed, you sleep in it.  I don’t have much problem with any of that.  I don’t think the older brother is being unreasonable.  He’s got a right to be upset because the order of his world is being upset.

The younger brother’s situation is a little different.  He’s an independent sort convinced that he can make it on his own; he doesn’t need Big Daddy.  As the younger son he’s not entitled to as much of an inheritance as his brother, but he says, “Just give me what I’ve got coming and I’ll be OK.  I can manage.”  Except he can’t.  Some of it’s his own fault.  That’s why he’s called the prodigal son, the wasteful son.  Some of it’s a famine he couldn’t predict or control.  But the bottom line is that he winds up destitute and starving, thinking that maybe it wasn’t so bad back home after all. 

That’s the before part of the story for the younger son.  He’s living in the material world, concerned with making his way, convinced that happiness lies in accumulating enough money and goods that you can enjoy the good things life has to offer and have a little security.  That’s not really so bad either is it?  We know it’s not what Jesus talked about as being important, but we want to make our way too, we want to have enough so that we can enjoy the good things life has to offer.  We want security and we want to feel like we earned it.  If we’re lucky we don’t make as much of a mess of things as the younger brother did.

Until he came to himself…that’s supposed to be the pivotal verse that moves this son from the before part of the story to the after part…except at that point, he’s still trying to manage things.  This story shows up during Lent so those who organize the lectionary must want this to be about repentance, and perhaps it is, but I don’t think we’re there yet.  The younger son knows he’s messed things up but he’s still trapped in that same old reality, the same reality as his older brother actually, where if you mess up you pay the price.  He’s looking for forgiveness, but it’s still forgiveness on his terms to some extent, forgiveness that he can earn.  He’s in a bad spot here, but he’s still angling for at least a little control because that’s how his world works. 

The younger son doesn’t really come to himself, doesn’t really repent until the order and reality of a different world are presented to him.  Maybe it’s when he sees his father running to meet him; maybe it’s when his father throws his arms around him; maybe it’s not until his father interrupts his well rehearsed speech without letting him finish and sends for the robe the ring and the shoes.  At some point though, the son realizes that this isn’t about him.  It’s out of his control; he’s got no cards left to play that are worth anything. 

When he realizes that, that’s the moment of coming to himself, that’s the moment of repentance.  In the reality of his father’s world, all he can do is accept the offered gift for what it is; and what it is, is pure grace.

Grace upsets the order of things.  It’s not how the world works.  So my guess would be that on hearing this story the scribes and Pharisees responded the same way I do, the same way I’ll bet many of you do which is to say that the older brother was right; he had a legitimate complaint.  In this world there are consequences for what you do.  My guess would be that Jesus knew that too.  But I don’t think he was trying to tell the scribes and Pharisees how to do things, he was just introducing grace into their world view.  It was up to them to figure out what this meant for living out their lives.

It reminds me of the story told of an exchange between the late, great preacher William Sloane Coffin and Henry Kissinger back during the Viet Nam war.  Coffin was attacking US government policy on the war and Kissinger finally said something to the effect of, “If you’re so smart, why don’t you tell us what to do.”  Coffin responded, “Mr. Secretary, my job is to say to you, ‘Let justice roll down like might waters.’  Your job is to get the plumbing in place.”

          Jesus was good, but I’m not sure he could have said it any better than that.  He knew, if grace really became part of how one viewed the reality of the world, things would be different; old realities would be transformed.  At some point, we do have to get the plumbing in place but that takes time because it takes imagination.  There’s a space between knowledge of grace and living new realities. But it will never happen as long as we keep denying the possibility that it could be different.  Denying the possibilities we remain trapped in old realities.  Imagining the possibility of grace we are welcomed into the celebration of something new.

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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