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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Lent 03/06/2016

The parable of the Prodigal Son is one of the best known of Jesus’ parables, It’s the longest one, I know that and it is important. In a lot of ways it’s become central to what I do in Confirmation these days because of how it illustrates the grace that is at the heart of our theology, grace that I want to make sure the students know about. On top of that, many have identified it as the finest short story in all of literature, a flawless piece of art. That’s high praise for Jesus and it’s a reminder to us that Jesus mostly told stories. He didn’t give theological lectures; he told stories and then pretty much left people to draw their own conclusions.

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 didn’t understand why he was hanging around with these undesirable people, Jesus told 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 told Jesus that they still had no idea what he was getting at. So he told 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. I guess all we can say for sure 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 aren’t supposed to completely “get it.”

Anyway, 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. We resist first of all because we are trapped in the world’s way, comfortably trapped most of the time; 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. What I mean by that is that with the Jesus way control lies with God, not with us and maybe we think we’re OK with that, but on the other hand maybe we’re not because it means admitting that we can’t manage things on our own.

The two brothers in this story were trapped, in different ways, in the reality of their world. Both of them were 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 and if you’re disobedient, you suffer the consequences. That’s how the world is supposed to work.

So at the end of the story he said to himself, to his father, to anyone who would listen, “Little brother messed up in a big way. I know, we all make mistakes. I’m not saying banish him to the outer darkness, 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. Make him start at the bottom with the rest of the hired help until he shows that he deserves trust.”

That’s how the world works, right? You make your bed, you sleep in it. To be honest, 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 has been 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 Dad’s help or anyone elses. (It’s like when young people say “I can’t wait ‘til I’m 18 and I can move out and be on my own.” You want to say, “Come back to me when you’re 19 and tell me how that’s working out for you.”) The younger son was 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 was his own fault; he was wasteful. Some of it though had nothing to do with him; he was the victim of 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 was living in the material world, concerned with making his way, convinced that happiness had to do with accumulating enough money and goods that he could enjoy the good things life has to offer and have a little security. That’s not really so bad either is it? It’s pretty much the American way. 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, have a little bit of security and be able to retire comfortably. That’s the reality of our world.

The experts say that the pivotal verse in this story is “Until he came to himself.” That’s the verse that moves the younger son from the before part of the story to the after part…except at that point, he was 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 he wants it to be forgiveness he can earn because with that he can still claim a little control.

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 most of us do, at first anyway, sympathizing with the complaint of the older brother In this world there are consequences for what you do and I’m sure that Jesus knew that too. His intent wasn’t to offer practical advice on child rearing or family relations, he was introducing grace into their world view. It was up to them to figure out the practical applications.

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 mighty 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.

Pastor Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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