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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Lent 03/31/2019

Maybe you’ve heard the story about the guy who goes to the movies and when the lights go down and he sees the M-G-M lion roaring on the screen he gets up and walks out deciding that he’s already seen this one. You might get the same feeling when the lectionary serves up a Bible story that is overly familiar as it does today with the story of the Prodigal Son. Revisiting last week’s game of Jeopardy, if the category is “Jesus” and the answer is “This is the most well known parable of Jesus” the question has to be “What is the Prodigal Son?” or “What is the Good Samaritan?” It seems like it has to be one of the two. In either case, the tendency might be to think that you don’t have to pay much attention because you already know the characters and the story and the point Jesus is trying to make.

What I didn’t know though, is that there was a time when the Prodigal Son parable wasn’t even part of the Sunday lectionary. I have no idea what the thinking on that was but it wasn’t until the old red hymnal, published in 1958, that the Prodigal Son was included, but only as an alternate gospel reading for the Ninth Sunday after Trinity which would fall sometime during the summer, part of the long green season between Easter and Advent. It wasn’t until the LBW, the green hymnal published in 1972 that the Prodigal Son was moved to the Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year C and made a regular reading. There it remains as part of the Revised Common Lectionary, thus making it today’s gospel reading.

I mention that because which liturgical season it’s placed in can make a difference in how any Bible reading is approached though. The green, summer into fall, Sundays after Pentecost non-festival half of the church year, is thought of as a time to consider the teachings of Jesus. Relative to the Prodigal Son, that placement would probably make the familiar theme of God’s grace and mercy the primary focus .

For grace centered Lutherans that focus is never wrong at any time of year and whenever the Prodigal Son is read, even as it is now during the more somber season of Lent, I think grace still has to be the starting point. Despite the parable’s familiarity, it’s important to hear it again and to pay attention to it because I can’t think of any other story that helps us to understand grace and a gracious God any better than this one. There are many other places in the Bible that describe a gracious God, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, but it’s another case of a story being the most effective means of illustrating a point and I don’t think any story illustrates grace better than this one.

I really don’t care that the parable has largely lost its ability to surprise us, that as soon as we hear “There was a man with two sons,” we know exactly what’s going to happen. I still say, “Hear it again!” Hear it again and hear the grace angle again, even during Lent.

Still, while in my opinion the grace angle is imperative, hearing the parable on the Fourth Sunday in Lent, the invitation is there to take a more Lenten look at the Prodigal Son and to consider how a Lenten theme like repentance fits in. Thinking about that, as was the case last week with the Parable of the Fig Tree, part of what Jesus might be doing is calling us to think about repentance, but maybe to think about it differently than the usual way of feeling bad about what we’ve done and promising to do better.

As I said last week, the lead in to Jesus’ parables often provides a clue as to what Jesus is trying to get at and that is the case with this one. The three verses that start today’s gospel reading serve as an introduction not just to the Prodigal Son but to the two short parables that precede it, the Parable of the Lost Sheep and the Parable of the Lost Coin. What all three of them have in common is the theme of being lost but then being found. The usual interpretation is to see the three parables as illustrations of gracious hope for the lost. With that as the interpretation, logic would say that these parables should be addressed to those thought to be lost.

But listen again to the first verses: “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.” OK, that makes sense; tax collectors and sinners are examples of those who are lost. But wait; the text continues: “And the Pharisees and scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ So he told them this parable.” The “them” to whom the parable is addressed are not the tax collectors and sinners; “them” are the scribes and the Pharisees. While it’s true that the gospels quite consistently portray the scribes and Pharisees as opponents of Jesus, they would not have considered themselves as being lost, the wider population would not have considered them lost. Quite the opposite actually as they were seen as the religious leaders, positive and faithful examples of how to follow the laws and rituals of Judaism.

The Pharisees and scribes were the 99 sheep who were not lost, the 9 coins that weren’t lost; they were the obedient brother. Because of its familiarity, this parable might have lost its ability to shock us, but it would have shocked the scribes and Pharisees. What they would have initially found shocking was the 99 sheep, them, abandoned in the wilderness while the shepherd went after the one. What they would have initially found shocking was no fatted calf for the obedient son, them, but a feast for the disobedient brother. As they thought about it, what they would have found even more shocking was that in addressing this parable to them, Jesus was trying to get them to consider that maybe they were not who they thought they were. Once again Jesus has done what he does very consistently which is to turn the expected order of things upside down.

The reason this is considered to be perhaps the greatest of Jesus’ parables, maybe one of the greatest stories ever told, is that as familiar as it is, it can be different every time you hear it because there are so many different points of entry. That’s why it needs to be heard again. It is important to identify with the disobedient son and his need of the father’s grace because, one way or another, all of us are that son, all of us are lost. At one time or another, in one way or another we all wander off, we all stray from being who we are called to be. We’re all in need of undeserved grace.

On the other hand, one way or another, all of us are the older, obedient brother too, feeling like we’re good and faithful people, that we’ve earned our way. Like him, we’re bothered by the actions of the father because it’s not fair. As much as we hear about grace and how with grace, deserve’s got nothing to do with it, we’re bothered because identifying with the obedient son, we see that it’s not fair, to which Jesus might respond, “Ah, you’re starting to get it. Until you recognize that grace isn’t fair, you don’t really know what grace is and you don’t really know what repentance is.”

Last week with the Parable of the Fig Tree, it was introduced by a direct call from Jesus to repent. With the Prodigal Son, there is no such direct call, but instead, as is usually the case with a parable, Jesus tells a story, then steps back and invites those who hear it, the scribes and Pharisees and us, to wrestle with it. Again, I can’t emphasize enough the theme of grace and hearing the parable through that lens, but…falling during Lent as it does, and with repentance being a Lenten theme, that too is worthy of our attention.

With the scribes and Pharisees as the original audience, similar to last week, I would suggest that Jesus is encouraging repentance as a change in their mindset, a change in how they look at things. The scribes and Pharisees were used to dividing people into the obedient and the disobedient, the lost and the found. What the parable does, what Jesus is trying to do is to move those obedient religious folks away from the the error of making those distinctions and inviting them to see that, obedient as they may be in their observance of the laws of Judaism, in holding on to a mindset that divides people, they too are lost, just as much in need of undeserved grace as those they consider to be lost because of their disobedience. There is a need for repentance, but it’s a different kind of repentance.

It feels like I should have figured this out a long time ago, but real repentance doesn’t have as much to do with behavior as it does with our mindset, how we see ourselves and others and God. Behaviors can be harmful and destructive too, but it’s mindsets that create and perpetuate “us and them” walls and divisions, it’s judgmental mindsets that can damage relationships and keep us from celebrating and joining the party when we aren’t the honored guest but instead it’s someone we think doesn’t deserve it. Changing those mindsets is hard, but repentance begins with recognizing them and that only by the grace of God can we change them.

I find the Prodigal Son parable to be especially Lutheran because regardless of our entry point, regardless of which character we identify with, we recognize that we are both lost and found, both saint and sinner which was one of Martin Luther’s key insights. An honest Lenten look at ourselves reveals that we are lost, but…by grace, by amazing grace, we also know that we are found.

Rev. 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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