July 28, 2013 Ninth Sunday After Trinity
A Higher Grace
Proverbs 8:1-21, Psalm 103, 1 Corinthians 10:1-13, St. Luke 15:11-32
I grew up in the Navy. We changed addresses as often as we changed socks. Key West, Providence, Newport, Norfolk, back to Key West, San Diego. I’m good at leaving.
My wife grew up on a farm. Her father worked that land. And – you guessed it -- his father had worked it before him. Their idea of change was rotating the crops. Then they quit doing that. My wife is good at staying.
At our last post, one day after worship, I thought my wife – who is good at staying -- was finally ready to leave. We began walking around a corner and toward the front door.
I reached the door. I looked around and . . . no wife. She had a lot of friends. She wouldn’t leave until she had greeted every stinking one of them. That’s the way they’d done things in the days of her girlhood, back in Dogpatch.
I was standing there at the door like a hobo waiting to hop a freight when our rector, Dr. Crenshaw, happened by.
He said, “What’re you doin’?” He’s from backwoods Tennessee . . . Possum Holler or Coon Valley or some such place. He speaks with a nasal twang.
I said, “My wife is good at a lot of things, but leaving is not one of them.”
He said, “That’s obvious; she’s still with you.”
Beware the ecclesiastical rapier. It pierces deep. And true.
Today we consider a story usually called the Parable of the Prodigal Son. A better title would be “The Father and the Two Sons.” One son can’t wait to leave. He squanders his inheritance in a far country.
The other can’t wait to stay. He would slave away forever on his father’s farm, desperate to earn an inheritance that is already his.
One leaves, the other stays . . . and we get an education in grace. God must be in this story . . . celebrating the poor in spirit.
I must offer a confession. The first time I read this tale – and maybe the second and the third – I saw the prodigal son as the villain, the elder son as the hero and the father as a sap. In this opinion I betrayed a profound misunderstanding of grace.
Of all the parables, this is perhaps the best-known and most-loved. It will bring into sharper focus for us themes we have watched develop as we have studied the gospel lessons this Trinity season – themes such as freedom and righteousness, our debt to God and His grace.
Again, we look at the story through a first-century lens.
Then and now, in the Middle Eastern cultures, for a son to request his portion of his living father’s worldly goods is to wish him dead. He is bellowing from the rooftop: “I can’t wait for you to die.”
A healthy father might allocate his property for distribution after his death but he would do so of his own volition. No son would suggest such an act. And if the father did make such an allocation, he would do so with the stipulation that he retain the rights to his property and all income from it until his demise.
The prodigal first asks for the allocation and then goes the further unthinkable step of requesting that he be allowed to dispose of his portion to underwrite his footloose wanderings.
The only conceivable reaction from a father is an explosion and a severe beating for the boy. But that is not the response of this father. His response frames the question: What is freedom?
For the younger son it is the absence of restraint. He wants more than the opportunity for “prodigal living.” He wants to chart his own course rather than following the one his loving father sets out. He holds worthless his father’s guidance and protection. But freedom can be a seductress.
It can bestow liberty or it can confer license. Liberty trusts in the truth of God, license bows before an array of idols. Liberty serves our fellow man, license celebrates the license-holder. Liberty loves righteousness, license breeds licentiousness – crude, self-serving immorality.
A quarterback named Vince Young played for the college I attended. In his senior year, he put on a dazzling display in the Rose Bowl and led Texas to the national championship.
He became a millionaire, played two outstanding years as a pro and looked forward to even greater things. He was free. Shortly before his third season, I saw him interviewed on “60 Minutes.” He said, “Can’t nobody tell me nothin.’”
He sounded a bit like his ancestor Adam. Early in his third season, he went down with an injury. He fell into depression so deep that team officials feared he might commit suicide. He didn’t take his life but he squandered $34 million and never again played even effectively.
Indeed, sinful man has confused liberty and license since Adam’s time: If I could grab any fruit I want whenever I want, I’d be free. God wouldn’t be bossing me around any more. In our time, the atheist says there is no Creator to answer to and the deist says the Creator smirks down upon his creation waiting to see what his creatures will do to amuse him next.
The idolater carves his own god from philosophy or mysticism and programs it to grant him license.
St. Paul tells us in Romans that all will be slaves to sin or slaves to righteousness, to Satan or to God. Freedom means you get to choose your master. In slavery to righteousness we discover authentic freedom, which is life according to the purpose for which our Creator shaped us.
The eagle is free when he soars, the turtle when he creeps. Man is free when he lives in the will of the benevolent Father who protects and guides him. The Collect for Peace in our prayer book’s Order for Morning Prayer captures this idea beautifully:
“O God, who art the author of peace and lover of concord, in knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life, whose service is perfect freedom . . .”
In our story, we find something new, the father’s superhuman response to his two sons. We have already seen Jesus addressing the scribes and Pharisees in the first two parables in the 15th chapter of St. Luke’s gospel, the lost sheep and the lost coin.
In those parables, the shepherd and the woman who has lost the coin do exactly what we expect them to do; they search for what is lost. But now the Lord ratchets up His teaching on divine love with a portrait of a father who transcends by light years the human capacity for love.
Hearing his son wish him dead, any other would have erupted. This father grants the request: “And he divided to them his livelihood.”
This is self-giving love, so deep that it grants freedom to reject the one who loves. All the while, it never swerves from its purpose of redemption, even as its object wishes the lover dead. What wondrous love is this that defies human understanding!
According to the cultural norms, the elder son should protest in the strongest terms his loyalty to his father and refuse to accept his share. He should also assume the role of reconciler between his father and his brother. He does neither. Instead, he fractures his relationships with both.
The prodigal liquidates his inheritance as quickly as he can. He has made himself a pariah in the village by his treatment of his father. He meets with contempt everywhere he goes. He must race away.
Having secured his “freedom,” he journeys to a “far country” – and descends into hell. No sooner has he thrown away his inheritance on loose living than famine seizes the land. Among gentiles now, he takes the only work he can get, feeding swine – anathema to a Jew -- and covets their food.
He eats these pods, bitter, black berries called carobs the pigs grub from low shrubs. They afford so little nutrition that he remains hungry every moment. Finally, he accepts the inevitable. He must return to his home and his father and beg for work as a servant. His father’s servants have more than enough to eat.
This homecoming portends far more peril than his leaving. He has not only squandered his father’s money, he has lost it to gentiles. He can expect to face a mob on his return.
Yet once again his father reacts as no father has ever done. Custom demands that the prodigal approach him in abject humiliation, stooping to kiss his hands or even his feet. But the father takes his son’s shame upon himself.
He comes down from his house and runs to greet his son. This is outrageous behavior for an Eastern patriarch; none would ever make such a spectacle of himself. But this father does not stop there.
He pre-empts the prodigal’s humiliation by falling on his neck and kissing him first. So doing, he makes a public display of forgiveness and reconciliation.
In this way, the father is like the shepherd in the story of the lost sheep. When he finds what has been lost, joy wells up from deep inside him – no accusation or recrimination, only joy.
The father then cuts short his son’s prepared speech. Listen closely now. The prodigal had planned to say:
"Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants.”
Confession is good for the soul. Repentance is a better tonic still. For the moment, it eludes the prodigal. He approaches repentance in the way of a scribe or a Pharisee. He will come home not as a son but as a servant, working off his debt and restoring himself to the father’s household.
But he cannot. To repent is to surrender the pride of justifying oneself and to throw oneself on the father’s mercy. To repent is to accept the father’s free grace. It’s not for sale.
When a son has said, “I am no longer worthy to be called your son,” he has said everything. The job of restoration now falls to the father. This father stops his son there, before he can add, “Make me like one of your hired servants.”
Now, in the son’s reaction, we see true repentance. Fearful and confused, he finds in his father’s self-humiliation a love beyond comprehension. Shaken and stripped of all pretense, he must now confront the truth:
The money, regardless of how much he lost or to whom, is nothing. His shattered relationship with his father is the issue.
He cannot heal it. He has spurned his father and his love. How could he assign a price to a father’s love, or, if he could name its price, how could he work off his debt?
He must accept reconciliation and restoration to his father’s household as a free gift. When the son finally allows himself to peer into the bottomless love on offer to him, this unmerited grace he cannot fend off even with his most contemptible behavior, he comes to terms with true repentance.
The father orders his servants to drape his best robe, the one he wears on feast days, around his son’s shoulders. He is commanding reconciliation on the part of his servants and the entire village. In the messianic age, all will wear a bright new garment of reconciliation.
The ring is probably a signet, a symbol of authority: its wearer can be trusted. Shoes designate a free man of a good house. Only slaves and the poor go shoeless. The servants must accept this son as their master. A fatted calf will feed 100 or more: The entire village will turn out for the feast.
The father does not want a servant obligated to work off a debt of mercy for a wage. He desires a son who loves him unconditionally in response to his free grace. The son accepts the gift, entering into the feast his father has prepared for him.
This is not the father of the “New Yorker” cartoon who says to the prodigal, “This is the fourth time we’ve killed the fatted calf.”
We cannot encase grace in a transaction. When we try to buy it or sell it, we destroy it.
The younger son left, the elder stayed. Or did he?
Embittered by the grace his father shows his brother, the elder son refuses to join in the feast. This is an insult almost on a level with wishing the father dead. Yet the father’s reaction is the same:
He comes down from the house and pleads with him. He humiliates himself once more from the same motive of love. No criticism, rejection, judgment; only love.
The answer, however, is far different. The elder son does not address him as “Father,” another grave insult. Complaint, bitterness, arrogance pour out of him like a broken sewer. And then the stunning pronouncement: “I never transgressed your commandment at any time.”
What Pharisee could have said it better? Here is the self-justification of the legalists distilled: To hell with your fatherly grace. You, father, owe a debt to me for my goodness to you.
No mercy for one who goes astray, no joy over his return, no celebration of his father’s happiness. This son has no need of forgiveness for he has never sinned. Needing none, he can summon none for a brother. Our Lord told the Pharisees that one who is forgiven little loves little.
All have sinned, all fall short of the glory of God. It is the poor in spirit, those who acknowledge their great debt to the Father, who will gain the true inheritance. For the poor in spirit, repentance is a confession of unworthiness.
It spills out in love for God and fellow man, not adherence to a code. If your righteousness is to exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you must confess your utter dependence on the only righteous One.
In his anger, the prodigal leaves his father’s house. In his anger, the elder son refuses to enter his father’s house. He proclaims, “Lo, these many years have I been serving you.” A literal translation is, “I have slaved for you.”
He has tried to justify his inheritance with his labor, but his father wanted not a slave but a son. For the second time, he comes out from his house to offer restoration to a son: “Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours.” This father will not revoke the son’s inheritance. He loves him too much.
The prodigal son left, an honorable sinner. The elder son stayed, a hypocritical saint.
But did he stay? Or did he go a-wandering in a far country of the heart, a spiritual Babylon? One son was lawless outside the law, one was lawless within the law. A would-be servant, overwhelmed by the father’s grace, becomes a son. A son, appalled by the father’s grace, will not forsake the role of servant.
The father will not apologize for the feast. What was lost is found, one who was dead is alive. Repentance is not being found but accepting the love of the one who rushes out to offer it no matter the cost. The father will not abandon joy to appease his elder son’s anger. Some have called this parable the gospel within the gospel. It ends fittingly.
It leaves unresolved the final destination of the elder son. Does he join the feast in the end? His absence from the final frame allows us to put ourselves in it.
Step outside the story now. In the fourth chapter of his epistle to the Galatians, St. Paul addresses sonship in the context of the One who is telling this parable, the eternal Son:
“But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons.
“And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying out, "Abba, Father!" Therefore you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ” (Galatians 4:4-7).
When we abandon pursuit of a righteousness of our own doing, when we accept the inheritance that is ours as fellow heirs of Christ, we are at last able to accept our Father’s love, freely given, and freely to give it back. This is Jesus’ message to the Jews, to the Gentiles, to you and to me. Amen.