Sermon / March 6, 2016 / Luke 15 / Preposterous Grace / Pastor Terry Defoe
My message is based on these words, found in the fifteenth chapter of Luke's Gospel:
15 Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3 So he told them this parable… (N.R.S.V.)
We have before us this morning one of the most famous parables ever told. It has become part of our social fabric and is well known worldwide. Someone once said that a parable is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning. A key word in that definition is the word “story.” Psychologist Jonathan Gottschall, in a book titled The Storytelling Animal, reminds us just how important stories are in everyday life. We absolutely love stories. And even when we go to sleep at night, the mind stays up, telling itself stories in the form of dreams. Stories, says Gottschall, change the way we imagine ourselves and our worlds. Stories are the social glue that brings people together around common values. Most stories have a common structure. Conflict is a core element. The thornier the predicament faced by the hero of the story, the more we like it. There’s a universal grammar in stories, a pattern of heroes confronting trouble and struggling to overcome. Story is where people go to practice the key skills of human social life. Psychologist and novelist Keith Oatley calls stories the “flight simulators” of human social life.
Gottschall says that if you want a message to burrow into the human mind, work it into a story. For many generations before the invention of the book, story was an oral medium - a critical form of spoken communication. Story is the grease and glue of society. We humans are constantly immersing ourselves in stories, and all the while they are shaping and changing us. Stories reshape us in the way that flowing water gradually reshapes a rock. Stories bind communities together and define cultures.
I’ve titled my message this morning Preposterous Grace. The dictionary defines “preposterous” as something that’s contrary to reason or common sense; something utterly absurd or ridiculous. When something is preposterous it’s ludicrous, laughable. When something is preposterous, it's out of the realm of possibility. Things just don't happen that way. That's how the Jewish leaders would have thought about Jesus’ parable.
The parable begins with the younger son asking for his inheritance ahead of time. That, of course, is preposterous. In the ancient world, this request would have been considered ridiculous - something that’s not going to happen. The younger son is focused only on himself, focused only on receiving. In the ancient world, the younger son’s request would have been considered shameful. He’s disrespectful, self-centered, unthankful. His actions indirectly say to his father,
”You're in the way of what I really want.”
The father, for his part, is faced with a heart-rending choice. Should he grant the request? As the young man's father, he knows his son’s personality. He has a very good idea what his younger son is going to do. The father's decision is preposterous. He says to his son, “Okay, you can have it your way.” So the decision is made. The die is cast. The family’s property is divided up before the appointed time. Now that the property has been divided, another decision is made, this one by the younger son. He’s decided to leave home. It looks as if his decision is premeditated. It's as if he's saying
I’m out of here, folks. I'm finally free of dad's smothering influence and my older brother’s self-righteous preaching. My pockets are full of money. The world and its pleasures are mine to enjoy. I feel like I’ve won the lottery.
The younger son's world is self-centered and pleasure-oriented. But things are about to change. A crisis is looming. In a very short period of time, everything’s gone. The money bag is empty. The party’s over. The younger son now enters a period of sober second thought. He has plenty of time to think about what he has done. In some ways, he reminds me of God's prophet Jonah. Jonah, too, was given time by the Lord to think about his poor judgment. Jonah’s sober second thought took place in the belly of a whale, but with a similar result. Reminds me of the t-shirt that says, “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
At this point, things go from bad to worse for the younger son. Now, there’s a severe famine in the land. And as Murphy's Law would dictate, the famine arrived at the worst possible time. The younger son desperately needed a job. He’d been looking in the classifieds. He’d even checked the internet on a computer in the public library. So what did he find? A job no one wants – especially a Jewish boy like him! Feeding pigs of all things. Low wages. Horrible conditions. But there were no other options. Boy, it sure smelled like a hog farm! And now, he smelled like a hog farm, too! That expensive cologne he used to wear? It’s just a memory now.
This, of course, was a shameful situation for a young Jewish man from a good family. Even with his new-found employment, he wasn't able to make ends meet. He was starving. That pig food looked good enough to eat. It was decision time. He’d thought about it a lot. He knew what he’d do. He’d go home. After all, in his father's house, there was food to spare. In his father's house, no one, not even the slaves, went hungry. He could beg for his father's forgiveness. Maybe his father would take him back. He’d have to take his chances. And he knew what else he’d do. He’d rehearse his speech on the way home.
I was wrong, dad. I've learned my lesson. I've squandered your money. I’ve shamed myself and our family. I've lost my status. You can’t call me your son anymore. I won’t be upset if you treat me like a hired hand. At least I'll have a roof over my head and three square meals a day. That's all I'm asking for.
The younger son's experience on the road back home was very different from the way he felt heading out to the far country. He’d been chastened. Humbled. He was ashamed, frustrated, and more than a little embarrassed. If he was angry, he was angry with himself. He’d eaten a little humble pie. But, amazingly, his father had been looking out for him! His dad actually ran -- ran out to meet him on the road. And again, this was preposterous; fathers in the ancient Jewish world never do such a thing -- they would never run, with their robes flying in the wind, so very undignified. Preposterous! Things were never done that way. Now was time for that rehearsed speech. Now was time to man up. But the speech was ignored. The father didn't respond. He spoke instead to one of his servants.
Quick. Get the robe. And the signet ring. And don’t forget the sandals for his feet. He’s back! And while you’re at it, instruct the kitchen staff to kill the fatted calf.
With that, the younger son’s place in the family was restored. Now, at this critical point in the story, things get interesting. Now, in my opinion, we get to the main point of the parable. The elder brother is out in the field, working hard, as a faithful son would be doing. He’s putting in long hours in the hot sun. He’s responsible. But, when he heads back to the farmhouse, he hears music and dancing. That, of course, would also be preposterous – laughable – it just wouldn't happen that way. Ridiculous! Music and dancing? On a weekday? A work day?
In order to figure out what was going on, the elder brother asked a servant. You’ll notice that he didn't ask his father. The answer:
Your brother. He’s back!
So that's it then. My brother’s back. I despise him. He's so irresponsible. I've heard stories about what he's been up to while he’s been away! Now, he comes slinking back home. My brother is a huge stain on our family reputation. I can't stand him. I was hoping my father would throw the book at him. Killed the fattened calf? That can't be! That's crazy! So my brother got away with it then! This is the last straw. Dad's finally lost it. I couldn’t be more disappointed. My dad’s turning a blind eye to my brother's sin and disobedience. It's scandalous!
The father came out and pleaded with his eldest son. He tried to reason with him. I think it's significant that the younger son, when he talked to his father, always spoke respectfully. He always called him “father.” But the outraged older son is very different. He’s exceedingly rude with his father. He’s demanding.
Look! All these years I've worked for you. I've got seniority here, dad. I’ve paid my dues, and what do I have to show for it? I’ve worked like a slave. I never disobeyed you!
The elder son, of course, has a short memory. He’s minimizing his father's love and grace, his father’s compassion and generosity. He despises his brother so much he won't even name him. To his father, he insists he’s “your son,” not “my brother.” The elder brother’s attitude reminds me of Adam in the garden. Adam said to God,
This woman that you gave me – she’s the cause of my problems.
According to our text this morning -
15 ... all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3 So he told them this parable: (N.R.S.V.)
So we know that the crowd listening to Jesus’ that day was made up of two groups. There may have been others there, but, at a minimum, these two very different groups were present. For their part, the tax collectors and sinners liked to listen to Jesus. They found his message attractive. They found him to be approachable. He was kind to them, compassionate. Jesus was people-oriented. As that first group heard the parable, some of them must have been thinking,
You know, the younger son’s story is my story, too. I've done some of the things he did. And those things got me in trouble, too. I've been selfish. I’ve been consumed by a lust for pleasure. I've been irresponsible. I didn't look after the resources I was given. I wasn't a very good steward. But Jesus listened to me anyway. He took time for me. He recognized me as a human being with dignity and worth. He listened to my story and he didn't judge me. Jesus is different. He’s not like the Pharisees. They scare me. They want to control me. They don't respect me. And they just don't listen. Jesus is compassionate and gracious. Maybe there's a new start in this for me, too.
Of course, when the Pharisees heard the parable, their response would have been very different.
When Jesus talks about the elder brother, it’s obvious he's talking about us. He’s taking a swipe at us and our beliefs. He knows that we don't associate with people like those tax collectors and sinners. He doesn't seem to understand that we don't want to be made unclean by associating with them. He doesn't seem to understand that we won’t stoop down to their level. Jesus is accusing us of being selfish, self-centered, self-righteous, irresponsible. He's accusing us of being unfaithful to God. Jesus is saying that God is far more gracious than we’ve been giving him credit for. He’s saying that we Pharisees are like Jonah – unfaithful, hardhearted, resentful that God is so compassionate with sinners. Jesus doesn't understand us or what we stand for. We want justice. We want sinners to be punished for their crimes. We want them to be taught a lesson. The way Jesus deals with people enables them to sin even more. He ignores God's law. He must be stopped.
Theologian Frederick Buechner says:
Jesus’ parables are essentially about the outlandishness of a God who does impossible things with impossible people. Is it possible, says Frederick Buechner, to claim that it’s only when you hear the Gospel as preposterous that you really hear it at all? Heard as anything else, the Gospel is the church's thing, the preacher's thing, the lecturer's thing. On the other hand, when the Gospel is heard as preposterous, laughable, just not the way things are normally done, then and only then can it be God's thing.
Here’s a quote from Buechner:
The word sin is somehow too grand a word to apply to the reaction of the prodigal's elder brother when the sound of the hoedown reaches him out in the pasture among the cow paddies, and yet, in another way, it is just the right word because nowhere is the deadliness of all seven of the deadly sins deadlier or more ludicrous than it is in him. Envy and pride and anger and covetousness, they are all there. Even sloth is there as he sits on his patrimony and lets it gain interest for him without lifting a hand...
The elder brother is ... what Mark Twain called a good man in the worst sense of the word. He is a caricature of all that is joyless and petty and self-serving about all of us. The [preposterousness] of it is that of course his father loves him even so, and has always loved him and will always love him, only the elder brother never noticed it because it was never love he wanted, but only his due. The fatted calf, the best Scotch, the hoedown could all have been his, too, any time he asked for them except that he never thought to ask for them because he was too busy trying cheerlessly and religiously to earn them.
"The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up" even as the prodigal himself was raised up. Jesus says, "…and blessed is he who takes no offense at me.” (Matthew 11:5-6). Blessed is he who is not offended that no one receives what they deserve but vastly more. Blessed is the one who gets [past the preposterousness of it all], who sees that miracle of God’s amazing grace for each and every one of us!
May God always impress that truth upon us. In Jesus our Savior’s name. Amen.