By Rev. Chris Jorgensen
Preached at Hanscom Park UMC
October 8, 2017
Scripture: Luke 15:11-32
The story we just heard, often called the Parable of the Prodigal Son, is one of the most well-known parables in the bible. It is maybe second only to the Good Samaritan as far as parables that really have entered the culture and kind of have a life of their own outside the church. Almost everyone knows that a Good Samaritan is one who helps someone in need. And a Prodigal Son is one who has left, has turned his back on his family, and then comes home.
Taken out of a theological context, these stories become stories about people, with no reference to God. And certainly, they tell us something about what human beings are like. But Jesus used parables, these metaphorical stories, not primarily to tell people what they were like, but to tell people what God was like. He told stories to illustrate God’s nature. In some ways, Jesus’ whole life, his death, his resurrection is one grand story to show us who God is with us and for us.
Stories invite us to imagine God in ways that aren’t easily explained, easily understood or even sometimes aren’t easily accepted. I mean, I’m pretty sure, if Jesus wanted to, when he was teaching, he could have just said things very directly: “Like hey, listen, God is really forgiving. No, I mean, God is REALLY forgiving.” Except I don’t think people would have understood the extent of God’s mercy if he just said that.
Instead Jesus said things like this: God is SO forgiving, God is SO merciful, SO filled with compassion and grace, that if God were a father, and his youngest son insulted him by asking for his inheritance early (essentially saying “it really would be better if you were dead right now so I could have my money”). And if then, the son went out and recklessly spent it all, and came back…If God were that father, he would respond not by yelling at the son, not by making the son pay for his disloyalty.
Instead, if God were that father, and he saw that son coming up the walk, he would run – RUN (even though running in ancient Palestine would have been considered undignified, and maybe even embarrassing). And even so, if God were that father, he would RUN and throw his arms around that son and kiss him. A kiss that signals forgiveness before the son even voices his remorse.
And when the son asks for scraps, to maybe live as a servant because that is all he deserves, if God were that father, that father would say, “Heck no! You are welcomed back into my house as my beloved child!” And then that father would throw him a banquet. And we are invited to see that God’s grace and mercy and generosity are surprising and extravagant – they come faster than we would ever expect, and they go deeper than we would ever hope.
What human father would be so quick to forgive? Now I have a high regard for fathers. I have talked about my own father and his lilies, and I live with one of the best fathers I can imagine because I have seen the love that Matt pours out on Ruby. But not one of our fathers is perfect. Very few would not even be offended in a situation of a child rejecting and insulting him. Human fathers might be very good. Some human fathers are very bad. Probably most fall somewhere in between.
This is one of the reasons you will hear me use feminine images for God, to insist that sometimes we imagine God as a Mother God. Not because mothers are perfect. (Heavens, no! I couldn’t handle that kind of pressure.) But because God is not exactly like a human father or just like a human mother. God is entirely beyond human. Of course, human fathers can be forgiving, human mothers can embody compassion. But we are still human. But our Mother God. Her love never fails. Our Father God, His forgiveness never runs out. He never holds a grudge. She always runs out to meet us when we return, however long we’ve been away. God’s mercy and compassion is beyond what we humans can muster or sometimes even understand.
We are much more likely to be like the elder son in this story. He has been good and loyal. He has never insulted the father like his ungrateful younger brother. He has worked hard. And he’s in a good spot. As the elder son, he is entitled to double the inheritance of his younger brother. Nothing his younger brother did changes all that. His brother’s sins were against the father, not against him.
Yet he stands in judgment against his brother. When the younger son comes back, the elder son is angry and refuses to join the party. Again, the Father comes out to him. And the elder son is rude to his father. He addresses him saying, “Listen!” And he complains he has been working like a slave for him, and the father never threw him a party.
And then the father gives him this news. Maybe it comes as something of a shock. The father says, “You are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” Here the elder son thought he was earning his father’s love, all these years. And it turns out that the father’s blessing and generosity was never in peril. It never depended upon him being good or loyal. And the father just wants him to rejoice with the rest of the family at his brother’s return. The Father wants him to be part of the party, but he won’t come inside.
And if God is like that father, if God is telling us that our place in God’s family, our portion of God’s love doesn’t depend on our hard work and our good deeds – and if we have been working hard and being good for a long time – that can be hard to hear. We might even find the wideness of God’s mercy intolerable.
And the tragedy of that is that we are not locked out of the party. We are invited. But sometimes our angry hearts won’t let us go in. But here is the good news. God’s mercy is so wide, God’s compassion is so deep, it receives and transforms even us and our angry, judging hearts. And it also receives those we think are undeserving, and even those who have done things which humans find unforgivable.
On our altar today are stones representing the victims of the Las Vegas shooting. On Thursday, I put 58 stones on the altar: one for each person who had died. And I walked around with a 59th stone in my pocket for the whole day: the one that would have represented the shooter who also died. And I thought about the victims. I thought about the mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers and children who were grieving them. And I didn’t want to put that 59th stone on the altar. If it were up to me, I would have said the killer was outside of the bounds of God’s love and grace.
I couldn’t forgive. I wouldn’t ever suggest to someone whose family member was murdered, that they had to forgive. But you know, sometimes people do forgive. In ways that I think must be beyond human. I think of the African American Christians who forgave their loved ones’ killer in Charleston two years ago. I think of the Mennonite Christians who forgave the man who murdered their daughters just over 10 years ago. I think of someone I know personally, a Methodist Christian named Fred Wilson – who was shot and disabled in the Von Maur shootings, and who forgave the shooter almost immediately. Those are certainly acts of forgiveness empowered by God. So I know it is possible.
But I knew I couldn’t forgive like that, and in fact, it wasn’t my role or right to forgive or not. So I walked around with that stone for quite some time. And even though I didn’t want to put it on the altar, I did. Because that is the cross of Jesus up there. And it’s got nothing to do with whether or not I declare someone forgivable. Jesus on the cross said, “Father, forgive them” about the very people who put him there. It doesn’t make any sense. It is mercy beyond our comprehension. It is grace far greater than we can ever offer. Because we are just humans, and God is God.
And, as hard as it sometimes is, we are invited to rejoice because God is so merciful, even to the last person we would ever include. We are invited to let go of the responsibility of standing in judgment of others and of ourselves. So that our hands and hearts are open to receive the grace of God.
So like the elder son, we have a choice. We can stand outside of the celebration judging ourselves and others, or we can be part of the joy that God’s mercy is so great.
God is coming out to invite us in.
May we walk through the door.
May it be so.
QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION AND DISCUSSION
- Which character in the parable of The Prodigal Son do you most relate to? Why?
- What story from your own life or the world around you gives you a sense of what God’s grace and mercy is like? Have you ever been a witness to or heard about mercy or compassion that seemed beyond human? When?
- What judgment about yourself or others is it hardest for you to let go of? In other words, what things do you judge others or yourself for? How does that impact your ability to believe in and receive God’s grace and forgiveness for yourself?