Year C, Lent 4
March 31, 2019
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling…”
I heard a preacher talk about this scene, trying to put the Pharisaic and scribal disgust with Jesus and the company He kept in context for us today. He likened it to saying “Paul Manafort and Stormy Daniels were coming near to listen to Jesus.” Or to scandalize the other side, “Rachael Maddow and James Comey came to dinner.” The point is that He, Jesus, was spending time, eating with people that conventional wisdom/polite society not only disapproved of, but would have considered offensive. This is really important, because we can’t understand the Parable of the Prodigal Son without understanding the context Jesus tells it in. Without context, this parable is a pretty trite story of reconciliation: son does wrong; son repents; they have a party; big brother mopes about it. Pretty boring on its own. In context, though, it is a completely different story.
Truly the context rather than the content is most important. So there is the context of the grumbling and the offensiveness of those attracted to Jesus. Second, there is the narrative context. As you see in the bulletin, we skip from Luke 15: 1-3 (the grumbling), to 11b, the parable itself. Verses 4 – 11a contain two other familiar parables: the Parable of the Lost Sheep, and the Parable of the Lost Coin. A shepherd left the ninety-nine sheep to search for a single lost one. If one in the hand is worth three in the bush, going after one with ninety-nine in hand is just dumb. And the Lost Coin, that is the story of skipping a day’s work (and losing a day’s pay) to find that 10 bucks you lost in the laundry. Foolishness! Really, doesn’t make any sense. So He has told these two pretty simple lost and found parables, and He finishes this little lesson to the Pharisees and scribes with this story of the Lost Son.
So the question for today is, “Are you coming or not?” If you were the older son, would you go to the prodigal son’s welcome home party? At the end of the story, we don’t know if he goes in. His dad is pleading with him. “Are you coming or not?” A more theological bent to that question would be, are you going to share in the joy of an other’s redemption? That’s a deeper question, isn’t it?
“Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost,” “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that was lost.” “…we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life, he was lost and has been found.” Are you coming or not?
That is not an easy question from the older brother’s point of view. The younger taking his inheritance in that time would be like saying to his dad, “It is as if you are dead, you are worth nothing to me but the stuff you would give me when you die.” Then he squandered it in “dissolute living.” Yada, yada, yada… He sees the errors of his ways and crawls home and is met with open arms by his father. And they have this rager of a welcome back party and don’t even tell the older brother! He’s working and he hears the music and dancing from afar. Can you imagine? Many of us have ruined family dinners over much less obvious unfairnesses.
There is a real challenge, a potentially subversive challenge in calling us to rejoice in other’s redemption. It is like the workers in the vineyard who all get paid the same, not matter if they worked all day or one hour. In the context of answering the Pharisee’s grumbling about whom He kept company with, Jesus uses offensiveness in His subversion. Let’s try to embrace the contextual offensiveness of Jesus’ rhetoric and think about a moment right now where it might be hard for us rejoice in someone’s redemption. I’m not seeing a lot of left-side of the aisle folks rejoicing to learn that our President, it seems, did not in fact collude with a foreign power to win the election. It wasn’t Russians who elected him, it was us, Americans. Now this is very good news for our nation. If it had been true, if there had been collusion with Russia, that would have been devastating to our nation; devastating to our ability to conduct free and fair elections; devastating to whatever faith we have left in them. As it is, it would seem that it is just devastating to the mainstream press who botched this story as badly as they did the WMD story in Iraq. We should rejoice that Russia had nothing to do with it. I don’t know, anyone up for practicing rejoicing in another’s redemption in this context? That’s how offensive Jesus was being. (Maybe we can feel a bit how uncomfortable and aggravated were some of Jesus’ detractors. Maybe them wanting to crucify Him isn’t such a stretch).
We have to remember, the parable of the lost son is not so much a comment on God’s forgiveness of a lost sinner, it is a comment on Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners. It is a justification of Him coming not for the healthy, but for the sick, the broken, the unclean and the unpleasant and scandalous. It has been said that there is no place for Jesus in the prodigal son. There really isn’t a Jesus figure in this parable, there is no redeemer. The father is God-like, offering forgiveness and welcoming the lost home. Jesus, redemption, comes into it in His telling of it. To quote one of my favorite commentaries, “When Jesus eats with outcasts, it is not just humanitarian broad-mindedness, as though the laws of God or the condemnation of Pharisaic regulations did not matter, it is Godbreaking through the condemnation of God’s own law in order to reach out and save the lost.” Jesus repeatedly upholds the law “not one letter, not one stroke of a letter will pass from the law.” The law is not the problem, but sometimes mercy is more important than the law.
The law condemns dissolute living, degeneracy, cavorting with prostitutes (being prostitutes), disrespecting parents, valuing things over people, associating with pigs… all things that should be condemned. (Except the pigs part. Pigs are quite endearing creatures, we had a pig named Tinkerbell who was just a firecracker. She loved to be scratched, she’d arch her back and just get all into it and cardiologists side, it is hard to make a strong argument against bacon). But the people doing all those terrible things, things that are and should be prohibited, they are the very ones that need God the most. That lost son needed God, desperately. In our context, the folks ,shooting up heroin in the bathroom of a church during Egan, or insurance men not being honest to save face and some money, or media icons taking liberties with women or the truth… that is who Jesus is here for. The bent, broken, un-Godly, profane, those in power who maybe shouldn’t be, but are and are doing it all wrong. That is who need Jesus. That is whom Jesus came for, comes for. That is the gospel of Jesus Christ. That is what eating with tax collectors and sinners means and why Jesus did it and rubbed it into the faces of polite society. So, are you going to join that party? The party that rejoices over the reconciliation of another, even one of “those people”? It is easy an easy guest list to get on.
But that is not what this story, in the end, is about. In the end, this parable is about atonement. (It is Lent). It is about atonement, how Jesus saves. The lectionary did well in pairing the Prodigal with this passage from 2ndCorinthians. It is a pretty dense passage, but it’s importance as a statement of St. Paul’s vision of Christ’s purpose and how his saving grace relates directly and specifically to our ministry can hardly be over stated. What Paul is saying is that in Jesus there is a new way of knowing about the world. With the eyes of the Cross, everything is new, the old ways of seeing are known to be perishing, they are powerless, “Everything has become new!” And, our call in this world of a new heaven and a new earth, is to follow suit, to be like Jesus. Just as God reconciled Himself through Christ, we have been given the ministry of reconciliation to the rest of the world.
That is pretty clear, pretty straight forward and reasonable, but there is a deeper scandal to this, a deeper irrationality that pulls us into the heart of God. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” What does that mean?
It goes back to the Cross. In the Passion narratives in Mark and Matthew, Jesus cries out the opening line to Psalm 22 from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The Cross is as terrible and alienating a place humanity has come up with, and on it Jesus fully joined us in our sin. On the Cross Jesus was forsaken by God, He was with us, fully. Tht is what Pauls means whn he said “he made him to be sin who knew no sin.” Jesus knew God perfectly, until the Cross, then Jesus was thrown back into the darkness with us. Our redemption comes as Jesus conclusively threw His holy lot in with us, adrift sinners stuck in this morass of suffering and death. That is a theory of atonement. It is one understanding of what happened on the Cross. In doing that, in Jesus Christ the Son of God doing that, we are saved, Paul tells us, by becoming “the righteousness of God.” (Well the line reads “…so that in Him we mightbecome the righteousness of God.” We do have a choice in the matter. But we also we have the potential.)
Another way to say that is that Christ partook of our human nature so that we might partake in His divine nature. The Greek fathers of the church taught that. Partaking of His divine nature we become “ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us.” The message we are to carry to the world: “We entreat you on behalf of Christ, to be reconciled to God.” “We,” (that is us, we are to) “entreat you (everyone else) on behalf of Christ, to be reconciled to God.” That means we re supposed to help others to be in line with the way things are supposed to be. We are called to do our part to help the whole world live in and with and by and for love and kindness and justice and beauty. We are called to help reconcile people to each other, restore or establish right relationships with each other. Restore or establish a right relationship to the creation before we irreversibly foul our nest. We, Christians, are God’s ambassadors of reconciliation. We are saved for a purpose.
But like the parable of the lost sons can’t be understood out of context, Christ’s atoning death on the cross can’t be understood out of context. Surely the Cross was the decisive event where Jesus identified Himself with us sinners, but it was but the final act in a life time of identification with the broken. Touching the unclean, praising Romans, talking with foreign women, welcoming the lost son home, eating with tax collectors and sinners, trying to teach the Pharisees about the true nature of God… Jesus spent his life identifying with the outcast; the cross was the denouement of a long tale of identifying with, advocating for, loving “those people.”
Nothing easy or palatable or nice about this stuff. Jesus never promised us a rose garden. His Way is through the narrow gate, up a long and steep hill, on which too often there are crosses waiting. Hey, it’s Lent. Holy Week is right around the corner. Feeling religious uncomfortable is appropriate this time of year and is good for us, who are often comfortable, to be a little less so.
That’s the parable of the prodigal or lost son, in context. Like that father who went out and tried to bring his lost sons home, God in Christ calls us home, too. And as followers of Jesus, heirs of His eternal Commonwealth, we must call others home too, even (if not especially) “those people.” AMEN