March 31, 2019

1 Corinthians 15:1-3, 11b-32

“While he was still far off”

Special thanks to the SALT Lectionary Commentary (saltproject.org) for reflections on the parable that significantly inspired this sermon. Portions of the commentary are included in the sermon as longer quotes.

I once played the part of the prodigal son in a musical rendition of the “Parables of Jesus” that we put together when I was a student at Knox College. I remember kneeling on the floor at the front of the chapel, miming the feeding of the pigs, and singing a mournful song about how down-and-out I had become, and my feelings of sorrow and regret at all the mistakes that I had made.

In that rendition of Jesus’ parable, I was the main character, and the focus was on my poor choices, my repentance, my return, and the generous party thrown in my honour. No matter what, I was still a child of God, and God would love, forgive, and welcome me home if I turned my life around and came back.

Certainly, that message is true. And on this fourth Sunday in the Season of Lent, it provides one more word of encouragement to repent – to turn our hearts and our lives back to listening to God, and following Jesus, and participating in the Spirit’s work in the world today. If we repent, God will forgive us. If we come home, God will welcome us. If we turn back to God, God will celebrate and rejoice over us.

I believe that’s true. But it’s not the whole truth, because this parable shows us that God is EVEN MORE forgiving than that. One commentator describes it this way: “Grace lies at the heart of this parable – scandalous grace, grace that defies all earthly rules and conventions… [This parable is about] the extraordinary love of the father, who runs to greet his child ‘while he was still far off.’”

You see, we’ve heard this parable many times and we think we know the story. The younger son asks for his inheritance and then goes off to waste it on wild living. He realizes his mistakes, repents and returns, and his father forgives him. The older brother doesn’t have the same big heart as his father, so he grumbles about how unfair it is and refuses to join in the party.

But a careful reading of the text points out that we may be giving the younger son more credit than he deserves. I saw him in a new way when I read what the SALT Lectionary Commentary said (quite harshly) about the younger son:

“The younger son in the parable is a dishonorable, self-centered scoundrel: right out of the gates, he impudently demands that his father give him his inheritance early, as if to say, You’re already dead to me.

“Predictably, the brash young man soon squanders the money, and ends up in a situation first-century Jews would have considered the epitome of shame: working in swine fields, feeding the pigs, desperately hungry and surrounded by a regional famine.

“But his dire straits don’t convert his heart; he conspicuously doesn’t say, Oh, woe is me – look what I have become! I will amend my ways, and change my life, and beg my father’s forgiveness. Instead, he says, Wait a minute, I know a place I can get some food!

“Recalling that his father’s hired hands eat pretty well, he cooks up a scheme in which he’ll return home, feign contrition, and then, at the end of his speech, oh-so-humbly throw in a suggestion: Dear father, I expect no special treatment – just treat me like one of your hired hands.

The SALT Commentary concludes: “This is no tale of repentance, no “change of heart,” but rather a desperate, self-serving ploy. His express aim is to eat. In this sense, he merely continues his opportunistic ways. And insofar as his plan is disguised behind a veil of pious-sounding, ostensibly apologetic language – it’s also a con.”

I keep going back to those words – “while he was still far off.” In verse 20 we read that the younger son “set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.”

The message of this parable is not “IF you repent, God will forgive you,” or “IF you change your heart and your ways, God will give you another chance.” That’s not what we see happening here. Instead, we see a parent who loves his child desperately and unconditionally.

The father sees him “while he was still far off,” implying that he’s been continually looking for him. The father runs towards him, implying a state of joyful abandon. And the father embraces him before a single word is spoken, implying unconditional acceptance.

That “unconditional” part is so important, because the younger son does nothing to warrant being forgiven. He doesn’t show a change of heart or a change of life, or even a commitment to try to do better. But the father forgives him “unconditionally” – simply because he is his child.

In our Bible study earlier this week, we considered some situations in which we might be called upon to offer forgiveness to another person. We read a list of people, and we put them in order of easiest to most difficult to forgive. I think most of us ended up with pretty much the same order, starting with the easiest:

  • a child who stole a quarter (Not too difficult to forgive, right? It’s more of a teaching opportunity, isn’t it?)
  • a pastor who didn’t visit you in the hospital (Not that THAT would ever happen to you! But people said they would recognize how busy a minister can get, and they also wondered if anyone let the minister know that you were in hospital in the first place.)
  • a church member who stole from the offering plate (Of course, we hoped this wouldn’t happen. But we wondered about the circumstances that would lead to such an act. Was the person desperate or suffering from some serious need? Or perhaps they were not well?)
  • a friend who lied to you (Okay, now it’s getting a little more difficult to forgive. But maybe there was a misunderstanding or a miscommunication. Perhaps if we just talked through it, we could figure out why the friend felt they had to lie.)

The most difficult ones on the list to forgive were these:

  • a spouse who had an affair
  • a drunk driver who killed your relative
  • a parent who abused you

The conversation revolved around what might have led to the action committed against us. Was the abusive parent once abused himself? Was there a break-down in the relationship that led to the affair?

And was there any repentance? Did your spouse admit the wrongdoing and commit to marriage counselling and renewed faithfulness? Did the drunk driver show remorse, go into a drug treatment program, or share her story with others to discourage them from following the same path?

It was a very logical and reasonable conversation about forgiveness. We all WANTED to find a way to forgive the people who harmed us, and so we looked for reasons to do so… because it wasn’t such a bad thing they did, because they had a hard time and should be excused, because it was really just a misunderstanding, or because they truly, deeply regretted what they had done, and they committed to doing better.

But that’s not the forgiveness that Jesus teaches us in the parable.

“The father knows his son all too well, knows he’s a con man, likely guesses that he may well be returning out of desperation rather than piety – and yet welcomes him anyway, with unbridled, ecstatic joy. The elder son knows his brother, too – and isn’t buying it.

“Likewise, we can hear Jesus’ critics saying, Those tax collectors and sinners – they come and listen to you teach, sure, but they haven’t truly repented, they haven’t truly changed their lives; and you should hold back your welcome until they do!

“And Jesus’ response, through the telling of the parable, amounts to this: How will they truly change their lives unless I gracefully welcome them in the first place? Grace doesn’t follow repentance – it enables repentance! And not just theirs; your repentance as well. My child, come in and celebrate! Look, you’re already with me, what’s mine is yours; come in, come in, and rejoice in God’s extravagant love!”

The message of the parable is that the Good News is for sinners, not for good people who make some small mistakes, not for former sinners who have changed their ways. God doesn’t love us because we’ve picked ourselves up by our bootstraps from the swine fields. Rather, God loves us “even if” – even if we’re con artists coming down a dusty road, even if we’re wayward lambs who’ve wandered into danger, even if we’ve utterly lost our way, collaborating with the Empire as a sordid tax collector.

“How could God love us in this apparently unfair, extravagant, “even if” sort of way? Because God’s love is full of mercy, like a kind-hearted parent caring for a child, like a shepherd searching the hills for a lamb, like a woman sweeping the house for a coin – or a sweet, saving word, as the old hymn has it, for a “wretch like me.”

Today’s parable is both wonderful news and a challenging call for us. Because we are not only invited to give thanks for God’s amazing grace – that God sees us and forgives us “while we are still far off,” – but we are also called to learn, day-by-day, to forgive others in his way.

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