“The Bitter Pill of Grace”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
Luke 15 begins with Pharisees and scribes grumbling about Jesus welcoming and eating with “sinners.”
Standing face-to-face with those who know the law, and who abide by it with loveless resolve, Jesus tells a short parable: If a shepherd had a hundred sheep, and he lost one, wouldn’t he search for that one sheep until he found it? And when he did, wouldn’t he call his family and friends together to celebrate? And wouldn’t you?
Okay, says Jesus, suppose a woman loses one of the only ten coins she has. Won’t she sweep the entire house until she finds it? And won’t she rejoice when she does? And wouldn’t you?
The Pharisees and scribes seem to feel nothing inside their cold, tombstone hearts. So, into the tension, Jesus tells another story.
11 “‘There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’
“So he divided his property between them. 13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16 He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17 But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’
20 So he 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. 21 Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
22 “But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
25 “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27 He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’
28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’
31 “Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 But 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.’” (NRSV)
Jesus leaves that story hanging the same way that Luke leaves Jesus’ confrontation with the Pharisees and scribes hanging. And that leaves us hanging, too. What does the elder son do? What effect do the father’s actions have in the family? In the community?
The parable of the father and his two sons illustrates, memorably, that at the heart of all matters, human and divine, lies the foundation of relationship. And the Judeo-Christian tradition uses the language of covenant to describe those relationships that reflect our understanding of God’s purpose and desire for all Creation.
Living in covenant relationship with God, other human beings, and the earth is difficult. It demands the agonizing death of human selfishness and pride. Last week, we talked about repentance as turning. Repentance also involves a kind of death.
When the younger son recognizes his potentially-fatal selfishness, he rehearses a humbled plea to offer to his father. Dad, he says, I’ve made a mess of things. I insulted you personally and disgraced you publicly. Having broken a sacred trust—indeed, having effectively wished that you were dead—I know that you have every right to consider me dead to you. Because of what I’ve done, I’ve lost the right to be called your son. But would you take me on as a hired hand?
The Pharisees and the scribes know what the father should do with his son. He should hold a qetsatsah ceremony. That involves filling a large jug with burned nuts and corn and smashing it into smithereens at the young man’s feet. He then shouts his former son’s name out loud so that everyone knows that he has been cut off from the family and the community—forever.1
According to the law, that’s what the father should do. He should channel all the elder-brother disgust he can muster and disown that ungrateful son. Instead, the father embodies grace. He humbles himself—in fact, he humiliates himself. He runs out to welcome his son and orders up a celebration. You and I really can’t understand how awkward such a party would be for those who attend. The story, though, illustrates the profound difference between covenantal and contractual relationships.
When I work with couples getting married, I make the point that marriage is a covenant, not a contract. People enter contracts to pursue their own interests. One says to the other, I’ll give this to you, but only under the condition that you give that to me. It’s a quantifiable exchange that doesn’t happen without the enforceable guarantee of getting as well as giving. And contracts have their place. We engage in contractual relationships every time we check out at a grocery store, or restaurant, or online.
In contrast, when people enter a covenant, they do so with a willing and eager vow—for better or worse—to make the well-being of the other as an equal or greater priority than their own well-being.
What makes covenant more challenging is that it necessarily implies forgiveness, which, paradoxically, becomes a kind of pre-condition to unconditional love. And that condition is placed on the one who loves. As Alexander Pope said: “To err is human, to forgive divine.”
You’ve come home! says the forgiving father. That’s all that matters. You’re home!
Isn’t that what God says, over and over, to prodigal Israel?
Covenantal grace can be a bitter pill. It seldom seems fair. But rather than using the contractual language of merit, covenant speaks to that thread of eternity called grace that binds all things together. And not everyone gets it.
With a sneer, the elder son says to his father, “This son of yours” has turned you into a sucker, a loser. Look at all I’ve done for you all my life! And you’ve done nothing for me!
Who among us cannot relate to the contract-minded elder brother? And if to him, then to the Pharisees and scribes?
The father in this parable, however, does something for the elder son that is no less scandalous, no less covenantal than what he does for the prodigal. He turns his back on his guests to go outside and “plead” with his angry son. No matter how faithful and hardworking a son might be, virtually no traditional, self-respecting, first-century father would plead with a son.
Throughout the parable, the father does everything wrong—at least culturally. Nevertheless, Jesus holds him up as an example of God-bearing grace. Through this father, Jesus illustrates that forgiveness is the foundation of covenantal relationship. Forgiveness and love are certainly mutually-inclusive, and perhaps even synonymous. They are attributes of God that we cannot undo through our own fragile-egoed judgments. To forgive is to incarnate in our own bodies, minds, and spirits the Creator of the Universe, because God relates to all things through covenant, not contract.
In his journal, Thomas Merton wrote, “I think I am beginning to understand something about the fifteenth chapter of St. Luke’s Gospel—the lost sheep, the lost drachma, the Prodigal Son. Our dearest Lord is showing that he means everything about the fatted calf and the rejoicing to be taken literally, and that He means to pour out every kind of happiness in rivers upon those who ran away from his mercy but could not escape it.”2
Richard Rohr echoes Merton’s words when he says, “The great thing about God’s love is that it’s not determined by the object. God does not love us because we are good. God loves us because God is good.” That’s difficult for us to accept, says Rohr, because “We naturally live in what I call the meritocracy of quid pro quo.” That is, the meritocracy of contract. “We must,” says Rohr, “be taught by God…how to live in an economy of grace.”3
It seems to me, that we are most truly our God-imaged human selves, when we—through Christ and in the strength of the Holy Spirit—intentionally live in ways that confound and even threaten the Pharisees and scribes within us and among us, because we say to them, We understand your concern, but honestly we’re not worried about what you think others deserve. Just watch what happens when we love them, anyway!
2 A Year with Thomas Merton: Daily Meditations from His Journals. Selected and Edited by Jonathan Montaldo. Harper One, 2004. P. 85.
3Adapted from Following the Mystics Through the Narrow Gate…Seeing God in All Things [CD, DVD, MP3])