Sermon for March 31, 2019
Barbara Brown Taylor is a popular author in Christian circles. She served as an Episcopal pastor for about 15 years but then left parish ministry for another career. She taught religion at a small liberal arts college in Georgia. The course was Religion 101 and most of her students were freshmen or sophomores. She recently published a memoir of her teaching career. She would begin a new class by handing out a 3 by 5 card and asking students to answer the question, “What do you mean when you say “God”. She told the students not to put their names on their cards. She would collect them and would be amazed at the wide variety of responses. Some answers were silly and you wonder if the writer was serious when he or she wrote, “God is a big white guy in the sky.” Other answers sounded quite faithful like “God is the embodiment of absolute love, wisdom, and temperance.” Others answered honestly “Mostly what I know about God is how little I really know about God.” How would you answer the question, “What do I mean when I say ‘God’?
In the gospel lesson we heard that tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. We know tax collectors were not popular for obvious reasons. Actually they could be despised because their work benefited the hated Roman Empire who occupied their land. Taxes could be quite a burden. The meaning of ‘sinners’ was not just a generic term for all people. The meaning was people whose lifestyles intentionally violated the teachings of the scriptures. What did they think when they thought “God”? I think their thoughts were heavy on the side of guilt, judgment, and punishment. But they kept coming near to Jesus to listen. What was Jesus teaching them? He wasn’t scaring them off with harsh words and scary images of God. Jesus emphasized God was truly interested in them, and how they lived their lives not for the sake of gathering evidence, but for healing and a new direction.
The Pharisees and scribes saw what was going on and they did not like it one bit. Pharisees and scribes continually grumbled about what Jesus was doing. The Pharisees and the scribes devoted their lives to living by the commandments of God. They did not like Jesus’ methods, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” They wouldn’t mind Jesus’ efforts to preach and teach sinners the commandments of God. He should be strict and cautious. But look at what he’s doing: Jesus welcomes sinners, he wants to be among them and then horror of horrors, he even eats with them. Meal fellowship meant friendship and Jesus should not be associating with them in such unguarded ways. Didn’t Jesus know the saying “Bad company ruins good morals.”?
A favorite memory in my ministry happened in my first parish. Three sisters were getting ready to be baptized. They came to the church on Saturday to go through the baptism service. The girls were ages 12, 8, and 4. The four year old wanted nothing to do with baptism. It was a scary ritual to her with water poured on her head in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. She cried and put up quite a fuss. The parents were losing patience. The oldest sister smirked. And I was at a loss. Inside I was grumbling worried about a Sunday service that may well turn out to be a fiasco due to a tantrum-prone toddler. But the Holy Spirit was at work, and the solution came out of the mouth of the 8 year old, “Why don’t you tell us a story about God.” So I did. Exactly what I told I do not remember, but the four-year old was all smiles at her baptism.
Jesus did not lecture the fuming Pharisees. He told them a story about God. He began the story “There was a man who had two sons.” The younger son wanted his share of the inheritance. This would go against all codes of respect and honor for the father. I think of the commercial on TV that has people say “It is my money and I want it now.” As many have pointed out, this outlandish demand was to the son’s deepest shame because in effect his request for his share was saying to the father, “I wish you were dead.” The father gave the younger son his inheritance, and this would involve the sale of property and livestock.
And so the younger son took off with a pocket full of cash. He went off to a far country. The text said he squandered his inheritance, the term literally pictured him spending money in all directions. He felt free and in control: “it is my money and I want it now; it is my life, and I want to live it my way.” His living was described as dissolute—one would say depraved and let your imagination fill in the details. The word literally means “unsaved”; it was not well with his soul. But he did not care and kept on spending. But you know what; his money was soon spent. He began to be in need. And if things were not desperate enough, a severe famine took place. This meant food was scarce and no one would give him anything. He found a job feeding pigs, a detail very revolting to Jews. He wanted to join the pigs at the trough but nothing was left to give to him.
Desperate times called for desperate measures and at the point of starvation the younger son thought of his father for the first time in a while. He thought of the servants at his former home who had plenty to eat. So he made up his mind to return home with a full confession, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son, but please treat me as one of your hired hands.” Some commentators have wondered about the sincerity of this confession. Starving to death in a hostile land meant he better do something quickly. Fortunately we are not left to judge whether or not he was sincere.
It did not matter to the father in the story. When he saw at some distance his son returning, he was filled with compassion. He ran to meet his son and we don’t hear a lecture, but witness love, we don’t hear a word of rejection, but reconciliation for the father wasted no time. The best robe would be put on his son, new shoes, and the ring, the family signet, the sign of his sonship would be placed on his finger. The son spoke his prepared speech, but notice the father interrupted him so he did not get to the part of ‘treat me as one of your hired hands.’ He was, is, and always would be his father’s son. We commented the son had violated society codes by demanding his inheritance, Now the father was doing some violating of cultural codes. Instead of hiding his son’s shameful behavior, he ordered a party with the finest food, music and dancing. If there were protests the father had the answer, ‘for this son of mine was dead and is alive again, he was lost and now is found.” Let the party begin!
But what about the older son? When he found out what was going on he was angry. He refused to join the celebration. He wrote off his younger brother long ago and it was fine with him that he had left. Now he came crawling back, after wasting his inheritance on all kinds of debased living and what does dad do, he throws a party in honor of the one who disgraced the family. Notice the father went out to persuade the elder son to come and join the party. That was not going to happen. The father pleaded with his son, and told him your brother was dead to us, but is now alive, was total lost but now found. The elder son’s resentment was understandable. He worked and worked to benefit the family, while the younger left as if he wanted nothing to do with the family. But the father wanted his eldest son, whom he loved completely, to know there was something more important than dollars and cents, property and profits, even honor and public opinion. The father heard his elder son’s anger, but stood his ground: “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.”
How has this story of Jesus touched your soul? On the surface it is a good story with elements of tension: the younger son wants his freedom; the elder son is obedient and works hard for the family business, there is pain in the father’s heart when he felt he had lost his son, but now overwhelming compassion when the son returns, even in such a sorry state. Was the younger son’s confession a sincere repentance of the heart, or inspired more by an empty stomach? Jesus told this story because he knew what we are like. We have selfish ideas of freedom that hurt others. Repentance may or may not be sincere. We can feel that hard work and following all the rules for what is right should mean reward, and those who don’t should accept the consequences. And like the Pharisees and scribes, good people, we can grumble about those we judge as not so good and deserving. This story is about God. This story is shocking when we think about the compassion and grace of God. Like the younger son we can do things that are not good for the soul. We can leave God behind. God is one who brings new life to those dead in sin. God is one who has compassion and seeks the lost. Repentance is not measured on a sincerity scale in heaven. For God came down from heaven in Jesus, who draws sinners to him. Grace is not determined by repentance, but God’s love and grace inspires repentance. Repentance has the right mind, heart, and soul about God. True repentance draws near to Jesus because God loves sinners. Like the elder son we can grumble about others because in our mind they are not as deserving as we are. But God’s grace is not about deserving. God’s grace brings an awakening: we are all dead in sin, but Jesus gave his life so we are brought to life; Jesus accepted sinners to such an extent that we be found in a love that is immeasurable. God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. For our sake God made Jesus to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him, we might become the righteousness of God.