The Ninth Sunday After Trinity
Proverbs 8:1-21, Psalm 103, 1 Corinthians 10:1-13, St. Luke 15:11-32
A Higher Grace
I grew up in the Navy. We changed addresses as often as we changed socks. I was born on Key West. We moved to Providence, Newport, Norfolk, back to Key West, San Diego. I’m good at leaving.
My wife grew up on a farm. Her father worked that land. And – you guessed it — his father had worked it before him. Their idea of change was rotating the crops. Then they quit doing that. They were rooted in that land. My wife is good at staying.
At a previous posting, one day after worship, I thought my wife – who is good at staying — was leaving with me. We began walking around a corner and toward the front door.
I reached the door. I looked around and . . . no wife. She had a lot of friends. She wouldn’t leave until she had greeted every one of them. That’s the way they’d done things in the days of her girlhood, back on the farm.
I was standing there at the door like a hobo waiting to hop a freight when our rector, Dr. Crenshaw, happened by.
He said, “What’re you doin’?” He’s from backwoods Tennessee . . . Possum Holler or Coon Valley or some such place. He speaks with a nasal twang.
I said, “I’m waiting. My wife is good at a lot of things, but leaving is not one of them.”
He said, “That’s obvious; she’s still with you.”
Beware the ecclesiastical rapier. It pierces deep. And true.
Some folks are good at leaving, some at staying.
Today we consider a story usually called the Parable of the Prodigal Son. A better title would be “The Parable of the Father and the Two Sons.” One son can’t wait to leave. He squanders his inheritance in a far country.
The other can’t wait to stay. He would slave away forever on his father’s farm, desperate to earn an inheritance that is already his.
One leaves, the other stays . . . and we get an education in grace.
I must confess that the first time I read this tale – and maybe the second and the third – I saw the prodigal son as the villain, the elder son as the hero and the father as a sap. In this opinion I betrayed a profound misunderstanding of grace.
Of all the parables, this is perhaps the best-known and most-loved. It will bring into sharper focus for us themes we have watched develop as we have studied the gospel lessons this Trinity season – themes such as freedom and righteousness, our debt to God and His grace.
We begin by looking at the story through a first-century lens.
Then – and this part is no different today — in the Middle Eastern cultures, for a son to request his portion of his living father’s worldly goods is to wish him dead. He is bellowing from the rooftop: “I can’t wait for you to die.”
A healthy father might allocate his property for distribution after his death but he would do so of his own volition. No son would suggest such an act. And if the father did make such an allocation, he would do so with the stipulation that he retain the rights to his property and all income from it until his demise.
The prodigal first asks for the allocation and then goes the further unthinkable step of requesting that he be allowed to dispose of his portion to underwrite his footloose wanderings.
The only conceivable reaction from a father is an explosion and a severe beating for the boy. But that is not the response of this father. His response frames for us the question: What is freedom?
For the younger son it is the absence of restraint. He wants more than the opportunity for “prodigal living.” He wants to chart his own course rather than following the one his loving father sets out. He holds worthless his father’s guidance and protection.
This is his understanding of freedom. But freedom can be a seductress.
Is it liberty or is it license? Liberty trusts in the truth of God, license bows before an array of idols. Liberty serves our fellow man, license celebrates the license-holder. Liberty loves righteousness, license breeds licentiousness – crude, self-serving immorality.
Sinful man has confused liberty and license since Adam’s time: If I could grab any fruit I want whenever I want, I’d be free. God wouldn’t be bossing me around any more.
But St. Paul tells us in Romans that all will be slaves to sin or slaves to righteousness, to Satan or to God. Freedom means you get to choose your master. In slavery to righteousness we discover authentic freedom, which is life according to the purpose for which our Creator shaped us.
The eagle is free when he soars, the turtle when he creeps. Man is free when he lives within the will of the benevolent Father who protects and guides him. The prodigal son held a warped idea of freedom – and it is precisely the view of most people 2,000 years later.
The freedom to which the father calls his prodigal son, on the other hand, invites us to trust the one who gave us life, to conform our desires to his desires for us in the certain knowledge that he knows better than we what is best for us.
The Collect for Peace in our Order for Morning Prayer captures this idea beautifully: “O God, who art the author of peace and lover of concord, in knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life, whose service is perfect freedom . . .”
I have had occasion once before to tell you of my only son, Brett, who is serving a life sentence for murder in Texas. That occasion was the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac and my point was that our God restores – gives back – sons . . . and daughters and mothers and fathers.
I bring up Brett again today because God has a purpose in creating, redeeming, restoring us. In that purpose is true freedom. When we realize He has snatched us out of the devil’s grasp, rescued us from eternal death and delivered us into life everlasting, we should recognize that the freedom He gives us has an end – loving and serving Him with all our being.
This is freedom in Christ – in the One who died to deliver us.
Brett calls frequently with news of some sort: He talked Capt. So-and-So into allowing him to lead a 4 a.m. prayer group for the kitchen workers. The warden approved his plan to take a team onto the transit wing to minister to the men there who are locked down 23 hours a day.
He performed this or that service for the unit chaplain. He has applied for the four-year seminary program the state has made available to long-term offenders
Or, more often, he had the opportunity to witness to another inmate, to deliver the good news of what God has done for him in Christ.
This is freedom – not of the kind he once knew: drinking and drugging and robbing and, at last, killing, to feed his carnal passions. This is freedom from the sting of the mocking attitudes and opinions of the sort of God-hating men he once was. This is freedom from the endless plotting and scheming to find a way out on which he once obsessed.
This is freedom from the bouts of depression that once assaulted him regularly and in which he committed the bad acts that landed him in the bad graces of his jailers, including two stints of several years each in solitary confinement.
But this is not only freedom from but also freedom to. It is freedom to live as God’s man on the inside, to serve his Master and fulfill his purpose – regardless of his circumstances. I’m in awe of my son. I preach freedom in Christ; Brett lives it. He has more freedom on the inside than anyone I know on the outside.
In our story, we find something else, the father’s superhuman response to his two sons. We have already seen Jesus addressing the scribes and Pharisees in the first two parables in the 15th chapter of St. Luke’s gospel, the lost sheep and the lost coin.
In those parables, the shepherd and the woman who has lost the coin do exactly what we expect them to do; they search for what is lost. But now the Lord ratchets up His teaching on divine love with a portrait of a father who transcends by light years the human capacity for love.
Hearing his son wish him dead, any other would have erupted. This father grants the request: “And he divided to them his livelihood.”
This is self-giving love, so deep that it grants freedom to reject the one who loves. All the while, it never swerves from its purpose of redemption, even as its object wishes the lover dead. What wondrous love is this that defies human understanding!
According to the cultural norms, the elder son should protest in the strongest terms his loyalty to his father and refuse to accept his share. He should also assume the role of reconciler between his father and his brother. He does neither. Instead, he fractures his relationships with both.
The prodigal liquidates his inheritance as quickly as he can. He has made himself a pariah in the village by his treatment of his father. He meets with contempt everywhere he goes. He must race away.
Having secured his “freedom,” he journeys to a “far country” – and descends into hell. No sooner has he thrown away his inheritance on loose living than famine seizes the land. Among gentiles now, he takes the only work he can get, feeding swine – anathema to a Jew — and covets the pigs’ food.
He eats these pods, bitter, black berries called carobs the pigs grub from low shrubs. They afford so little nutrition that he remains hungry every moment. Finally, he accepts the inevitable. He must return to his home and his father and beg for work as a servant. His father’s servants have more than enough to eat.
This homecoming portends far more peril than his leaving. He has not only squandered his father’s money, he has lost it to gentiles. He can expect to face a seething mob on his return.
Yet once again his father reacts as no father has ever done. Custom demands that the prodigal approach him in abject humiliation, stooping to kiss his hands or even his feet. But the father takes his son’s shame upon himself.
He comes down from his house and runs to greet his son. This is outrageous behavior for an Eastern patriarch; none would ever make such a spectacle of himself. But this father does not stop there.
He pre-empts the prodigal’s humiliation by falling on his neck and kissing him first. So doing, he makes a public display of forgiveness and reconciliation.
In this way, the father is like the shepherd in the story of the lost sheep. When he finds what has been lost, joy wells up from deep inside him – no accusation or recrimination, only joy.
The father then cuts short his son’s prepared speech. Listen closely now. The prodigal had planned to say:
“Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants.”
When a son has said, “I am no longer worthy to be called your son,” he has said everything. The job of restoration now falls to the father. This father stops his son there, before he can add, “Make me like one of your hired servants.”
Now, in the son’s reaction, we see true repentance. Fearful and confused, he finds in his father’s self-humiliation a love beyond comprehension. Shaken and stripped of all pretense, he must now confront the truth:
The money, regardless of how much he lost or to whom, is nothing. His shattered relationship with his father is everything.
He cannot heal it. He has spurned his father and his love. How could he assign a price to a father’s love, or, if he could name its price, how could he work off his debt?
He must accept reconciliation and restoration to his father’s household as a free gift. When the son finally allows himself to peer into the bottomless love on offer to him, this unmerited grace he cannot fend off even with his most contemptible behavior, he comes to terms with true repentance.
The father orders his servants to drape his best robe, the one he wears on feast days, around his son’s shoulders. He is commanding reconciliation on the part of his servants and the entire village. In the messianic age, all will wear a bright new garment of reconciliation.
The ring is probably a signet, a symbol of authority: its wearer can be trusted. Shoes designate a free man of a good house. Only slaves and the poor go shoeless. The servants must accept this son as their master. A fatted calf will feed 100 or more: The entire village will turn out for the feast.
The father does not want a servant obligated to work off a debt of mercy for a wage. He desires a son who loves him unconditionally in response to his free grace. The son accepts the gift, entering into the feast his father has prepared for him.
This is not the father of the “New Yorker” cartoon who says to the prodigal, “This is the fourth time we’ve killed the fatted calf.”
We cannot encase grace in a transaction. When we try to buy it or sell it, we destroy it.
The younger son left, the elder stayed. Or did he? Embittered by the grace his father shows his brother, the elder son refuses to join in the feast. This is an insult almost on a level with wishing the father dead. Yet the father’s reaction is the same:
He comes down from the house and pleads with him. He humiliates himself once more from the same motive of love. No criticism, rejection, judgment; only love.
The answer, however, is far different. The elder son does not address him as “Father,” another grave insult. Complaint, bitterness, arrogance pour out of him as though from a broken sewer. And then the stunning pronouncement: “I never transgressed your commandment at any time.”
What Pharisee could have said it better? Here is the self-justification of the legalists distilled: To hell with your fatherly grace. You, father, owe a debt to me for my goodness to you.
No mercy for one who goes astray, no joy over his return, no celebration of his father’s happiness. This son has no need of forgiveness for he has never sinned. Needing none, he can summon none for his brother. Our Lord told the Pharisees that one who is forgiven little loves little.
The prodigal son left, an honorable sinner. The elder son stayed, a hypocritical saint.
But did he stay? Or did he go a-wandering in a far country of the heart, a spiritual Babylon? One son was lawless outside the law, one was lawless within the law. A would-be servant, overwhelmed by the father’s grace, becomes a son. A son, appalled by the father’s grace, will not forsake the role of servant.
The father will not apologize for the feast. What was lost is found, one who was dead is alive. Repentance is not being found but accepting the love of the one who rushes out to offer it no matter the cost. The father will not abandon joy to appease his elder son’s anger. Some have called this parable the gospel within the gospel. It ends fittingly.
It leaves unresolved the final destination of the elder son. Does he join the feast in the end? His absence from the final frame allows us to put ourselves in it.
Step outside the story now. In the fourth chapter of his epistle to the Galatians, St. Paul addresses sonship in the context of the One who is telling this parable, the eternal Son:
“But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons.
“And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying out, “Abba, Father!” Therefore you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ” (Galatians 4:4-7).
When we abandon pursuit of a righteousness of our own doing, when we accept the inheritance that is ours as fellow heirs of Christ, we are at last able to accept our Father’s love, freely given, and freely to give it back. This is Jesus’ message to the Jews, to the gentiles and to you. Amen.