Lent 4c, March 6, 2016

March 8, 2016

The Illogical Love of God
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

15:1 Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3 So he told them this parable: 11b “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.'”

Of all the stories that Jesus told, this may be the story that is the most familiar to the most people. The funny thing about this is that Luke is the only one who included this story in his gospel. Why is this? It’s such a good story!

I’m pretty mystified by this. This is probably the most recognized story in all of the gospels, and you only find it in Luke. Could the other gospel writers not see the value of this story? Or was it too scandalous? Was this story simply too revealing of the unconditional nature of God’s love. Maybe they were afraid this story would give other young people bad ideas. It just might be that the other gospel writers felt that it would be irresponsible to include this story – the extent of God’s love was simply too graphic.

Unfortunately, this story utilizes some unfortunately familiar family dynamics to make a good point. Sibling rivalry, jealousy, and irresponsibility are familiar themes within families, and Jesus used these familiar dynamics to make a surprising and unsettling point.

I’ve got a friend who likes to say that a dysfunctional family is one that has more than one person in it. But this story takes dysfunction in a new direction, and by doing so it challenges the established understanding of how God’s family actually functioned. The father – who clearly represents God in this story, allowed love to be the guiding factor behind his actions, and that totally disrupted proper order.

This morning’s reading began by pointing out that the Pharisees and scribes were very suspicious of what Jesus was doing, and you might say Jesus told this story in order to confirm their suspicions. Jesus was very conscious of the way he was seen by people in positions of authority, so he responded to their concern with this story that totally challenged the value of proper behavior and replaced it with the value of love.

Jesus used familiar family dynamics to illustrate the extra-ordinary nature of God’s love. He told this story to break our stereotypical thinking about the nature of sin and the extent of God’s love. I think we’re looking at an age-old problem. There is this tendency to think that sin can be easily defined, and that love is earned. This parable challenges both of these assumptions.

I’m reminded of a situation I witnessed when I was helping at a homeless shelter in Durham, NC. I was in seminary at the time and I came to experience that homeless shelter as a form of lab for the class-work I was doing. It wasn’t that I was taking the fine Christian education I was learning in class and imparting my new wisdom on the soiled souls that were showing up each evening for a place to sleep. It’s more like I would take what I learned at the shelter and compare it to what I was supposed to be studying in class. I don’t think I was exposed to as much raw faith and theological discourse in class as I was with those guys who were living on the street.

I continue to see the love of God expressed in powerful ways by people who live in really difficult circumstances, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard the message of Jesus Christ explained as clearly as it was one night at that shelter in Durham.

There were eight or ten homeless men sitting around this small room waiting for the bedtime cheese sandwiches to arrive, and this one man who’s life had been ravaged by alcoholism began shaking his head and moaning about the state of his life. He was about to tell us the latest tragic twist of his life, and he prefaced it by saying, I know it says in the Bible that God helps those who help themselves…, but before he could say anything else he was cut-off by this other man who said, where does it say that in the Bible? The first man was unable to produce any chapters or verses – nor were any of the rest of us. And this second man went on to preach a wonderful sermon to the man who was moaning about his pattern of failure – with the point of the sermon being that if the Bible says anything consistently it is that God helps us when we aren’t capable of helping ourselves. He told that man that the love of Jesus Christ is available to us when we least deserve it.

I don’t know how that sermon played out in that desperate man’s life, but it had a powerful impact on me. I don’t think I had ever heard this truth delivered so clearly.

I don’t know — there may be something in Proverbs that indicates God is more responsive to people who behave responsibly, but that homeless preacher was right about the primary narrative of the Bible. The primary message that you find in the Bible is that God loves us in an illogical way. God doesn’t love us because we’ve done all the right things. God loves us regardless of how poorly we’ve managed the lives we’ve been given.

Unfortunately, most people think the false claim is true, that God helps those who do the right thing. I believe God does help us to do the right things, but God doesn’t withhold love until we do the right thing. It was that kind of gross misrepresentation of God that motivated Jesus to tell this story of the father who celebrated so extravagantly when his wayward son returned home.

It’s hard for us not to believe that God’s love is as conditional as human love generally is, and that’s why Jesus told this story of the father who had nothing but love for each of his sons – in spite of the errors of both their ways. And yes, this older son had some issues as well.

This parable doesn’t deny that there is such a thing as sinful behavior and that there are painful consequences to sin, but our godless behavior doesn’t disqualify us from being worthy of the love of God. In fact it is often our sins that enable us to experience the unconditional nature of God’s love.

I’m happy to say, and I’m sure you are happy to hear that the statute of limitations has run out on any crimes I may have inadvertently committed over the course of my life. And I like to think I don’t do anything that I wouldn’t want to have published in the newspaper, but when you are in the religion business it’s easy for your words or actions to be scrutinized by people who draw lines in different places, and I understand how it feels to be considered outside of proper religious behavior – which is a terrible feeling.

It’s terrible to feel judged by other people, and unfortunately this is what many people think the church does best. I don’t know if this is as true as it once was. The church isn’t as strong as it once was, and we church people don’t speak with as loud of a voice as we once had. Being in a position of strength often leads to the attitude that was harbored by the Pharisees and scribes, and Jesus found their behavior to be much more problematic than the behavior of the official sinners of his day. Maybe the decline of the power of the church is a good thing for our institutional soul.

I had the good fortune of being invited to an Alcoholics Anonymous Meeting when my friend was going to receive his one-year sobriety coin. It was the first time I had ever been to such a meeting, and I was inspired by the spirit of mutual support and love that I witnessed there. That room was populated by people who had made official messes of their lives. It was an official failure that had brought them together, and it was one of the most spiritually vibrant meetings I had ever experienced. That was a community that truly understood the nature of repentance and the value of unconditional love.

Repentance is not about groveling in sorrow. Repentance is about recognizing the need for change and taking steps to go in a new direction. Jesus often spoke of the need to repent, and he associated repentance with the ability to enter the Kingdom of God. People who no longer trust in their own righteousness are the people who are the most open to taking those powerful steps.

It was much easier for the people who were labeled as sinners to hear what Jesus was saying because they weren’t so invested in maintaining their own little empires. Those who considered themselves to be righteous reacted to Jesus like the older brother reacted to his father when his younger brother returned home after squandering his inheritance. I think we can all understand the righteous indignation that the older brother expressed, but I think his behavior reveals the problem that often afflicts people who live righteous lives. Being right isn’t as important as being loving. And I think Jesus told this story to illustrate this truth. It’s possible to be obedient without being filled with desire to do the right thing.

The younger son needed to change his ways, but so did the older brother. He needed to have a change in his heart, and I think it was harder for him to do that. This is the problem with people who don’t sin in official ways. They have a tendency to think that it’s just those other people who need to make changes in their lives.

Jesus told this story to show what it is that brings joy to God.

God celebrates when reconciliation occurs. The failure of the older son to enter into the homecoming festivity illustrates the fact that sometimes it is the most right-living people who have the hardest time pleasing God, but there’s good news here for the judgers as well.

In this story the father continued to love the older son also – in spite of his hesitancy to celebrate the return of his brother. God not only loves the bold sinners of the world. God loves the self-righteous sinners as well. God’s love is inescapable – it’s illogical. This is not to say that there’s no need to try to change anything about the way we are living, but it is to say — there’s hope for us all.

Thanks be to God!


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