Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Totally Unbelievable and Yet Completely True” (Luke 15:11-24)
March 31, 2019
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Major League Baseball had its Opening Day last week, one of my favorite reminders that spring has officially arrived. On October 18, 1977 something totally unbelievable and yet completely true happened during game six of the World Series. I was in third grade and remember watching as New York Yankees slugger Reggie Jackson hit not one, not two, but three home runs off only three pitches, each pitch from a different pitcher.
In the fourth inning he stepped to the plate and Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Burt Hooten threw a low ball that Jackson ripped into the right field seats. In the fifth inning Dodger relief pitcher Elias Sosa’s first pitch to Jackson was likewise drilled into the right field bleachers. And then in the eighth inning, with all of Yankee Stadium on their feet chanting, “Reggie! Reggie! Reggie!” Jackson walks to the plate, and then crushes Charlie Hough’s knuckleball about 475 feet into the center field bleachers, and Yankee Stadium erupts. Three consecutive pitches, each from a different pitcher, three consecutive homeruns, in one World Series game. I got chills watching that night. It was totally unbelievable and yet completely true.
Today’s gospel reading, the Parable of the Prodigal Son, is the most gospel-loaded, gospel-replete, gospel-inundated, gospel-waterlogged, gospel-full of all of Jesus’ parables. If you ever want to know what God is like, what the grace of God is like, what forgiveness from God is like, if you ever want to know the heart of what the gospel is all about, what the love of God is like, look no further than the Parable of the Prodigal Son. This parable is the biblical motherlode of God’s grace.
The context of this parable is very important. Luke tells us, “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to (Jesus). And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them’” (Luke 15:1-2). Jesus was not only friendly to and friendly with “tax collectors and sinners”, both of whom were utterly despised by the religious leaders, the Pharisees and scribes, Jesus also welcomed them and ate with them.
Jesus did not just tolerate tax collectors and sinners, he liked them, and they could tell he was not faking it, which is why they enjoyed hanging out with him. All of this completely undid the Pharisees and scribes. They could not understand how Jesus could hang out with “those people.” And so they did what many people often do when faced with something they do not understand, they grumbled.
And Jesus responded to the grumbling of the scribes and Pharisees by telling them three parables in a row. In the fourth inning of this dinner party Jesus walked up to plate and hit his first home run, the Parable of the Lost Sheep. Jesus talked about how God loves you not only corporately but individually, so much so that if you were one of a hundred sheep and you were the only one lost, God would leave the other ninety-nine sheep and search for you until he found you. Then he would lay you gently on his shoulders, carry you home, and then throw a party for all his neighbors because he we so happy that he found the one lost sheep, you—“Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost” (Luke 15:6).
Then again in the fifth inning of this dinner party Jesus stepped to the plate, and hit his second homerun, the Parable of the Lost Coin. Jesus described God’s love for you being like a lady who has ten silver coins, but loses one of them. She then sweeps the house, looks under every piece of furniture, looks in every drawer, under ever carpet, in every nook and cranny of her house until she finds the one lost coin. Then just like the shepherd, she calls her friends together to celebrate because she is so happy that she found the one lost coin, you—“Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost” (Luke 15:9).
Then in the eighth inning of this same dinner party, with all the sinners and tax collectors on the edge of their seats wondering what parable Jesus would say next, Jesus walked again to the plate and launched his third homerun deep into centerfield, the Parable of the Prodigal Son. This parable, just like the first two, demonstrates what God’s love for you is really like. It is a love so great that it does not make sense. Wouldn’t a shepherd who still had ninety-nine out of the hundred sheep cut his losses and move on? Apparently not. God’s love for you is much greater than that. Wouldn’t a lady who still had her nine other silver coins be satisfied with that and forget about the one that was lost? Again, apparently not, because, again, God’s love for you is much greater than that. God’s love for you is totally unbelievable and yet completely true.
In the Parable of the Prodigal Son Jesus described how a very wealthy man had two sons, the dutiful firstborn, and his slacker younger brother. The younger brother was not only a slacker, he was utterly rude and disrespectful to his father, and demanded, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” In other words, he wished his father were dead so he could have his inheritance now. The father did not argue with his younger son or put him in his place; instead, as Luke tells us, “He divided his property between them.”
Shortly thereafter the younger son takes off and goes “to a distant country and, there he squandered his property in dissolute living.” It is not unlike what many people do when they go to Las Vegas or on a “girls’ trip.” But after he had maxed out every credit card, cleaned out every bank account with his ATM card, liquidated every IRA account, spent every dollar and cent in his pockets, Jesus said “a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need” (Luke 15:11-14). The rich kid who had never wanted for anything ever in his life now had nothing—and it was his fault, and he knew it.
He was so desperate he became a servant whose job it was to slop the pigs, and remember—Jews were forbidden to eat pork because it was deemed unclean. Moreover, he became so hungry that he wished he could eat the same slop he was feeding the pigs—and no one cared, no one would help, or as Luke writes, “no one gave him anything.” And it was in that moment—broke, filthy, alone, starving, friendless—that the younger brother decided maybe it was time to go back home.
The problem was that he had been a total jerk to his father, had wasted in a very short time “on dissolute living” what it had taken his father a very long time to earn, and had tarnished his family name. He was convinced that if he indeed went home, things would never be the same again, so he prepared a speech for his father, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son” (Luke 15:15-19). And as he rehearsed this speech again and again, the younger brother stumbled toward home.
What Jesus then described is that the love of God is totally unbelievable and yet completely true, that the grace of God is greater than the law. In his 2007 book Grace in Practice Paul Zahl describes how in the long run a child will respond much more to grace from their parents than they will to the law:
You can learn about this absolute separation between grace and law if you listen to your children. Children never respond well to a lecture. Is there a case on record of children responding well to a lecture? They may assent by a reluctant nod or a sort of grudging silence. But it is all resistance. When you are dying, it will come back to you. Your children will tell you the incidents that made a difference to them. They will tell you the moments when they heard the true voice of parental love. Believe me, it was rare. It was rarer than you ever thought. It took place in connection with your daughter’s divorce and the way you didn’t say a word of “I told you so” when she walked in the door with her six-year old daughter and no more husband (85-86).
Then Paul Zahl recounts this true story:
Or maybe the grace came out after your son’s car crash. Rod Rosenbladt, a Lutheran theologian, tells the true story of wrecking his father’s Buick 8 when he was sixteen years old. Rod was drunk, as were all his friends who were in the car. The first thing Rod’s dad asked him over the phone was whether he was all right. Rod said yes. He also told his father he was drunk. Later that night, Rod wept and wept in his father’s study. At the end of the ordeal, his father said one thing: “How about tomorrow we go get you a new car.” Rod says now that he became a theist in that moment. God’s grace became real…Rod’s father spoke the word of grace in that moment. In that eternal encounter, for it reflected the mechanism of God’s grace, there was no law. The law’s dominion came to an end. Grace superseded it (86).
As you can expect, some people bristle at this example of grace. Where was the lesson of responsibility? How was Rod held accountable? Where was the penance? Where was the lecture? Every time Rod has shared that totally unbelievable and yet completely true story about grace from his father he has gotten resistance and pushback. From whom? From people who just like the Pharisees and tax collectors in today’s gospel passage grumbled about Jesus’ friendship with sinners. In the Parable of the Prodigal Son Jesus went on to say that when the younger brother was “still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion” and “he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.”
The prodigal son was probably stunned that his distinguished, wealthy father not only acknowledged his existence but ran to him (something elderly people at that time would never do) and hugged and kissed his filthy, smelly, broke, self. Then he tells his father the speech that he had rehearsed countless times during his long walk home, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son” (Luke 15:20-21).
And how did the father respond to his son’s speech? Did he say, “You’re right, you have sinned against heaven and me. How dare you! How could you have the audacity to ask for your inheritance when I was still alive? How could you wish I were dead? Have I not always given you everything you wanted? You have shamed me, and you have shamed my family. You are not worthy to be called my son and you never will be. Things will never be the same again”? Did the father say all that? No. But wouldn’t the father use this opportunity to put his younger son in his place and teach him a lesson? Apparently not.
Instead, just like Rod’s father, the father of the prodigal son “spoke the word of grace in that moment” as he paused just long enough from hugging and kissing his son only to order his servants, “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet…let us eat and celebrate for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” (Luke 15:22-24). The best robe was always given to the guest of honor, the ring was the symbol of authority, and sandals were only worn by children. The younger brother was right: when he got home things would indeed never be the same again, but in the exact opposite way he expected because “the law’s dominion came to an end”, because “grace superseded it.” And his father threw a party to end all parties.
Not too long after hitting these three home run parables Jesus heard the crowd not just grumbling, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them” but chanting something much darker, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” And Jesus was crucified for all the grumblers and all the prodigals of the world, including you. And on Good Friday “the law’s dominion came to an end” because “grace superseded it.”
That is what the gospel is all about, that is what the love of God for you is like… totally unbelievable and yet completely true.