Scandalous

Luke 15.11

Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons.”

The Bible is scandalous.

I mean, the first two human characters in it, Adam and Eve, spend most of their time completely naked until they decide to cover themselves with a handful of fig leaves.

The patriarch of the faith, Abraham, passes off his wife as his sister on more than one occasion to save his own behind.

And David, the one who brought down the mighty Goliath, killed 200 Philistine men just to procure their foreskins in order to present them as a dowry so that he could marry the daughter of King Saul.

Scandalous.

And that just three example from the Old Testament.

When Jesus shows up on the scene it gets even crazier.

He eats with all the wrong people, he heals all the wrong people, and he makes promises to all the wrong people. 

For awhile, in the midst of his ministry, he attracts all kinds of people. The good and the bad, the rich and the poor, the holy and the sinful, the first and the last. But at some point the crowds begin to change; they start leaning in a direction we might call undesirable.

All the tax collectors and the sinners were coming near to listen to him. The tax collectors were Jews who profited off of their fellow Jews. They took from the top and made little nest-eggs for themselves while their fellow countrymen suffered under the dictatorial rule of Rome. And the sinners, well, just imagine your favorite sinful behavior and you know who those people were.

And they are the ones gathering near.

Not the respectable Sunday morning crowd we have here at church. Not the folks who sleep comfortably at night knowing their padded bank accounts are safe. Not the people who jockey to the highest positions in the community.

No, Jesus attracts the very people we would repel. 

And the Pharisees and the scribes, the good religious folk, (people like us), they were grumbling among themselves and saying, “This Jesus is bad news. He not only welcomes sinners into his midst, but he has the audacity to eat with them!”

So Jesus told them a story.

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If you don’t know this by now, well then let me tell you yet again, Jesus loves to tell stories. Everywhere he went, among all the different people, with all their different problems, he would bring his hand to his chin and triumphantly declare: “I’ve got a story for that.”

And this story, the one he tells to the grumbling religious authorities, the story that is probably best known among all the parables, is through which the whole of the gospel comes to light. 

It is not an exaggeration to say that this is the most important parable Jesus ever told, and just about every time we retell it, we ruin it.

And it’s scandalous.

Listen: A man had two sons. And one day the younger son gets the bright idea to ask for his inheritance right then and there. He didn’t have the patience to wait for his old man to die before he received his due. And the father, inexplicably, agrees. He splits himself, turns it all over to his boys, he effectively ends his own life so that they can have what they would have had at his death.

To the older son, he gave the family business.

To the younger son, he cashed out his retirement package.

The older son remains at home, taking care of that which was entrusted to him, and the younger son, the one who demanded the inheritance, runs off in a fit of joy with his now deep deep deep pockets.

But it’s only a matter of time before the younger son has squandered his early inheritance. Maybe he blew it at the black jack table, maybe he threw it away in empty bottle after empty bottle, or maybe he spent it on women. Regardless it gets to the point that he is now far worse off than he was before he asked for the money – he steals food out of garbage cans at night, he sleeps under a tarp off in the woods, and he showers in the sinks at gas stations.

And then, one day, he arrives back to himself and realizes that he could return to his father and his brother, that they could give him a job and he could start over. So he begins to practice his confession and contrition: “Dad, I’m so sorry for what I did. I’m no longer worthy to be called your son. Would you please help me?”

He hitch-hikes home, all the while practicing his little speech under his breath, wondering if his father will buy it and welcome him home or slam the door in his face. He even practices making his face look properly repentant to help him with his cause.

The day of his hopeful reunion arrives and he paces around the block worrying about his words when all of the sudden someone tackles him from behind and it takes him a moment to realize that someone is kissing his hair and head and neck.

The younger son rolls his assailant over only to discover that it’s his father, crying profusely, with a giant smile on his face.

The son opens his mouth to begin his practiced speech and his father interrupts him: “I don’t want to hear a word of what you have to say. We need to throw a party.”

And with that the old man grabs his son by the collar yanks him up off the ground, and starts singing at the top his lungs out in the middle of the street. They stop by every convenience store on their way home picking up all the cold beer, ice, and hot dogs they can carry. And by the time they make it to the house a slew of text messages, emails, and tweets have gone out inviting the whole of the neighborhood over to celebrate the lost being found. 

Meanwhile, the older son (remember the older son), he’s out mowing the backyard at his Dad’s house. He’s got sweat dripping everywhere, and his mind is running over the list of all the other stuff he’s supposed to do, when he looks up and sees countless figures moving past the windows inside. And when he turns off the mower he can hear the music bumping and the people singing. 

He quickly makes his way up to the closest window, peers inside, and sees his father with his arms around his good-for-nothing younger brother, and the older son shuffles off it a fit of rage.

Hours pass before the father realizes his other son is missing the party. So he tries to call him, no answer. He tries to text him, no response. It gets to the point that the Dad gets in his car and shows up at his older son’s house and starts banging on the front door.

“Where have you been? You’re missing the party!”

“I’m missing the party? When did you ever throw me a party? I’ve been like a slave for you all these years, taking over your business, driving you to your doctor’s appointments, heck I was even mowing your yard this afternoon, and you’ve never done a thing for me. And yet my brother shows up, and you throw him a party and you invite the whole neighborhood?”

And before he can continue his litany of complaints the father smacks his older son across the face and shouts, “You idiot! I gave you all that you have. And what do you spend all your free time doing? Taking care of an old man like me and I never asked you to do any of that.”

“But Dad…”

“Don’t you interrupt me right now, this is important. All that matters is that your brother is finally alive again. And you, you’re hardly alive at all. The only reason you didn’t come into the party after mowing the lawn is because you refuse to die to all of these dumb expectations that you’ve placed on yourself. We’re all dead and having a great time and you, you’re alive and miserable. So do yourself a favor, son of mine, and just drop dead. Forget about your life and come have fun with us.”

The End.

That’s the whole story right there. 

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And we know what we’re supposed to make of it. 

We know we’ve been like the younger brother, venturing off into the unknown world only to make stupid choices and hope that we will be received in our repentance.

We know we’ve been like the older brother, disgusted with how some people get all the good stuff even though they don’t deserve it.

Or we know we’ve been like the father, praying for a wayward child, or spouse, or family member, or friend to come to their senses and return home.

And just about every time we encounter this story, whether in a sermon, or Sunday school, or even in a book or movie, the same point is made – see yourself in the story and then act accordingly.

But that ruins the story. It ruins the story because it makes the entire thing about us when the entire thing is really about Jesus.

If the story we’re about us then we would hear a fuller ending. We would learn whether or not the elder brother decided to ditch his self-righteousness and join the party. We would discover whether or not the younger brother truly repented and left his foolish life behind forever. We would even discover how the father attempted to reconcile his sons back together.

But Jesus doesn’t give us the ending we might be hoping for. We don’t get to know what happens and to whom because that’s not the point.

Do you see it now? This is about as scandalous as it gets in the Bible because no one gets what they deserve, and the people who don’t deserve anything get everything!

The father loses everything for his sons. He gives up his life simply to meet the demand of his younger son.

The older son loses out on all that he hopes for by doing all of the right things only to never be rewarded for it.

The younger son dies to his ridiculous extravagance and is thrown the party of all parties just for coming home.

In this story, straight from the lips of the Lord, we catch a glimpse of the great scandal of the gospel: Jesus dies for us whether we deserve it or not. Like the younger son we don’t even have to apologize before our heavenly Father is tackling us in the streets of life to shower us with love. Like the older son, we don’t have to do anything to earn an invitation to the great party, save for ditching our snobbery.

This story, whether we like to admit it or not, ends before we want it to. We want to know what happens next, we want to know if the older brother goes into the party. We want to know if the younger brother stays on the right path. We want to see the father relaxing in his lazy boy knowing both of his kids are home.

But the fact that Jesus ends the story without an end shows that what’s most important has already happened. The fatted calf has been sacrificed so that the party can begin. Jesus has already mounted the hard wood of the cross so that we can let our hair down, and take off our shoes, and start dancing.

We were lost and we’ve been found.

That’s the only thing that matters. Amen. 

The Death Of The Party

Luke 15.1-3, 11b

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable: “There was a man who had two sons…”

There was a man that had two sons.

The family business had been good to the family. The little grocery store had been passed down generation after generation. It was a staple in the community and the family knew the names of nearly every customer that walked through the doors. 

The father had been good to his sons as much as any father can. And one day the younger son walked into the shop and back into the office to find his father going over the inventory.

“Dad,” he said, “I want my share of the property right now.”

In other words, “Drop dead.”

The father responds by dividing the assets between his sons. To the elder he gives the property and the responsibility of the family business, and to the younger he cashes in on some investments to give him his half in cash.

Only a few days pass before the younger son has blown all of the money in Atlantic City. At first he was careful with his bets at the roulette wheel, but the more he lost the more he spent, on booze, and girls, and more gambling.

His fall from grace happened so fast that before he left the casino he was begging the owner for some work. 

“Sure,” the owner said, “We’ve got a new opening in our janitorial services and you can start right away.”

Within hours he had gone from being the wealthiest individuals in  he casino, to picking up the trash from the now wealthiest people in the casino.

And with every passing day, and every emptied trash bag, he contemplates pulling the scraps of food from the bottom just to provide some sort of sustenance. He had taken to sleeping outside behind the casino in a place where no one would find him, and he would wash his uniform every morning in the sink of one of the public restrooms. 

And finally he came to himself.

He realized that even his father’s employees back at the grocery store had food to eat and roofs over their heads. 

In the midst of accepting the condition of his condition he starts working on his confession. “Dad, I really messed up. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Please just give me a job at the store.” 

So he packs up the little that he has, and leaves the casino without even picking up his paycheck.

And how does the father respond when this prodigal returns home?

He’s sitting by the window, listening to his older son now barking out orders to everyone in the shop before retiring to the back office, and then the father catches a glimpse of his youngest boy walking down the street. And he reacts in what would seem an unexpected way: he bolts out the door, tackles him into the street, and starts kissing him all over his matted hair.

“Dad,” the boy whispers under the tidal wave of love, “I’ve really messed up, and I’m no longer worthy to be called your son.”

“Shut up,” says the father, “We’re gonna close the shop for the rest of the day and throw a party.” 

He grabs the boy by the collar, picks him up, and starts barking orders to everyone in the store to get everything ready. “Hey Joe, pull out the beer.” “Murph, would you mind locking the front door?” “George, do me a favor, find the nicest rack of lamb we’ve got and start roasting it on the grill out back.” “It’s time to party, for this son of mine was dead and is alive again, he was lost and is found.”

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And the beer caps start flying, the the radio in the corner get turned up to full blast, and everyone starts partying in the middle of the afternoon.

Meanwhile, the older son is sitting in the back office pouring over the time sheets, making sure that none of his employees are trying to swindle him out of some money, and he hears the commotion on the over side of the store. He catches a glimpse of George with beer foam stuck in his mustache running out the back door with what looks like a leg of lamb, and he shouts, “What in the hell is going on?”

George skids to a halt in the hallway, and declares, “It’s your brother, he’s home, and your father told us to party.” And with that he runs out the back door to get the grill going.

The older brother feels his fists tightening and he retreats back into his office and he slams the door.

And with every passing minute, and as his rage increases, the party just gets louder on the other side of the door. The older brother tries to distract himself with the work before him, but he eventually gives into his feelings and throws the ledger across the office and puts a hole in the wall.

And that’s when he hears a knock at the door. 

His dad steps across the threshold, clearly in the early stages of inebriation. He mumbles something like, “What’re you doing back here? You’re missing the party.”

But the older son is incredulous. “What do you mean ‘what am I doing back here?’ I’m doing my job. Look, I’ve been working live a slave for you for years, and I have never missed a day of work. And yet, you’ve never thrown a party for me, you’ve never told me I could go home early. But this prodigal son of yours returns home, having wasted all of your money with gambling and prostitutes, and you’re roasting him a leg of lamb!”

And the father sobers up for a moment while listening to his son lamenting his present circumstances. And maybe its the beer, or maybe it’s just his own frustration that causes him to shout back in return, “You idiot! I gave you all of this. You haven’t been working for me, you’ve been working for yourself. The last I checked you were the one in charge around here.”

The older son stands speechless. In all his years he had never heard his father speak so freely.

And the old man continues, “Remember when your brother told me to give him his inheritance, well I gave you this. And what does your life have to show for all of it? You’re so consumed by the rules, and doing what you think you’re supposed to do, and you’re clinging to something that isn’t real.”

“But Dad…”

“Don’t you ‘But Dad’ me right now. Listen! All that matters is that your brother is finally alive again. And look at yourself – you’re hardly alive at all. Listen to the party that’s bumping in the other room. We’re all dead and having a great time. You, you’re alive and miserable. Keep complaining all you want, but don’t forget that you’re the one who owns this place.”

The father turns to go rejoin the party, but before he crosses the threshold he turns back to look at his older son and says, “The only reason you’re not already out there having a good time with the rest of us is because you refuse to be dead to all of your dumb rules about how you’re life is supposed to be enjoyed. So do yourself a favor, son of mine, and die already. Forget about all your stupid rules and just come and have a drink with us.”

This has to be the most well known story that Jesus tells in the gospels. And, strangely enough, the whole thing is about death. The first death takes place right at the very beginning. The father is asked to effectively commit vocational suicide to give his sons their inheritance prior to his biological death. The second death happens when the prodigal wakes up dead, or rather dead to the life that he once had back home. Reduced to the shame of working for nothing he comes to himself and realizes that whatever life he thought he had is gone forever.

So he returns home to a moment of profound judgment and grace. It is a bizarre reunion, and the son realizes that he really is dead, and that if he is going to have any new life at all it will be through his father who willingly died for his behalf.

Notice, the confession on his lips, the one he planned for, follows forgiveness. Only after being tackled to the ground by his father does he come into contact with the completely unmerited gift of someone who died, in advance, to forgive him.

Confession, at least according to Jesus, is not something we do to earn forgiveness. The best we can ever do is open our eyes to what we already have and then respond with our confession. 

In the church we talk about forgiveness all the time and we do so without recognizing the true weight of our forgiveness. We say things like, “In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven” and it’s true. We are forgiven not only for the sins committed before the confession, but also for a who life of sins yet to come. And this is only possible for one reason: Jesus died for us.

Which leads us to the third death – the fatted calf (or the lamb in my version). This is Jesus Christ himself in his own story. What does a fatted calf do? It sits around waiting to drop dead at a moment’s notice in order that people can have a party. I don’t mean to sound so crass, but this is what Jesus is saying. 

This whole story, the beloved tale of the prodigal son, isn’t about our religious observances, or our spiritual proclivities, or even our bumbling moral claims. It’s about God having a good time and just dying, literally, to share it with us.

But, lest we forget about the older brother, he shows up in the story to show the Father how foolish he is. When in fact, the greatest fool of all is the one who stayed home. He’s the fool because he refuses to die – not literally, but to his crazy sensibilities about the world and about his work. 

He is so convinced, too convinced, that doing all of the right things will be enough to save him. His refrain is “I did everything I was supposed to. I stayed home. I took care of my responsibilities. I planned accordingly. I was perfect.” And yet his life is anything but perfect. And he cannot stand the idea of his father throwing a party for his brother who deserves nothing.

But we all deserve nothing. 

Grace is a crazy thing. Jesus tells this story and whenever we hear it we are quick to read ourselves into the story. We can think of times when we’ve been the prodigal, and we made bad choices. We can think of times when we’ve been the Father, waiting to receive the one asking for our forgiveness. We can even think of times when we’ve been the older son and we’re just so angry that someone else gets something for nothing.

But this story is really about the party and the craziness of grace. The party is already happening. Jesus has already marched to the top of Calvary. We were dead, but now we’re alive. We were lost but then God found us. 

And the best part is none of us deserve it. Amen.

 

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The Difference That Makes The Difference

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Grace Han about the readings for the Fourth Sunday of Lent [C] (Joshua 5.9-12, Psalm 32, 2 Corinthians 5.16-21, Luke 15.1-3, 11b-32). Grace is the pastor of Trinity UMC in Alexandria, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the burden of pastoral responsibility, the connection between fear and disgrace, permission to move on, the spiderweb of the Bible, counter-cultural humility, unpacking reconciliation, and living the prodigal life. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Difference That Makes The Difference

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