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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Lent 03/10/2013

There was survey done a couple of years ago on Love and Forgiveness in American Society.  The survey found that in some ways we are a very forgiving people.  Of 1000 Americans surveyed 94% thought that forgiveness was important and that there should be more forgiveness in this country.  62% thought they needed more forgiveness in their personal lives.  I think what that means is that those surveyed thought that you needed forgiveness more than they did; 94% thought forgiveness was important; only 62% thought they needed it.  In any case, one of the conclusions of those who did the survey was that there is a near universal desire among Americans for a more loving and unified world.

When pushed further though, things become a little less clear.  Over half of those surveyed said there were some things that they thought should never be forgiven, intentionally committed crimes like child abuse and murder.  There was also the feeling that forgiveness is conditional.  60% said that forgiving someone depended on the offender apologizing and making changes.  So from that I guess you could say that we are in favor of forgiveness, but there are certain exceptions and conditions.  On the one hand we crave forgiveness; on the other hand we’re sometimes not very forgiving.

And then there’s the parable of the Prodigal Son.  You wonder what the response would have been if those surveyed had been asked if they knew the story.  They might have regardless of their level of biblical literacy; it is one of those Bible stories that’s pretty well known.  If those who took the survey knew it though, what did they make of it?  It is one of the more complicated of Jesus’ parables; it can take you in different directions depending on how you read it, where you want to start, what character you identify with.  It definitely is about forgiveness; it may be about other things too, but you could probably call it Jesus’ definitive statement on forgiveness.  But it doesn’t really start there.  Jesus wasn’t asked about forgiveness before he told this parable.

The way Luke packages it, the Prodigal Son is the third of three “lost and found” parables.  The presenting issue though for these three parables has to do with the scribes and Pharisees grumbling about who Jesus was eating with, people identified as tax collectors and sinners; bad people, unclean people.  So the starting point has more to do with who’s in and who’s out, who’s welcome at the table and who isn’t, one of the boundary markers they were trying to get Jesus on.  As was often the case though, Jesus didn’t directly take on the presenting issue.  In typical Jesus style, he tells a story, he creates some images and then he leaves it for his audience to draw their own conclusions.

Jesus tells this story of a dysfunctional family although at first it probably didn’t seem dysfunctional.  The situation he sets up appears to describe a well to do family, engaged in a prosperous operation, a successful and productive farm employing a good number of people, a father and his two sons running the business end of things.  But things aren’t as they seem in this family because the two sons have identity issues.  They were born into enviable positions, richly blessed to be part of this well to do family, due to inherit even more in the long run.  But neither of the sons was satisfied.  In different ways, they both wanted more.

Jesus uses the younger of the two sons as a case study of someone who you don’t much want to forgive.  He had it made but he decided to make a deal with his father; but he blew it, on his own, in a distant land; you know the story.  He wasn’t very likable and he wasn’t very forgivable and in the end he knew it; but recognizing the mess he’d gotten himself into he thought he could make another deal with his father which was evidence that he still didn’t get it.  He was still trying to control the situation on his own even though he had totally messed up his first effort to control things, suffering the consequences of the first deal he made with dad when he asked for his inheritance. 

Now he was trying to make another deal that would, in a sense, still leave him with some control.  Take me back not as your son, but as a hired hand; that’s the plan and it’s one which doesn’t require forgiveness because he’s not asking for things to be as they were.  He was still looking for some control, a situation he could manage, still trying to separate himself from his father, still not ready to go home.  But he was tripped up by grace.  When he got home, actually before he got home, before he could even present his latest deal, his father cut him off.  He cut him off with grace.  With grace there’s no deal to be made because you don’t deserve it and you can’t control it; it’s just grace and so this unlikable, undeserving character by grace becomes the center of a celebration.   

Do you know the younger brother?  I think you do because I think we’ve all been there, messing up, for whatever reason, finding ourselves far from home in a distant land, repentant when we figure out that we’re lost, but still trying to make deals with grace.  Just get me through this one, we say and I’ll, whatever, be in church every Sunday for the rest of my life.  But that’s another way of saying I’ll be a hired hand; I’ll earn my way God.  What the younger brother had to figure out, what we have to figure out is that no one enters the Kingdom of God as a hired hand.  No one enters as a hired hand; we only enter as beloved children.

And then there’s the older brother.  He wasn’t satisfied with being a beloved son either.  He wanted more out of life too, because he deserved it and he knew it.  He struggled with grace because people like him didn’t need it.  He was the good son who did all the right things, he was obedient and loyal, deserving of his blessings because that’s how the world works.  Do good things and good things happen.  You get what you deserve.

Do you know the older brother?  I think you do because on some level we all identify with his philosophy of life.  We hear about grace, but we think, there’s gotta be more to it than that.  What the older brother didn’t realize is that in a different way, he too had distanced himself from the love of his father as much as his prodigal litter brother had done.  He too had distanced himself from home.  In a different way the older brother had made himself a hired hand.  He wasn’t wrong about doing those good things, being obedient and loyal, but he was wrong in thinking that’s what punched his ticket, wrong in thinking that’s what made him a beloved son. 

And there the parable ends.  “This brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”  It’s sometimes said that we don’t really know how it ends for the older brother; we don’t know if he goes in and joins the party.  Jesus usually doesn’t neatly tie things up for us.  But then, we don’t really know about the younger brother either.  Did he accept the grace of his father or despite the forgiveness and the celebration was there still another deal to be made?  Part of the genius of this and many of the parables is that we’re left with these questions because they’re not just about the characters in the story, they’re about us.  Are we beloved children of God or are we hired hands?

Another thing about this parable is that there is no “or else” component to it.  Remember last week with the parable of the fig tree there was grace but there was also that time line, one more year.  In this one though, there’s no apparent timeline.  The grace, the forgiveness seems unconditional.  It doesn’t really say, but you get the idea that for both of the brothers, if they need it, there will be another chance.  Their father isn’t going to reach the point where he says “I’ve had it with you.”

So which one is it?  For me, a central truth is that God’s forgiveness is like that of the father in the Prodigal Son, unconditional, always another chance.  It’s a truth that doesn’t just show up here but is repeated in many ways throughout the Bible.  But Jesus also knows that in our humanity we need to hear an “or else” in that unconditional forgiveness as contradictory as that may seem; but we need it.  For our own good we need to hear an “or else” so that #1 we know that unconditional forgiveness comes at a cost, and #2 so we know there are consequences when, with the younger son, we leave for distant lands.  Running away does have consequences.  So God doesn’t need the “or else” but we do.

Finally, we have to circle back and ask, did Jesus with his lost and found parables address the issue that the scribes and Pharisees were grumbling about as they complained about who he was eating with?  I think he did, but you wonder if they heard it.  They were in the habit of classifying certain people as being lost, never to be found so did the father’s grace register with them?  Does it register with us?  Just as we know the younger brother and the older brother, I think we also know the scribes and the Pharisees.  We’ve got our own categories of lost and never to be found.  But Jesus told them and he tells us that there’s a banquet going on and because of that unconditional forgiveness we all might be surprised at who winds up being the guest of honor.     

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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