There are so many things we could talk about today with this familiar text. Even if you aren’t the world’s greatest Biblical scholar, when someone says “the prodigal son” you have an idea of what it means. The phrase “prodigal son” has even infiltrated our world and become so common even those who aren’t Christian probably know what it means. When LeBron James returned to Cleveland after playing in Miami for a few years, it was declared that the prodigal son was returning. When Brett Favre talked about coming out of retirement, it was thought that the prodigal son would return…and then he went to Minnesota. Hollywood loves the prodigal son story and has interpreted it many times. My favorite movie is a twist on the prodigal son story by making it the prodigal daughter: the Wizard of Oz.
If you have siblings or are around children enough, perhaps you can semi-relate to this story as well. The only thing our reading is missing today is the older brother whining and saying “but! but! That’s not fair!!” In a way he kind of does, but the father pays no attention to the older son. I think we could probably all think of a time when we have been the older child, upset at what others are getting, disturbed that we’ve put in a lot of work and time and yet someone else gets a celebration. On the flip side, however, I think we can all probably also think of a time when we’ve been the younger child, receiving more than we ever thought possible, being loved beyond our imagination, and having something given to us that we hardly deserve.
I think it’s interesting how this reading starts out today. The Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling. Grumbling!! And why were they grumbling? Because Jesus welcomed sinners. Not only that, but he ate with them! (Cue crowd gasps) Boy that Jesus has some nerve. Remember the Pharisees were still looking for reasons to arrest Jesus and put him on trial. Hanging out and eating with sinners was a pretty good one. And instead of explaining himself, Jesus tells a parable. Did the Pharisees understand it? Did anyone who was gathered there understand it? Who knows? In fact, had the Pharisees understood it, it might have actually angered them further.
It would be easy for me to say that this parable is about God’s grace and just leave it at that. But, it’s never that simple, is it? I think we often talk about God’s grace (which is a good thing) but when it comes to explaining God’s grace, we stumble a bit. We go to explain grace and we usually sound something like this “well….God’s grace is…. well, you know, grace….” Grace is just one of those things that we know it when we feel it and when we experience it. I also think we can pinpoint times in our lives when we were hungry for grace, maybe we even prayed for it. But here’s the thing about God’s grace: it should heal us, it should feed us, and it should convict us. In a way, grace should really make us mad. God’s grace doesn’t work like we think it should. Grace doesn’t work like the world works. You can’t earn grace. You can’t buy grace. You certainly always get more than you ever need and more than you ever deserve. And if you take the focus away from the grace we receive, and instead think about the grace others receive, that’s where it gets really offensive.
The older son didn’t think that his brother should get such a welcome home. The reaction the older son had is the one most of us probably have (whether we know it or not) when we see other people receiving God’s grace that we know good and well don’t deserve it. It makes no sense to us because we live in an eye-for-an-eye society. When people screw up, we want them to pay; that is, unless it is us that screws up and then we want mercy and grace. The temptation to dictate who does and does not receive God’s grace is very real. Perhaps the fear is that when it’s time for you to receive grace, there won’t be enough. Or maybe the fear is that God will change God’s mind and your grace will go to someone else. When I say it out loud like that it sounds illogical. But the fear that there will come a time when we’ve done something that even God will give up on us is very real.
God is very much like the father figure in our parable today. God loves us when we are devout, praying, fasting, giving, volunteering, and working hard in the name of God. But, God loves us when we run away from God, trying to do it all on our own. And the offensive thing about this scenario is that God loves us all the same. Think about that for a moment. God loves you as much as God loves the person you despise the most. Now, if that doesn’t hurt your brain, how about this? God loves Donald as much as he loves Hillary. God loves Ted and Marco as much as he loves Bernie. And then that same love is shown to you. Now, that’s offensive.
God’s grace is endless and plentiful. It may not look like you want it to look like, and honestly, that’s a good thing. Sometimes we’re the loyal older son who does everything God wants us to, and we receive God’s love and grace. Sometimes we’re the younger son who runs from God, only to repent and to return. And we receive God’s love and grace. No matter how many times we get lost and are found again, God’s grace is always and forever for us. No matter what arguments we may make for others not receiving grace, God will never listen. And when you think about it, that’s a good thing. Because there is most likely someone in this world that believes you shouldn’t receive God’s grace. And yet you do anyway. Prodigal or not, God welcomes us back time after time after time. God is anxious to love us and shower us with grace. God desires for us to confess and be forgiven. So what if someone else gets God’s grace? The fact that you have received God’s grace is a miracle enough. Just be offended by the grace you have received and call it good.
None of us deserve it. We all receive it. It never runs out. If that’s not amazing grace, I don’t know what is.