The scandal of grace
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Yesterday we had our Future Focus Vision Day, the latest element of a process which has been going on for the last few months. We are starting to discover the priorities for our life together, and create a new vision of what kind of congregation we should be. Above all, we are seeking ways to bring the Good News of God’s love in Christ to the world we live in.
This is hard, and not just because we have not been very good at it recently. It’s hard because so many people are strangers to the Christian message. If you watched the news over the past few weeks, you may well have heard a lot about religion, one way or another. But sadly what you would mostly have heard about was scandal, shame and cover-up. From watching the news in the last few weeks, you’d think Christianity was about tired, out-of-touch old men totally failing to live up to impossible- and perhaps even unhealthy- ideals. Who wants to be part of that? Who wants to take notice of the Church if it is so hypocritical, disfunctional and so out of touch? Who wants to know about Christianity is it is only about sin, guilt, and shame? All the bad news might have been about one particular denomination in Scotland, the Roman Catholic Church. But it affects the rest of us, it’s been bad for the rest of us. And if you think the Roman Catholic Church is getting bad publicity about how it copes with sexuality… wait until May, when our own General Assembly has to deal with yet another report about homosexuality.
In such an atmosphere, what can we do? Churches in this country certainly do face major challenges- changing social attitudes, an increasing disdain for religion of any kind, less respect for any insitution which tries to speak with some sort of authority. The old ways of being religious are in crisis. But so is our culture in crisis. About a week ago, just as the scandal about Cardinal O’Brien was exposing the problems his Church has had with sexuality, I happened to hear a bit of a programme on the car radio. It was BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour- not my usual listening. They were discussing the state of feminism, and contributors were bewailing the fact that girls and young women were growing up in what they called a ‘sexualized’ culture, which basically told them that unless they could be sexy- that is, alluring to men- they wouldn’t get on in life. You see, the ‘modern’, secular world hasn’t got to grip with sex either (although it likes to pretend it has). Uacceptable sexual behaviour doesn’t just happen in the Church- it happens in supposedly modern organisations, like the BBC or Liberal Democrats. We are all in crisis.
But where is the Church in all this? Instead of equipping us to better cope with all the changes of the 21st century, some Christians seem to want to take us back to the Middle Ages. Too often, the Church’s public spokesmen (and they are usually, and anachronistically, men) seem to enjoy just criticising and condemning whatever muddle the world has got itself into. We are seen to be big on criticism, but short on ideas, happy to condemn, but not very gracious.
I think that we need to get back to our stories. Stories that speak of sin and guilt, certainly. But stories which also speak of grace and forgiveness. After all, that’s what Jesus did!
One day when many tax collectors and other outcasts came to listen to Jesus, the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law started grumbling, “This man welcomes outcasts and even eats with them!” So Jesus told them this parable:
But before we get to our story- notice that Luke the Gospel writer makes this story Jesus’ reply to a particular situation. Tax collectors and outcasts are coming to hear Jesus. Nowadays someone working in the tax office might not be very popular, but it’s a respectable enough job. The tax collectors of Jesus’ day were lumped in with outcasts because that’s what they were. The collected tax on behalf of the Roman occupation forces, and enriched themselves through corrupt practices. They were not respectable people- in fact, they were hated and feared. But something about Jesus attracted them.
I often think that the biggest problem the Church has is that we are always trying to be respectable. But if Jesus was truly at the heart of the Church, I think we would attract a much more unruly mob of people- the tax collectors and outcasts of today. And as happened in Jesus’ day, we would then attract the scorn of the respectable, the sort of people who think religion belongs to them. If you find that the modern equivalent of the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law are grumbling about your Church, that might mean that your Church is actually authentically Christian! Because thats’ what happened to Jesus.
So, Jesus tells a story. Remember that he is telling it within earshot of a very varied audience. In fact, in Luke there are three parables. Jesus tells them the tale of a shepherd who went searching for one lost sheep. He tells them the tale of a woman who hunts high and low in her house until she finds a lost coin. For those who are treated as ‘outcasts’ this already sounds like good news. But now he will tell a story which really speaks of guilt and sin:
“There was once a man who had two sons. The younger one said to him, ‘Father, give me my share of the property now.’ So the man divided his property between his two sons. After a few days the younger son sold his part of the property and left home with the money. He went to a country far away, where he wasted his money in reckless living. He spent everything he had. Then a severe famine spread over that country, and he was left without a thing. So he went to work for one of the citizens of that country, who sent him out to his farm to take care of the pigs. He wished he could fill himself with the bean pods the pigs ate, but no one gave him anything to eat. At last he came to his senses and said, ‘All my father’s hired workers have more than they can eat, and here I am about to starve! I will get up and go to my father and say, “Father, I have sinned against God and against you. I am no longer fit to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired workers.” So he got up and started back to his father.
This is the story of a boy who had everything, and who threw it all away. He starts at the top of society- the son of a rich farmer. He’s allowed to take his share of his father’s wealth. He travels the world and spends it on loose living, hedonistic pleasure seeking with no thought of tomorrow. Later we will hear that some of the money went on prostitutes. It is hard to have any sympathy with this young man… until, perhaps, we hear of what happens to him. He does well in the boom years, but fails when the famine comes. Once he had never had to earn his living- now he has to find work, anything, however menial, in order to survive. Once he was part of a family which enjoyed all kinds of good things, for they owned the farm- he didn’t need to work. But now he’s become one of the farmhands, and so hungry he wishes he could eat the animal feed. And did you notice what kind of animals they were? He’s looking after pigs- the ultimate humiliation for a Jew.
As I say, it’s hard to have much sympathy for this young man, except that we might feel sorry to see him fall so far. But perhaps what we really need to do is to see something of ourselves in him. For some people- the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law- that might be quite hard. There are people who just cannot accept the Bible’s view of human nature- that we are all flawed, that we have all made mistakes, that we have all fallen into the pig sty. For such people, the problem with Christianity is not that the don’t believe in Jesus or God. It is that they don’t believe in sin. Or rather, they cannot- will not- believe that they are sinners. The language of the Psalm we read earlier makes not sense to them:
Happy are those whose sins are forgiven,
whose wrongs are pardoned…
I confessed my sins to you;
I did not conceal my wrongdoings.
I decided to confess them to you,
and you forgave all my sins. (Psalm 32.1,5-6)
… they don’t believe they have any sins needing to be forgiven. Sinners, they think, are other people. But if we are really honest, we will say: yes, there is something of me in the tale of the lost son. I’ve taken wrong turnings, done wrong things. I do have things I need forgiven for. I am far from perfect.
And then, the young man in the story at last does something right. He sees a way out of his mess, a way out of the pig sty which his life has become. ‘I will get up and go to my Father’. But it’s not a very heroic thing to do. It’s the obvious thing, almost selfish thing to do. I am my father’s son- if I admit I was wrong, surely the old man will still help me out? It’s a calculated move: ‘All my father’s hired workers have more than they can eat, and here I am about to starve!’ He does not deserve his Father’s sympathy, and not just because he spent all his money on the way down. You could argue that his self-rescue plan is also really quite mercenary. The last thing the son deserves is a warm welcome.
“He was still a long way from home when his father saw him; his heart was filled with pity, and he ran, threw his arms around his son, and kissed him. ‘Father,’ the son said, ‘I have sinned against God and against you. I am no longer fit to be called your son.’ But the father called to his servants. ‘Hurry!’ he said. ‘Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and shoes on his feet. Then go and get the prize calf and kill it, and let us celebrate with a feast! For this son of mine was dead, but now he is alive; he was lost, but now he has been found.’ And so the feasting began.
The last thing the son deserved was a warm welcome. But a warm welcome is what he got. He’s still a long way from home when the father sees him- has the father always been looking out for him ever since he left. It’s the father who runs to the son, and throws his arms around him, and kisses him. And now, at last, the boy’s attitude seems to change. He finally confesses- to himself, to his father, to God- that he is in the wrong, and that he really cannot expect any favours from the father: “‘Father,’ the son said, ‘I have sinned against God and against you. I am no longer fit to be called your son.'” In the emotion of the moment he doesn’t even get to the bit where he offers to work as a hired hand for his father. For the father is so delighted to get his son back that he immediately treats him as his son again. Father calls for the best robe, and ring for his finger, shoes for his feet- and prize calf to be killed for the celebratory feast.
It does not matter any more to the father that his son turned his back on him. It does not matter that he squandered his inheritance. It does not matter that the boy disgraced the family name. It does not matter that he ended up a pig keeper. It does not matter that he came back and presumed upon the father’s good will. Only one thing matters, and it is the reason for the feast: “‘For this son of mine was dead, but now he is alive; he was lost, but now he has been found.’ And so the feasting began”.
And there it could easily end, happily ever after (and when we tell the tale to children, that’s a good place to end). Because what happens next is a bit more complicated. I am suggesting that some of those who heard this story would identify with the lost son. For them, for it to end there is wonderful. For if they identify with the lost son in the story, they can see that the father in the story represents God. Jesus tells a rich, colourful human story here. If you go to the far country, if you live recklessly, that will have dire consequences (you could end up as a starving pig keeper!). Jesus does not disguise the reality and the results of sin. And it’s about guilt and mixed motives. The boy realises he is in a bad way, and at first he’s a bit like the philosopher who, on his death bed, remarked, ‘Of course God will forgive me- that’s his job’. But when he sees his father running down the road towards him, and feels himself embraced in his father’s arms- once he experiences undeserved, unmerited grace- then he knows just how unworthy he really is, at the same moment as his father is calling for the robe and the ring and the shoes for his feet.
But now we meet another character. We have to meet him for the sake of the other people in the audience, the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law whose grumblings were the reason for this parable, for if the younger son represented the outcasts, the older brother represents them:
“In the meantime the older son was out in the field. On his way back, when he came close to the house, he heard the music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him, ‘What’s going on?’ ‘Your brother has come back home,’ the servant answered, ‘and your father has killed the prize calf, because he got him back safe and sound.’ The older brother was so angry that he would not go into the house; so his father came out and begged him to come in. But he spoke back to his father, ‘Look, all these years I have worked for you like a slave, and I have never disobeyed your orders. What have you given me? Not even a goat for me to have a feast with my friends! But this son of yours wasted all your property on prostitutes, and when he comes back home, you kill the prize calf for him!’ ‘My son,’ the father answered, ‘you are always here with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be happy, because your brother was dead, but now he is alive; he was lost, but now he has been found.'”
To the older son, the father can only give, once more, the reason he already gave for the feasting. And he says, not that his son was dead and lost, but ‘your brother was dead, but now he is alive; he was lost, but now he has been found’. And that is the answer Jesus gives to those who are scandalized by his message- that God’s grace and forgiveness is open to anyone, that anyone who turns back to God can expect a warm welcome. We can absolutely understand the anger of the older brother, but our sympathies are with the father, as he tries to persuade the older brother to let go of his resentment, his judgementalism, and come into the house and join the family celebration. Jesus wants the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law, he wants those who have always been faithful, to celebrate whenever a lost younger son returns from the far country.
I happen to think that the Bible’s analysis of human nature is very penetrating. We are all born with the possibility of goodness (for we are made in God’s image). But we make wrong decisions, and are tempted to take the wrong road into a far away country. And when we do that, disaster will follow. And whether we admit it to anyone- or even to ourselves- we end up with a burden of shame and disgrace. But if we can get up and go and admit we were wrong, we will be overwhelmed by the free grace of our loving Father. Here is a message for today, for we still are grappling with guilt and shame- what Christianity calls sin. When the church is tempted to speak of guilt and shame sin only, we have not yet spoke about the Gospel. To our confused and confusing world, we need to speak above all of grace. That is scandalous, and it is dangerous, and it will cause a lot of grumbling. But it is what Jesus did.
Ascription of Praise
To God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins, to rescue us out of the present wicked age as our God and Father willed; to him be glory for ever and ever! Amen. (from Galatians 1.4)
Biblical references from the Good News Bible
© 2013 Peter W Nimmo