Well, I have done it again. I was reflecting on the gospel lection for Sunday and I jumped ahead in the chapter. The gospel for Sunday was Luke 15:1-10. The shepherd finds the lost sheep, and comes home shouting, “Rejoice with me, my lost sheep has been found.” The woman cries to her neighbors, “Come rejoice with me, the lost coin has been found.” These are great stories.
There is enough of God’s grace for me, you, and everyone we know. Besides, the remainder of the chapter, verses 11-32, the story of the Prodigal Son, was dealt with in Lent.
But, no. I jumped to the story that was not the focus of the week. And I know why.
Relating Scripture to Daily Life
Over my years of ministry, I developed a pattern of relating what I am learning from the scripture to the life and events of the community and the world around me. I jumped to the Prodigal Son, the lost child, because I believe it speaks directly to what is happening in the United Methodist Church and in our country today.
I see the father, as the authority, and I see the oldest son, as good and righteous, in the current events of our country. On the national scene, we are over a year away from the General Election. The political ads are swirling. The rhetoric about which party is better and who knows best for the country has begun. There are discussions over who is “godly” and who is not. In the midst of figuring out health care, immigration, climate change, gun control, nuclear weapons, and vaping, we continue to attempt to use our politics as our faith. We want the world to be more predictable. We think we have the power to control the outcomes. What we have yet to realize is, we do not have the authority.
Jesus Challenges Us
It is the same in the church. We have worked hard to be faithful to God and we want a little respect. So, what happens? Instead of allowing our issues and politics to be shaped by our faith, we try to use our righteousness to get what we want. I have learned that God’s ways often make the world a surprising and sometimes confusing place in which to live. Jesus challenges our self-satisfied assumptions.
God’s gracious generosity, when it cuts through my little moral equations, does not make me grateful. I usually grumble. When you receive grace, I grumble. When I receive grace, I assume that I have earned it. Either way, grace is utterly beyond my human powers of comprehension.
It is always a shocker.
God’s grace is so surprising, so amazing, so beyond our comprehension and appropriation that it is exasperating. We either have a story of a generous God or grumbling humanity. I don’t like being thrown off balance. Give me a faith I can control.
A Party that Upsets People
So, Luke tells a story about a troubled family in which a younger son, after leaving home and spending the family fortune, returns home in rags and smelling of the cheap perfume. His waiting father receives him with joy. The father announces, “Let the party begin.” But the older brother, working for the father, refuses to go to the party. I don’t think that he is upset that his father is welcoming his younger brother back home. I think it is the party that upsets him. It was not inappropriate to welcome home a wayward child. But it was inappropriate to throw a party.
Out of love for his oldest son, the father comes out into the darkness and pleads with him to come in and enjoy the party. But, he can’t convince the boy to come in. His refusal to join the party is a problem, but it is not the major problem.
Luke 15:32 Grumbling Grace Transforming Mission" width="702" height="1053" srcset="https://www.transformingmission.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/Grumbling-Grace5.jpg 735w, https://www.transformingmission.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/Grumbling-Grace5-200x300.jpg 200w, https://www.transformingmission.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/Grumbling-Grace5-687x1030.jpg 687w, https://www.transformingmission.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/Grumbling-Grace5-133x200.jpg 133w, https://www.transformingmission.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/Grumbling-Grace5-470x705.jpg 470w" sizes="(max-width: 702px) 100vw, 702px">With Whom Do You Identify
Over the years, in Bible studies, I have asked people to identify with characters in the story. Some have identified with the Father. They see themselves as people of grace. They reach out to the lost, the lonely, and the marginalized. In this story we have the father saying, “Come party with me. My son who was lost is now found. He was dead, but now is alive.”
That’s extravagant grace.
A few people identified with the older son. I usually had to put the story in context to help them see their place in the story. He represented the righteous people of the day. He had dutifully served his father over the years without complaint. All he wanted was to be taken seriously and to be recognized for what he had to offer.
Tim Keller writes, “To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial. To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. But to be fully known and truly loved is like being loved by God.”
All the older son had to do was accept that his relationship with the father was of grace and not the result of his life-long devotion. He would have overcome his hurt feelings and joined the party. When the son hears the words, “what is mine is yours,” he is receiving a genuine invitation. With that in mind, only his arrogance kept him away from the party.
Most people identified with the younger son. He is the hero after all. Being welcomed by the father was an expression of extravagant grace. The one who was once lost has been found. One who was dead is now alive. The one who was a stranger is welcomed home as a child of the father. Who among us does not want that kind of love and acceptance?
The Shock of Grace
So, here is the problem. In our day, the story has taken a sad and unexpected turn. I don’t think Luke could have imagined what happened to his story.
The younger brother lost his repentant and contrite spirit. He grew to expect his father’s grace, so the shock of his gracious reception wore off.
Because the party was all about him, he came to resent his older brother’s failure to be a part at his homecoming. He forgot how blessed he was to be in his father’s house and began to scheme against his brother. So, he bolted the door and locked his older brother out of the house. Now the party, which had been a celebration for the reception of a stranger, is a victory bash of arrogance.
The younger brother has the whole house to himself. But what he has yet to realize is, by locking out his brother he has also locked out his loving father.
O God, have mercy upon us. Forgive our arrogance. Help us to get over our grumbling about your grace so we can party with the best of your creation. We pray in the name of Jesus. Amen