By Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
St. Stephen Presbyterian Church
March 31, 2019
Luke 15: 1-3, 11-32
I suppose most of us have at some level followed the recent story about Jussie Smollett, the actor on the TV show Empire who claimed he was attacked by two MAGA hat-wearing white men who shouted anti-black and anti-gay obscenities as they beat him. Smollett is African American and gay, and this reported beating seemed to encapsulate the tensions dividing the United States today.
But then the Chicago police started investigating. And they determined that Smollett was attacked not by white men but two African American men Smollett had hired to do the job. He was in a contract dispute with the studio and he thought the attack would turn public sympathy his way and force the producers to give him a more lucrative contract. There was completely justified outrage. Police and city employee time spent investigating a false claim! The cynical manipulation of the very real problems faced by people of color and LGBT persons! The police chief and Mayor Rahm Emmanuel fuming that Smollett has “dragged Chicago’s name through the mud.”
But the story wasn’t over yet. Friday, out of the blue, The Cook County prosecutor’s office, with no warning and no apparent reason, dropped the charges against Jussie Smollett. More outrage! The police chief and Mayor Emmanuel found out about it by hearing it on the news. You can literally see the steam rising out of their ears in press conferences. Jussie Smollett doesn’t even admit that he did wrong; he still says he didn’t do it, even though the Cook County prosecutors are clear that they think he did it. Black Lives Matters and LGBT advocates are feeling used, their very serious causes turned into a joke. And most normal citizens look at the whole thing and think: If I’d done that, or even just a little bit of that, I would never be let off that easy. But that’s the way it is with celebrities. They can beat the system. You and I can’t.
If that’s the way you’re feeling, then you should feel just as outraged that the father in Jesus’ parable today so graciously welcomes the prodigal back. Frankly, it is at least as outrageous. The elder son is right in being furious. He is absolutely right in pointing out this younger son has dragged the family’s name through the mud. He’s absolutely right if he thinks the son is engaged in some sort of cynical manipulation of his dad. After all, there’s no real reason to believe the son is even repentant; the only thing we can be sure of is that he’d have starved to death if he didn’t return home.
And the elder son is absolutely right that it is completely unjust and unfair that the prodigal son gets a party while the hard-working son never gets a party. He’s right if he thinks, my selfish little brother always knows how to beat the system. He can get away with stuff I could never get away with.
What we see in the story of the Prodigal Son is what preacher Fred Craddock called “the offense of grace.” Grace is a gift freely given with no strings attached and with no requirements. That’s exactly how the father in this story behaves. The Prodigal Son has insulted him and also manipulated him by taking his share of the inheritance. The Prodigal son has squandered all that he had in riotous living. The Prodigal Son returns without even repenting but with a speech that says a lot of the right things with no real meaning behind them. And yet the father receives him with open arms and not only that, but a wild party to boot. If you were the elder brother, you’d be furious too. After all, if we’re going to take him back, let’s make some conditions first. Maybe he has to work as a servant for a year. Maybe he has to pay rent for his room. Maybe he needs to go through a treatment program. But whatever you do, don’t throw a big party for him—and not only that, don’t leave me out in the field, slaving away, without even inviting me to the party!
It is traditional to understand that the Father in the parable is really God, and his behavior somehow represents God’s behavior. So to be clear, I am not saying the Cook County Prosecutor’s Office is just like God. Furthermore, no parable is a whole picture of God. It’s an exaggerated story meant to make a particular point. There are plenty of other parables that emphasize God’s justice. But in this parable, Jesus wants us to understand God’s grace, and so we must understand that God’s grace is just as radical, just as unconditional, and just as offensive as the prosecutor’s decision to drop charges against Jussie Smollett. That is Jesus’ point, and it’s earth-shaking. God’s grace is THAT radical. And that troubling.
The elder brother in a lot of ways represents you and me and anyone who hears this disturbing word from Jesus. His complaint is that justice has not been done. The Prodigal Son should not get off that easy. It makes a joke of justice and fairness. And the elder brother likewise feels treated unfairly. My no-good brother gets all these benefits and I am ignored, taken for granted, even though I’m trying to do everything right.
These are issues we see as very alive in our own national conversation right now. If you are a person of color or a woman, you might feel frustrated that white men get privileges and advantages that you feel are denied you or that you have to work three times as hard to get. If you work hard for what you earn, like the elder brother, you may feel that non-working people are having their laziness subsidized by your tax dollars through the social safety net. One group doesn’t see how Hillary got off the hook; another group can’t believe President Trump is off the hook. All of us are outraged when someone gets an advantage we don’t think they deserve. It looks like injustice and unfairness. But that is exactly what God’s grace is: it is God giving people an advantage that they don’t deserve.
But that is exactly what God’s grace is: it is God giving people an advantage that they don’t deserve.
And thank heaven for it, because you and I need grace.
Grace is complicated and confusing, frankly especially for us Christians, because we also believe in repentance and forgiveness. We take it for granted that repentance has to precede forgiveness. We have to be sorry for our sins before we can be forgiven. But to make repentance a pre-condition means that we aren’t talking about grace anymore, we’re talking about something else. Grace has no preconditions. And thank heaven for it, because you and I need grace.
Think about it: often when we pray the prayer of confession in worship, we ask forgiveness not only for the sins we know we have committed, but for those we don’t know we have committed. And there are lots of sins that fit that category. I suspect all of us can look back on behavior from years ago, that at the time we thought was fine, but which we now realize was sinful, and we’re ashamed of it and determined not to do it again. If there wasn’t grace, we couldn’t be forgiven for the sins we don’t even know we’ve committed. How can you confess a sin if you don’t know what it is? How can you repent of it? If it wasn’t for grace, we’d be in trouble.
God’s grace is an offense. Because of grace, it is very likely that when the Kingdom of Heaven arrives, we’ll discover there are a lot of people who are there who we would never think belonged there. But likewise, it need be pointed out, there are many people who will see you and me there and think, well, that’s the last person I expected to see here! So you see, grace is an equal-opportunity offender.
Grace makes God look like a soft touch. It makes God look co-dependent. You know what I mean by co-dependent: it makes it look like God foolishly and blindly will do anything for us, as if God is needy and desperate. We’ve all been told co-dependence is a bad thing, that it facilitates bad behavior. And it’s true: a battered spouse who keeps welcoming back her abuser is not doing herself, her children, or her spouse any favors. A family that tries to ignore or play down a family member’s drug abuse or alcoholism is not only facilitating that disease but very likely has organized itself entirely around the disease; at every level, their loved one’s addiction drives every decision. Co-dependence is a bad thing.
But I know, and you know, plenty of families who have to figure out how to negotiate these difficult problems. How to strike the balance between loving someone and not facilitating their bad behavior. A friend of mine from college and her eldest brother have tried for years to figure out how to get their younger brother off his life-long self-destructive path. These are smart people who know all about co-dependence but what it finally comes down to is, he’s still their brother and they still love him. In the past, they’ve done a lot of “tough love,” separating themselves from him for their own health, as often we must do; but things have changed recently. Now they think his alcoholism is in a downward spiral that will soon result in his death. She and her brother are just trying to do the best they can to make his last days comfortable and, I suspect, to let him know even to the end, and in spite of everything, that he is loved. Their brother is lost, but they are trying to insure that he knows he still has a home in his family’s love. They want him to know, as best as its possible, that he is found.
The father tells his offended elder son that “Your brother who was dead is now alive; your brother who was lost is now found.” It is the younger son’s lostness that seems to be the larger issue in the father’s eyes. While he was wandering around spending all his money on profligate living and then living in poverty eating pig food, the prodigal was lost. He was lost because he he’d rejected his base, his home, his safe harbor, when he’d rejected his family and went on his own way. The bigger issue for the father was not whether the boy was truly sorry for what he did; it wasn’t whether it was fair or not. What mattered to the father was that the boy was lost, and now he was found; he was found because he’d returned to his base, his home, his safe harbor.
As a parent I can relate to this. As I’ve gotten older and raised two kids to adulthood, I’ve come to realize more and more that there were a lot of things I wanted for my kids—a lot of things I expected of them and might still expect—and a lot of ways things haven’t turned out like I planned. They are going their own ways. But the one thing their mother and I hope is that no matter where life takes them, they know where their home is–that they know that their parents are their base and their safe haven. As long as they know that, I feel like they’ll never be lost.
And God is like that about us—there are a lot of things that God doesn’t want for us, and there are a lot of things that God expects better of us than what we do; but the thing that most matters is that God doesn’t want us lost. Whether we are the runaway child or the stay at home child, we always need to know that our home is with God—and that if we are lost, nothing matters more to God than that we are found again.
There is a final piece to the puzzle. The elder son needs to come home, too. As long as he holds a grudge, he’s as lost as his brother was. He needs to come to the party, because without him, the redemption of the lost son will never be complete. The father is gracious but the elder brother is just and hard-working. There has to be a balance; the younger son will only continue to take advantage of the father without the intervention of his elder brother; and the whole family will be lost if both sons aren’t a part of it. We Christians know we’re saved by grace but we also know, or should know, that if we aren’t striving to live lives of justice, kindness, and mercy, then really we’re just freeloading off of God. We are still lost. WE not only need to know where home is; we have to do better, to be better people. That’s the role of the elder brother. The elder brother has to show us the way.
A lot of the big issues we struggle with today have to do with the proper balance of grace and justice and fairness. That makes them hard to solve. We want to be gracious and welcoming to immigrants and refugees, but to unconditionally welcome is dangerous and unfair. On the one hand a lot of people believe that unlimited and unrestricted access to guns is a right; and on the other hand the problem of gun crime has reached epidemic proportions and something has to be done. We want to provide health care to everyone, but the potential tax burden it could create seems unfair to many. And so we look at these things all too often as “either/or” propositions. Either individual freedom OR communal responsibility. Either a social safety net OR tax freedom. Either fairness to the working person OR a handout to the poor.
But this parable isn’t about either/or, it’s about both/and. It’s the prodigal AND the elder brother. It’s the rich AND the poor. It’s a generous immigration policy AND strong borders. It’s republicans AND democrats. It’s gay AND straight. It’s Christians AND Muslims AND Jews. It’s grace AND justice.
It’s you AND me AND everyone else. With God as our home base.