Lent 4C Sermon (2013)

4th Sunday in Lent
Texts: Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32;
2 Corinthians 5:16-21

THE PARABLE OF A FATHER RECONCILING ESTRANGED SONS

The Holy Gospel according to Luke, the 15th chapter. Glory to you, O Lord. You may be seated.

Before reading today’s Gospel, I’d like for us to imagine the setting. Six weeks ago we heard Luke’s story of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in his hometown Nazareth. He reads from the scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue on the Sabbath — ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim God’s Jubilee Year’ — and Jesus concludes, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Luke begins by giving us the picture that the Hebrew Scriptures were behind Jesus’ ministry and teaching, so let’s take that cue today, as well. Imagine that Jesus has gone to the synagogue on the Sabbath and that the assigned reading from Torah that day was Deuteronomy 21, verses 15-23. That entire text is on a this morning’s handout. It has three parts — here’s a quick summary:

Part 1: On Inheritance Disputes When There’s More Than One Wife — like Jacob who had six older sons with his less-favored wife Leah, and his youngest two sons with Rachel, his most-loved wife.

Part 2: On Stoning to Death Rebellious Sons. (Should the Prodigal Son receive this punishment in the parable we are about to hear?)

Part 3: On Quickly Burying Hanged Criminals, God’s Accursed. (Do we think of Jesus himself as one hanged on a tree?)

Let’s imagine that Jesus, sitting alongside serious religious folks like Pharisees and scribes, has just heard this passage read in the synagogue. As they leave the synagogue, Jesus’ usual followers — known sinners and tax collectors who are not allowed into the synagogue because they were considered unclean — besiege him. The religious folks grumble, visibly annoyed. So Jesus begins to tell parables: one about a shepherd who leaves 99 sheep to look for one lost sheep and then throws a party when he finds it; and another about a woman with 10 coins turning her house upside-down to find one lost coin and then probably spending half her money to throw a party when she finds it. Now with this Sabbath Day picture in mind, listen as Jesus also tells them this parable:

[Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 is read.]

You may have caught in your notes (the handout in the bulletins) that I named this sermon, “The Parable of a Father Reconciling Estranged Sons.” That’s what I think Jesus was doing, both in telling this parable and also in his ministry as a whole. He’s proclaiming that God’s kingdom, God’s Household, is coming into the world, and the biggest goal of that coming household is to reconcile all of God’s children. Imagine again Jesus telling this parable. He is surrounded by two groups of people: (1) the religious folks who are obedient to the society’s rules and successful at it (no surprise, since many of them are in control of making and policing the rules); and (2) the other folks who are less proficient at, or break, the rules. They are generally seen as the marginalized or outsiders. Luke tells us they are “sinners and tax collectors.” And in his inaugural speech from Isaiah 61, Jesus tells us they are the poor, the captive, the blind, and the oppressed. And today, Jesus tells us they are members of God’s household. They, too, are sons and daughters of God.

But this causes a big problem for the successful types, who aren’t so sure they want to be part of God’s household if it means treating these outcasts as sisters and brothers. If they’re forced to, then at the very most they’ll consider them estranged brothers and sisters. And if God throws a party for the outcasts, then they aren’t so sure they want to attend. Who wants to be at a party with a bunch of losers? Obedient elder brothers don’t want to hang out with disobedient younger siblings.

Who are we in this parable? Many of us have had experiences like the younger son, when we know we have been disobedient and are grateful for God’s gracious forgiveness welcoming us home. That story of amazing grace is why this parable has been so well-loved. But, as Jesus heard the religious folks grumble that day, I’m not so sure he was telling it for the benefit of the “sinners and tax collectors.” They already knew his message and were flocking to him. I think Jesus was telling this parable more specifically to challenge the religious folks and invite them into God’s household, too. So I ask again: who are we in this parable? In general, do we really represent the younger son? Or are we closer to the successful elder son? We are generous — we are good people! We do many things to help those less fortunate than ourselves. But do we truly see the poor, captive, and oppressed as our sisters and brothers? Do we truly welcome them? Are we even willing to be with them? Or do we balk at that?

What would it look like for us to be fully reconciled as sisters and brothers with the addict, the inmate, the person lost in mental illness, the prostitute, the homeless? Jesus didn’t just call these folks brothers and sisters, he lived in solidarity with them — the poor and oppressed, the imprisoned and persecuted. Jesus — the perfectly obedient elder brother — accepted being declared a disobedient younger brother, even to the point of hanging on a tree and appearing accursed by God. And though he knew it would not be easy, he called his disciples to follow him and do the incredibly hard work of reconciling people of this world, of being peacemakers. Jesus also invites each of us — will we accept the challenge, or does it seem too hard? Does it seem all burden and no grace?

This afternoon at our Festival of Arts concert, a teacher of Dietrich Bonhoeffer‘s work will lead us in worship and reflection. (I don’t think he’ll be talking about Bonhoeffer today, but he is writing a new liturgy for us based on Bonhoeffer’s writings.) In Bonhoeffer’s writings about Discipleship, (1) he tried to help us understand that it is “costly grace” we’re talking about. For grace is the invitation to follow as a disciple of Jesus in the work of reconciliation and peacemaking. Any grace that doesn’t include that challenging call is “cheap grace.” The grace of discipleship, in short, is both the invitation and the challenge together. (2)

And so there is a party going on each First Day of the Week to celebrate grace, both the grace we receive as younger disobedient sons and daughters, and the grace of elder obedient sons and daughters invited to the hard work of reconciliation between the two. But we also celebrate because the heaviest lifting of the work of reconciliation has already been done for us on the Cross. God invites us to celebrate the work of reconciliation, to be fed from our Lord’s hard labors of forgiveness, and then sent forth to continue the work. As an elder brother or sister, can you and I be healed of our brokenness from estranged siblings and join the party? The table is about to be set. All are welcome. Please come.

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, March 10, 2013

Notes

1. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, Vol. 4 in Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (Fortress, 2001).

2. For more on discipleship as invitation and challenge together, see 3DM‘s Mike Breen‘s book Building a Discipling Culture.

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