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Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Rembrandt, The Return of the Prodigal Son, 1662–1669

Rembrandt, The Return of the Prodigal Son, 1662–1669

I’d like to tell you a story about a guy named Sam. Sam was not a great guy. When he was a kid, he bullied other kids and stole their lunch money. As a teenager, he shoplifted and stole cars. He lied his way into a really good college. Eventually, he became an investment banker, and during his career, he defrauded thousands of people out of millions of dollars. He got married, but he cheated on his wife dozens of times. They had kids, but he neglected them. When Sam died, he stipulated in his will that all of his money and assets would be liquidated and buried with him, leaving his widow and kids with nothing.

When Sam died, he found himself at the Pearly Gates, standing in line to see St. Peter. One person after another ahead of him was screened, had a brief conversation with St. Peter, and then waived on through. Sam did not have a good feeling about this. He began to reflect on what his life had been. Sam had been to church only a handful of times in his life, mostly when he was dragged to Christmas Eve service, or to the wedding of the daughter of someone he was trying to con, but he knew enough to know that he hadn’t lived a life that gets you through those gates.

Sam began to sweat. Finally, it was his turn. Sam stepped up to St. Peter and braced himself. St. Peter asked his name, checked it against the papers in his hands, and scribbled a couple of notes. Then St. Peter looked at Sam, and with a big smile and a hearty handshake said, “Welcome to heaven, Sam! We are SO glad you are here!”

What? Were you expecting a different result?

The story of the Prodigal Son is a familiar one. It is probably one of, if not the most recognizable story in scripture. Of the three main characters in the story, “We’re used to focusing on the younger son… often identifying with his taking off on his own, realizing he screwed up, and being overwhelmed by grace. It’s a classic story of forgiveness and repentance” (Lose), although how repentant he is really isn’t clear. He has just lost everything he has; he’s been reduced to sleeping with pigs; he is in danger of starving to death. Perhaps he simply had nowhere else to turn.

Frederick Buechner, in retelling this story in his classic Telling the Truth, describes this son as deciding to go home simply because that is where he can be assured of being fed regularly. “So he sets out on the return trip and on the way rehearses the speech he hopes will soften the old man’s heart enough so that at least he won’t slam the door in his face. ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son’” (Buechner).

What is in the heart of this younger son, while interesting enough to think about and consider in a whole series of sermons, is for us this morning, beside the point. Is he repentant? Maybe. Is he simply trying to con dear old Dad into letting him return? Maybe. Either way, it doesn’t really matter.

Before he can even say a word, the Father is sprinting down the path, embracing his son. Before he can even mutter his apology, his Father is calling for a celebration meal, putting his son in clean, extravagant clothes, hugging him, kissing him, and crying tears of unrestrained joy at his return. Before he can even offer up a word of repentance (forced or sincere), he has been received back into his Father’s house, without exception.

When we hear a story like Sam’s that I shared a few moments ago, we find ourselves in the position of the older brother from the Prodigal Son story. We hear of all the terrible things this person has done, and we want justice. We see grace being extended to a person we have deemed unworthy of grace, and our sense of fairness and justice is challenged.

David Lose describes this story as shedding “light on two very different reactions to grace. One- when you are totally down and out- is to receive it with surprise and delight. The other- when you have been working hard and trying your best- can be rather resentful, as it seems like it makes all your efforts overlooked at best and perhaps even worthless” (Lose).

We live in a quid-pro-quo society. We have a deep need to keep things ordered and sensical. We have “to count, to make sure things add up, to quantify and measure and compare and the like. And all this counting is not for its own sake, but is in service of a larger goal: fairness. We track things not because we often need to, but to keep things fair, to make sure things are running right, and out of a concern for equity” (Lose).

It is this concern for fairness and equity that leads us to understand Christ’s crucifixion as a substitutionary event. If you will allow me to delve into Church History for a moment, I think we will be able to begin to reimagine Christ’s presence on the cross and its implications for us today.

The 11th Century writer, Anselm of Canterbury, is most notably remembered for his satisfaction theory of the cross. Anselm posited that human beings were created “in a state of original righteousness,” yet “through sin, humanity is unable to achieve” obedience to God (McGrath 338). Therefore, God sent Christ to die on the cross, a sort of debt payment that cancels out or deletes our sins.

This view is still quite popular today, and it makes sense if we consider the context of our culture. You do something wrong, you get punished for it. Humanity’s wrong is sin, and “Because Jesus is human, he can represent us before God and so God can punish Jesus instead of us. Because Jesus is God, his sacrifice is an equal exchange for all the sins we will ever commit” (Lose).

However, a number of issues arise from this theory. David Lose, President of Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, points out a couple of difficulties with Anselm:

“First, I don’t understand why God has to punish at all. Can’t God just forgive? We all do that all the time. Indeed, if ‘payment’ has been made, then it seems inaccurate to call what God does forgiveness. Convenient, yes, but not forgiving. Second, I think this configuration pits divine love against divine justice and, frankly, justice wins out as it must be satisfied by suspending love for Jesus on the cross.”

So when we are the older brother in the story, we find it incredibly difficult to accept that grace has been extended to this prodigal- this wasteful, abhorrent, reckless person. Our sin demands punishment, right? God’s justice must be upheld, and while God might not want to punish us, God has to, because God loves us. But sometimes, as important as fairness and equity are, it just doesn’t work. “Imagine counting every good thing someone did for you and using that to judge how much they love you. Or imagine keeping track of every unhelpful or hurtful thing people in your life do to you and demanding repayment. (Worse, imagine them demanding payment from you for your mistakes)” (Lose). When we put it that way, it doesn’t work (Thank God!).

So the Father in the story sprints down the driveway at the first glimpse of his son. Because let’s be clear here, he’s been watching and waiting, expectant for the day his son would return to him. He hasn’t assigned a servant to watch at the window, or even put out the word to friends in town to give him a heads up if they hear or see anything (though he may have done that, too). No, he’s at the door himself, every day, just watching the horizon, waiting for the return he so deeply and achingly hopes for. He does what no respectable landowner or businessman would ever do by running down the road, his hands in the air, tears streaming down his face, so overcome and overwhelmed by joy, that he doesn’t give one lick for decorum or what’s “right.”

And even though people around town are going to be talking about this in the gossip columns, he doesn’t care! He continues to not care when he begs his older son to come into the party. Instead of sending a servant to bring his son in, he pleads with the boy himself, humbling himself out of love for both of his children. “Before he’s a respectable landowner, he’s a parent who loves both his children more than anyone can measure” (Lose).

“And that’s when counting breaks down. When you love so much there is no scale adequate to calculate your devotion. The elder son, he counts, and you can hear his ill-fated calculations saturating everything he says: ‘after all these years…,’ ‘you never…,’ ‘This son of yours…’ But the landowner- I mean, father– doesn’t. Can’t. Love like this, you see, cannot be measured, tracked, or managed” (Lose).

So the cross cannot be a means of payment. Instead, it shows us just how far God will go to bring our prodigal selves back into His love and his grace. Because God loves us; God loves you: fiercely, deeply, and more passionately than we can oftentimes understand. God’s sacrifice of Christ on the cross wasn’t a debt repayment plan, it was an act of love so profound, and so immeasurable.

So whether you have been down and out, from bad decisions or plain bad luck, or if you have been working hard, doing what you’re supposed to, the good news is this: God loves you, all of you, no matter who you are or where you’ve been, and in the end, that’s the only thing that matters. Amen.

Works Cited

Buechner, Frederick. “Weekly Sermon Illustration: Parables as Comedy.”Weekly Sermon Illustration: Parables as Comedy. Frederick Buechner, 29 Feb. 2016. Web. 5 Mar. 2016.

Lose, David. “Lent 4 C: The Prodigal God.” In the Meantime… David Lose, 28 Feb. 2016. Web. 5 Mar. 2016.

McGrath, Alister E. Christian Theology: An Introduction. 4th ed. New Jersey: Wiley-Blackwell, 2006. Print.