Extravagant Grace

What if the prodigal in this story is actually the father?

Read Luke 15:1-3,11b-32

Listen here: (includes the last chorus of Amazing Grace that the congregation sang right before the sermon because the Sterling College choir was there and it sounds amazing) 

Are you a type A person? or are you a type B?

Or do you imagine another letter altogether?  These two types are based on a theory developed by two cardiologists in the 1950’s. Their initial research suggested that Type A people who are more driven and aggressive are more likely to have heart attacks, and Type B people who more easygoing are less prone.  Years ago, I considered myself to be Type A. And it seemed to me then that this was what I needed to be to succeed in business.  Type A people seemed to sell more, and climb the corporate ladder faster. But I began to notice that sometimes it was not just the type A behavior, sometimes the new guy with the fancy college degree got the promotion instead.  Or the girl with the perfect figure and the beautiful hair would get the project everyone wanted.  And I read a study that said overall companies are more likely to promote people that are easier to get along with.

I was trying to be Type A to fit in, but it turns out that that’s not really me, and the categories aren’t so simple.  And it also turns out that the research about type A versus type B was influenced by the tobacco companies to try to explain that people get addicted to cigarettes because of their personality and not because of something in the cigarettes.[1]  As with so many things, the reason it makes sense is that there is a bit of truth in it.  Some people are more likely to become addicted than others. But the reason they become addicted to cigarettes is that there is something in there to become addicted to.  And some type A people do get heart attacks, but so do type B.

One of the reasons we like categories like that is that we’re all trying to figure out where we fit in.  I know I was.  Truth be told, I still am.  When I was growing up I struggled to fit in because I didn’t.  I wore glasses when most kids didn’t.  I wasn’t good at sports, so I was often the last one picked for teams.  I got called teacher’s pet because I knew the answers so often, but kids don’t want to hang out with the teacher’s pet at recess.  I didn’t know yet back then about type A versus type B, but I learned quickly about being an insider versus being an outsider.  Are you an insider or an outsider?

In the story we read today from Luke 15, Luke says there were all kinds of people coming to hang out with Jesus, and the church leaders and scholars were grumbling about it, saying this guy welcomes sinners and even eats with them.  Jesus could have said, “Hey, guys, shut up, will you?  This is why I came, to welcome the lost.  To make the outsiders insiders.”  But that’s not how Jesus works.  Instead he tells them three stories.  In the third story, the one we read this morning, there are two brothers who have very different responses to the father’s love and generosity. The father loves them both, and gives them both grace.  One receives it freely, and the other one….doesn’t.

In the story, there’s an older brother and a younger brother.  Did you know that the older brother was a Presbyterian?

Presbyteros

The word in Greek for elder is presbyteros.  That’s where the name Presbyterian comes from.  We have a system of government involving elders or presbyters.

The younger brother asks his father for an advance on his inheritance, an unthinkable request in those days, and yet the father grants it. Then the son goes out and enjoys spending it.

The literal translation says he scattered his wealth (Luke 15:13 YLT), kind of like the guy in this picture.  240_F_184241387_WCYvsFEI6gqU6OGOhfzOZ9SCd5lTwQDJThis has become the universal sign for spending lots of money.

Tragically, after he’d spent all his money, a famine hit, making it impossible for him to recover, and so he ends up taking a job feeding pigs, which is just about the most degrading job for a Jewish man in those times because pigsCute baby piglet were considered to be impure.[2]  In Deuteronomy and Leviticus[3] there are commands to not only not eat them, but also not to touch them.  So this brother who is hanging out with the pigs has hit the lowest possible place.

Once you hit bottom, there’s nowhere to go but up.  It’s a hard place to be.  The son could have given up at this point.  Or he could have kept on feeding those pigs.  Or he could have turned to dishonest ways of supporting himself.

Sometimes the beauty of being in such a hard place is that it can make us humble enough to be willing to make changes we need to make.  Maybe we are too proud to ask for help, but when we are desperate, we are finally able to ask.  Jesus tells us the son came to his senses (v17).  In a moment of clarity, the son realizes that he needs to go home and beg for mercy.  He goes back and says:

“Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son. Please take me on as a hired servant.” (Luke 15:18-19)

We can imagine all sorts of responses the father might have had.  The father could have done as the son asked and made him one of his hired servants. Or he might have refused to even see the son.  This is what happens in 2 Samuel when King David’s son Absalom runs away to another country.  One of David’s officials goes and brings Absalom back to David’s town, but Absalom is not allowed to see David because Absalom’s sin was too great.[4]  But instead, in our story, the father runs out to greet the son, gives him a big hug and a kiss, restores him to full sonship, and throws a big party.

This party is like the one Jesus describes in his other two stories in Luke 15 about lost things, the lost sheep that the shepherd leaves the 99 sheep to go find, or the lost coin that the woman tears her house apart trying to find.  Jesus says the shepherd throws a party when he brings back that lost sheep, inviting all his friends and neighbors:

“Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep.”  In the same way, there is more joy in heaven over one lost sinner who repents and returns to God than over ninety-nine others who are righteous and haven’t strayed away! (Luke 15:6-7)

There is joy in heaven whenever any ONE turns to God.  Those righteous who haven’t strayed away are like the older brother who goes out to work in the fields every day.  He’s faithfully done everything he’s supposed to do, and he comes home from working in the fields to find a party going on, so he gets angry.  This isn’t how things are supposed to work.  I should get the party.  I’m the one who’s been doing the right thing all this time.

Obviously we’re not supposed to be like the elder son, not supposed to be angry and resentful of the grace that God gives to people we don’t think deserve it.  And of course the reality is that none of us really deserve God’s grace.  That’s what Paul makes clear in Romans:

“All of us have sinned and we all fall short of God’s glory. Yet God, in his grace, makes us right in his sight.  He did this through Jesus who freed us from the penalty of our sins.”
Romans 3:23-24

God in his grace makes us right in his sight. Through grace we all become insiders.  Maybe you resonate with the older son, or maybe you resonate with the younger son, or maybe neither son makes sense to you.  That’s ok because the reality is that we are all different.  We have different gifts and talents and different ways of relating to the world.  It’s human nature to think our way is best, and to be jealous when someone else’s way seems to be working better than ours.  The problem is not that we’re different.  The problem is that we judge each other for being different, and that we make assumptions about each other, and put each other down. We’re afraid of our differences and we’re afraid of things we don’t understand.  We all want to be insiders.

All of us are beautiful and all of us fall short of God’s glory in some way.  There’s a song by Mandisa that says, “We all bleed the same.”[5] She’s right, we do. I’m ok and you’re ok. But we don’t all experience the world in the same way.

That’s why it’s helpful to understand ourselves and each other better.  (And all the psychology majors said, Yeah!) For centuries, people have made theories about the different types of personalities.  wordcloudOne of the oldest is the four temperaments – sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric and melancholic.  In the 1950’s, psychologist Carl Jung proposed there are eight personality types, and then based on Jung’s theories Myers and Briggs came up with sixteen types.  In another system, the Enneagram, there are nine.

In the process of becoming a pastor, I had to take a Myers Briggs test, and an Enneagram test, and a whole bunch of other tests.  The idea was to make sure I wasn’t an undiagnosed serial killer, I guess, and this system makes it far more difficult for a serial killer to become a pastor.   But also to help me better understand myself, so that I could learn better, and so that I could understand and help others better.  I don’t know if anybody ever fits any of these classifications perfectly, but I thought my Myers Briggs results were kind of funny because for two of the four letters I came out exactly in the middle, and the psychologist that was evaluating the results with me said that meant I could choose which letter she put down in her report.  Did I feel more Introverted or Extroverted?  Did I feel more Perceiving or Judging?  That day I chose based on how I was feeling in the moment and she put down ENFP.  (Extroverted Intuitive Feeling Perceiving.) It was a remarkably decisive moment for me. (MB humor.)

The danger of these sorts of classifications is that we can make assumptions about people based on them, and assumptions are very often wrong.  And these classifications can be used to create a whole new system of insiders versus outsiders.  But it’s helpful to know that we’re all different, and that what works for me might not work the same for you.

Next Friday, Christian author and speaker Gary Thomas will be speaking at Sterling College.  One of his early books is Sacred Pathways.  In this book he describes nine different ways that people relate to God, nine spiritual temperaments.

When I first read this book years ago, I was very surprised to read some of the ways that Thomas described.  I thought everybody needed to find God the way I found God.  I was very comfortable with going to church every Sunday.  I loved to read, so being quiet and contemplative were easy for me.  Like the older brother in the story, thought everybody needed to do what I was doing.  I fit several of Thomas’ categories. But I had a hard time accepting some of other the pathways that Thomas describes.  Thomas doesn’t provide these classifications so that we can judge one another, but rather to help us succeed in our efforts to have a relationship with God.  Thomas helps us to find ways that work, and also to see that all of the pathways have potential benefits and, all of them have pitfalls.

All of us have different personalities, different gifts and talents and abilities, different viewpoints, different experiences, and all of those things come with benefits and pitfalls.  The more we know about ourselves and about one another, the more we can help each other see the good and keep from getting stuck in the bad. And the more we can keep from making judgments and assumptions about one another.

Both of those brothers had issues.  But the father came to both of them and welcomed them to the party.  He wanted them both to be insiders.  The father was demonstrating the kind of perfect love that Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 13:

Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. (1 Cor. 13:4-5)

God keeps no record of our sins, and God doesn’t want our sins and shortcomings to keep us from knowing him and enjoying the party, so God sent Jesus so that our sins could be forgiven.

In Luke’s story, the son that left came back humbly and was welcomed warmly.  The son that stayed is also warmly welcomed into the party.  The father comes out to make sure he is welcomed.  But the son doesn’t go in, at least, not in the part of the story we get.  The story ends with these words:

 “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found’” (Luke 15:31-32).

The prodigal brother was lost and is found.  How many of you agree that is the definition of prodigal?  I did.  If I got lost and found my way back, then you could call me the prodigal pastor.  But it turns out, I’ve had the definition of prodigal wrong.

prodigal definitionProdigal means to use resources freely and recklessly; wastefully extravagant.[6]  Based on the older son’s response to finding the party, I think the older son would say that it was the father who is the prodigal, because the father was so willing to forgive the younger son.  He was reckless with grace.

Regardless of whether we’re more like the runaway younger son or the stay-at-home older son, or if we’re totally different from both of those, God loves us just like that father kept no record of what his sons had done in the past.  He just wanted them both to know that he loved them and wanted them both to come to the party.

God wants the same for all of us.  Whether you’re here every Sunday or have never been here before, whether you come back next week or never come back, God loves you.  God sent Jesus so that we could all be insiders to his amazing love and grace.  And it doesn’t matter if you’re type A or type Z, God made you the way you are and he loves you – freely, recklessly, extravagantly, unconditionally, completely.

Are you an insider or an outsider?  The story ends with this question.  We don’t know whether the older son went in to the party or not.  This story leaves us to decide how we will respond to God’s unconditional love.  Will you say yes?

PRAYER – “Holy & Loving God, we have sinned against both heaven and you, and we are no longer worthy of being called your children. Please take us on as your servants.” (Luke 15:18-19)

Listen to It Is Well, one of the songs the Sterling College Choir sang for us that day: 

Sing along with this song that we sang after the sermon:

[1] Developed by two cardiologists https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Type_A_and_Type_B_personality_theory

[2] The IVP New Testament Commentary Series provides some of this analysis. You can read the entire article here: https://www.biblegateway.com/resources/ivp-nt/Parable-Forgiving-Father

[3] Deuteronomy 14:8 and Leviticus 11:7, and others.   Read more here: https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/1452611/jewish/Why-Do-Jews-Not-Eat-Pork-or-Crab.htm and https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/lessons-from-the-pig/

[4] 2 Samuel 14:23-24

[5] Listen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HVKuA1s5I3o

[6] https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/prodigal

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