The last one hundred and fifty years or so have borne witness to more technological and scientific advances than any other equivalent period of time in human history. From industry to the internet, from the first powered flight at Kitty Hawk to the first moon landing at Tranquility Base, from outer space to cyberspace, we have traveled farther, communicated faster, and dug deeper into the mysteries of the universe than previous generations could have dreamed possible.
In all this time, perhaps the greatest mystery we have encountered is the mystery of each other. Without a second thought, I can pull a hand-held device out of my pocket and initiate an instantaneous conversation with someone on the opposite side of the planet. Compare this ability to explorers like Magellan, whose trip around the globe cost him his life, four out of five ships, and all but 18 of his 270 crew members. Compare it to the life of the average peasant in medieval Europe, who would likely never travel more than 5 miles away from the spot where he was born. Our experience of the world in the early 21st century is so much more connected and cosmopolitan than our ancestors thought possible.
But it hasn’t been an entirely utopian experience, of course. This heightened interconnectivity has brought us into contact with people very different from ourselves. These people talk, dress, think, and worship very differently than we do. Our knowledge of the world has given rise to more questions. The most vexing of these questions have to do with religion. Once the average person became aware of so many different religions on this planet, and especially once they began living next door to people who practice these religions, how are we supposed to make sense of such diversity? With so many varieties of belief and so many opinions about the ultimate nature of reality, surely someone has to be right while everyone else is wrong, right?
These questions have sparked an ongoing debate about who God is and what God wants that has lasted to this day. It seems like there’s always some nut-case out there who is more than willing to stand up on national television and claim with unwavering certainty to have the one and only right answer about what God’s will is. Too many people, longing for something to hold onto in these confusing times, are only too willing to buy into such easy answers. As we have seen, time and again, these peddlers of snake-oil and easy answers can make their followers say and do the unthinkable. In exchange for absolute certainty about the will of God, people are willing to hand over the money in their bank accounts, cut off relations to friends and family, and even fly airplanes into buildings. The philosopher Voltaire said, “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” I like to pray a prayer I once saw on a bumper-sticker: “Lord, protect me from your followers!”
In these times of complication and confusion, the promise of absolute certainty feels like a virtue but turns out to be a vice. As it turns out, the way we hold our questions with our values is far more important than the answers we come up with.
In Jesus’ time, there was a group of people who claimed to have all the answers. They were the Pharisees. Erudite scholars of the Torah, these well-respected citizens seemed to possess a monopoly on the truth market. Their rabbis fielded questions of theology and ethics so well that they established themselves as defenders of the faith and guardians of family values. Theirs was a world of black and white easy answers. Faith and certainty went hand in hand with no room for mystery, doubt, or mercy.
You can imagine then that when Jesus came along, he really messed with their worldview. We read in the opening verses of this morning’s gospel passage that Jesus was eating with tax collectors and sinners. The Pharisees were quite offended by this gesture, since eating with someone in that time and culture implied that you accepted that person just as he or she was. From their point of view, Jesus was sending the wrong kind of message for an upstanding citizen and an acclaimed rabbi. In response to their offended sensibilities, Jesus told them a story. It’s the famous story we now know as the parable of the prodigal son.
The story begins with a fictional man with two sons. One day, the younger of the two decides that he doesn’t want to sit around and wait for his father to die before collecting on his inheritance. He asks for it ahead of schedule. Basically, this move was his way of saying to his dad, “You’re dead to me.” And his father, in spite of what must have been immense heartbreak over this rejection, acquiesces to his younger son’s demand.
The next thing we learn is that this son takes his share of the estate and burns out on the party scene of some far-away city. But when the good times stop rolling, the son is hard-up for cash. He ends up taking the most disgusting job possible for a young Jewish person: feeding pigs. He was do hungry that even the hog-slop was starting to look and smell pretty good to him.
Finally, in a moment of desperation and clarity, the son selfishly cooks up a half-decent apology in order to get himself back into more stable living conditions. And then he makes his way back home with his tail between his legs. He wasn’t really sorry, mind you, he was just miserable enough that he would do anything, put up with any amount of humiliation, if it meant a warm bed and three square meals a day.
This is where the story gets really interesting. Jesus says, “…while [the son] was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.” Taken aback by this enthusiastic greeting, the son nevertheless begins his feigned apology speech, but his father never lets him finish. He cuts him off by calling for his servants to bring a robe, a ring, and sandals. He kills the fattened calf and prepares a celebration feast. In this moment, we get a clear picture of this father’s true nature as a man overflowing with love and generosity for his children.
Most tellings of the story end here, with the prodigal son’s redemption via forgiveness. But that’s not where Jesus ends the story. He keeps going.
Enter the older brother, the father’s firstborn son. He has been the dutiful heir to the estate. He has his stuff together, so to speak. He has always done everything right. But he’s not the hero of this story, not by a long shot.
It turns out that this older brother, in his quest to be the perfect son, has severely misjudged the kind of person his father is. When he sees the welcome that his younger brother receives, the older brother gets angry and shouts at his father, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.” He thinks his father is a cranky old miser who demands absolute obedience without question. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
Jesus’ cautionary tale about the older brother is a biting indictment of the leaders of the religious establishment in his day. Like the older brother in the story, their devotion to certainty and obedience has led them to believe that their God is just as judgmental and small-minded as they are.
On the other hand, it is the tax collectors and sinners around Jesus, no strangers to imperfection and doubt, who have the keenest insight on the nature of reality. Through Jesus’ acceptance of them as they are, warts and all, they are coming to have faith in the power of grace.
What is grace? Well, a theological dictionary would define grace as “unmerited favor” but here’s my favorite definition of grace: God loves you and there’s nothing you can do about it.
Sound familiar? It should. It’s how we end our sermons here every week.
But more than that, grace is one of the central religious values of our Presbyterian heritage. In the 16th century, when established religious authorities once used guilt and fear to manipulate and control the people, the Reformers countered that there is nothing a person can do to garner favor with God. Grace is a given. It is God’s basic orientation toward human beings. All we have to do is decide how we’re going to respond to it.
Will we, like the older brother and the Pharisees, storm off in a huff over the scandalous nature of grace? Or will we, like the younger brother and the sinners, open our hearts to this undeserved love? Will we allow it to transform us from the inside out, until we start to look like Jesus?
When I look around our world in the 21st century, I see a planet in desperate need of grace. We’ve had more than enough of pompous, self-righteous fanatics who claim to hold all the right answers to life, the universe, and everything. What we need now is a deep, abiding faith in the mystery of grace.
We need imperfect people, full of doubts and faults, whose lives have nevertheless been touched by the knowledge that they are loved, no matter what. Such people know how to love in return. Theirs is the only message that can successfully defend against the attacks of judgmentalism, fundamentalism, and terrorism.
Their scandalous message of grace, never popular or pragmatic, applies equally to liberals as well as conservatives, Muslims as well as Christians, North Koreans as well as North Americans. Grace is the great equalizer. Grace is the central value by which we know that we can never out-stay our welcome in the kingdom of God, and it is the enlivening force that empowers us to go out from this church this morning, saying to one another (and to the whole world):
“I love you, God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”