(Audio from Holy Cross Faith Memorial can be found here)
The Fourth Sunday in Lent: March 31, 2019
Joshua 5:9-12; Psalm 32; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
If all of Scripture were to be lost to us and I could choose only one piece to keep, today’s Gospel is the one I would have remain. I believe it is THE Gospel parable. Let’s do some exploring.
In our readings over the past few weeks and including today, Jesus is consciously and deliberately on his way to Jerusalem, the place of his execution. Along the way he comes upon a group of religious and political leaders in Jerusalem who will not accept a Messiah who works by dying. To be sure, Jesus desires to gather all people under the banner of God’s love, but it is becoming increasingly evident that it will only happen through his death. The human race’s attempt to get its act together has not worked. This is true corporately and individually. The evidence is clear enough by simply gazing at the news or even our own life if we are honest. Our only home is Jesus’ self-offering on the cross and the radical forgiveness it offers, for like the lost son in today’s parable, you and I, on our own merit, are no longer worthy to be called son or daughter; although, as we will see, the father begs to differ with that assessment.
Our “lostness” is not the focus of this parable. We can get caught in an inappropriate and overly exaggerated sense of our unworthiness to a degree that it is spiritually damaging, even abusive. I recall a woman some years ago with whom I was doing spiritual direction. She recounted to me that as a child, she would practice going out to the family car and jumping for the steering wheel, for her Christian upbringing had so convinced her of how awful she was, she was convinced that when Jesus returned her parents would be taken by God and she would be left. She had to be prepared to grab the wheel to avoid a horrible accident. That’s spiritual abuse.
Many non-churched people out there think that is what we all believe inside these walls and will never darken the door much less stay. Poll after poll tells us that the primary way Christians are seen by the un-churched world is that we are mostly a people of judgment. Jesus, however, would have us look more closely at the behavior of the father, who is really the focus of the parable. If we read it closely, what we find is that rather than a parable of the prodigal son, the emphasis is on the generous, welcome-home, beyond-all-bounds-and-reason, gracious father.
Look at what happens! When the son who had run off in “dissolute living” found all of his resources depleted and decided his only resort was to make his way home, “while he was still far off,” he hadn’t yet got home, his father “ran to him, put his arms around him and kissed him.” All the father could see was his lost, even dead to him son, and in a moment of completely undignified glee completely inappropriate for a proper first century Jewish man, the father “sprints,” the actual word here for “run,” in absolute, self-abandoned joy. He does this because raising dead sons, or daughters, to life and throwing fabulous parties for them is his favorite thing to do.
Somehow, in that incredible moment, the son realizes that being the father’s child is who he is. He is not a hired hand – the father wouldn’t hear of it. The welcome is overwhelming. In the embrace and kiss he discovers that he is a dead son who is alive again, all because the father was willing, out of love, to allow the risk of the possibility that his son would never come back. It can be the hardest thing a parent can ever do, as in when a dear friend of mine recently had to allow her severely addicted daughter to walk away as she watched her daughter’s self-destructive choices ruing her life and that of the family. She never stopped loving, but her heart was breaking, longing for the day when she might welcome her home.
Jesus’ point here I trust you see, is that God is like the father of the story. That’s why the story is really about his behavior. Not until we are confronted by the unqualified gift of someone who died to forgive us no matter what, can we see that confession really has little to do with getting ourselves forgiven. Confession is not a transaction, not a negotiation in order to secure forgiveness. Instead, confession is the last gasp, like in the son, that acknowledges and accepts the need for new life. The father had already forgiven the son who was still far off. My friend has already forgiven her daughter and has never stopped loving her. The gift is already there and waiting, looking out the window, longing and waiting for us to come home so that love and kisses and hugs can be offered and the party can begin.
This is the kind of God we have Jesus is telling us. We are forgiven not because we have made ourselves forgivable or even because we have faith. WE ARE FORGIVEN BECAUSE WE HAVE A FORGIVER! The parable reveals the way God is toward everything God has made. My son was dead and is now alive. So just like God, the father throws a party. The story goes right to it. Notice – no testing of behavior first to see if the son means it or has integrated the learning into his life. We see the best robe, best ring, best shoes, best calf – so let’s eat, even if we do have a kill-joy of an older brother who like us sometimes struggles with this kind of life-giving grace. We’re so afraid someone will get something they don’t deserve of haven’t earned.
This is about God’s party of love. It’s all grace! And note it is not cheap. A calf, the best one, is sacrificed for the meal. It costs something, just as it cost Jesus his life and it costs us our life as we place our life on this altar for this Eucharistic meal. We are offering our life to God who welcomes us home, who sprints to meet us in our far off places and even before we get home on our own, embraces us with love and kisses all around. And note here, that the most frequently used word in the NT Greek translated “worship” is “proskuneo,” which means, “to kiss toward.”
The whole Gospel story today turns on the kiss, the kiss extended by God to us even at this table. We dare to approach the Holy Table because we have first been kissed. The kiss does not mean that anything goes, but it does mean that God’s radical welcome of you and me is a call to offer our own kiss to the world that so desperately needs it. Kissed by the Christ is who we are.
Bishop Skip Adams
The Right Reverend Gladstone B. Adams III was elected and invested as our Bishop on September 10, 2016. Read more about him here.