Paula Northwood June 24, 2018
Scripture: Luke 15:11–32
This has been a challenging week for most of us with all that is happening on our country’s southern border. It is easy to get outraged, frustrated or feel helpless. More than ever it is important to stay connected to our spiritual center so that our responses and actions are coming from a place of wisdom. It’s also important to have a spiritual community where we can share our concerns and work together on solutions. Today and next Sunday, I am addressing two aspects of spiritual life: grace this morning, and justice next Sunday.
I attended a small Mennonite liberal arts college in Northwestern Ohio. My parents didn’t have the resources to send their seven kids to college, so I held down a full-time job to pay for my college tuition. I worked at the local retirement and nursing home as a nurse’s aide. I found that if I took classes that ended before 3 p.m., I could work the second shift: 3–11 p.m., five days a week. I did this for a couple of years, but here was my dilemma: My tuition bill was always due a couple of weeks before my paycheck. The first time it happened, I received what felt like a threatening letter, at least to a 19-year-old: pay up or lose your credits! I went to the registrar to plead my case. After much discussion, she begrudgingly gave me a grace period. At the time I was unfamiliar with this term, “grace period.” What I understood was that the registrar was bending the rules, giving me extra time to satisfy this obligation. It was grace and I was grateful. But it was grace with a limitation, grace within a period of time.
I’ve been thinking a lot about grace and have wondered if I often function in a grace period instead of fully receiving God’s grace. I want to believe in the total acceptance of God, as described in our reading from theologian Paul Tillich [excerpt from his sermon “You Are Accepted”], but I always think there must be a catch. At some point, I am going to owe something to someone.
Do we fully understand grace? A simple definition is getting more than we deserve. It’s not like winning the lottery, although it might feel like it. But that’s luck (maybe miraculous), not grace. During the reading of the parable, I asked you to identify with one of the characters. You may identify with the father because you are a parent and you understand the love a parent has for their children. Or maybe you identify with the younger child because he is the rebellious one and maybe that is how your family perceives you. Or you might identify with the eldest child because you feel like you are the responsible one in your family. Maybe you identify with one simply because of your birth order. As in many biblical stories, the characters are archetypal, and we all have some qualities of each. In this parable, what can we learn from each character?
There are two sons who are troubled. As a child I thought the parable was all about repentance. I thought the younger son was selfish. He takes his inheritance early and squanders it and ends up tending pigs. I grew up on a farm and I know how this smells. It seemed to me that he got what he deserved. In the stench of the pig sty, he realizes the error of his ways, runs home and begs forgiveness.
Later, when I studied this parable in seminary, I thought it was all about the loving father, who represents God, and that the message was that no matter what you do or where you go, God always loves you. But the hidden message was that you should not be like the resentful oldest son. Another interpretation I studied was that the younger son represented the early Christian church and the elder brother represented Judaism and that God accepted them both.
Of course, this parable can have many meanings. That is part of its appeal. When it comes to grace, it turns out that both sons are in need of God’s grace. We think the sons are very different but then find out they are not. It points to a paradox, even a mystery about God’s behavior. One son is reckless, squanders his father’s money, makes bad decisions, and his life is a mess. His actions are hurtful, but his attitude becomes one of contrition. The other son did all the right things: He’s stable, dependable and hardworking, but his attitude is resentful, jealous and hurtful. They both receive the gift of grace. This parable seems to set up a dichotomy between actions and attitudes, and the outcome does not seem fair. We want our actions to be taken into account. The challenge of this parable is to embrace the unfathomable, mysterious grace of God who doesn’t seem to care about actions or attitudes.
We can understand the younger son’s situation. He made a mistake and sees the error of his ways. He finds his way back to his father, offering to be a hired hand instead of a son. He is repentant, sorry and apologetic. Notice that the father does not say “yes” to his son’s request to be taken on as a hired hand. The father also does not say “Yes, you do need to work hard to rebuild my trust.” No, the father freely, unconditionally loves him and restores him to the family. Even more than restores him, he celebrates him! The older son, who has done everything right, is resentful. He refused to come to the celebration for his brother’s return. When the father inquired about the problem, the elder brother through clenched teeth says, “All these years I have worked hard, done my duty and you never celebrated me.” To this the father replied in effect, “Son, you have the same problem as your brother. You think you are my child and deserve my love because you earned it? All that I have is yours.” God’s grace is unfathomable, mysterious, radical, unconditional and universal. And it’s troubling. We want grace to have limitations, expectations and conditions. We are okay with a grace period, but we are not okay with grace, period.
If grace is that radical, and God’s acceptance and forgiveness of us is that unconditional, then it raises the question: must we give up the conditionality of our relationships with others, regardless of their character, behavior or how much they annoy us? Are we God’s children no matter what we have done with our lives? Is this true?
This parable challenges us to switch between two ways of seeing, two ways of knowing: the one way in which we are broken and desperately in need of grace, and one where we have worked hard to do the right thing and still are in need of grace. To experience God’s grace does not change our situation in the world, but we now see things differently. I have found it helpful to put myself in the place of the character of the parable whom I least identify. For me, it’s the father. And I find myself being resistant. It’s a challenge to love without any expectations of the other person.
This is what the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about in The Cost Of Discipleship when he described the tension between cheap grace and costly grace. Bonhoeffer writes that cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession, and absolution without personal confession.
And so Bonhoeffer makes a case for costly grace, which calls us to follow Jesus in ways that might be challenging and risky because it could cost you your life, as it did his. If you remember, Bonhoeffer was executed because he resisted the Nazi regime. According to him, costly grace expects us to show up in a different way.
I imagine that we hold these concepts in tension with each other. The idea of cheap grace sounds good to us, but so does the idea of costly grace. We certainly feel called to work hard living out our faith. We believe in tempering our own greed and caring for the poor. We believe in making sacrifices in order to heal the earth. We believe in challenging ourselves intellectually, spiritually, emotionally to become the best, most evolved version of ourselves that we can possibly be. We don’t believe that it’s easy or that it doesn’t matter just because we’re all saved anyway. And yet, we believe that we are all saved anyway.
It reminds me of a story about a religion professor, who, after spending weeks talking about grace, decides to give a test. The students arrive as usual, some having studied hard and others hoping to pass on a wing and a prayer. Some students studied through the night and others partied through the night. The professor as he hands out the test asks that they leave it face down so they can all begin the test at the same time.
He asked them to begin, and the students turn over their papers to find that the test has already been completed. There was a note at the bottom that said, “This is the end of the final exam. All the answers on the test are correct. You will receive an A+ on the exam. The reason you passed this test is because the creator of the test took it for you. All the work you did in preparation did not help you get this grade. You have just experienced grace.”
We may have ultimately passed the test, but we live with a great deal of anxiety and turmoil because we live in a culture whose values drive us from the essence of what matters. Tillich wrote that we cannot transform our lives unless we allow them to be transformed by grace. It is to know in the deepest places of the heart that we are accepted by God. It is to know that the unfathomable mysterious grace of God is always available. Tillich says:
“In the light of God’s grace we perceive the power of grace in relation to ourselves, because we know that we have been accepted by that which is greater than we. In the light of God’s grace we perceive the power of grace in our relationships with others. We experience the grace of being able to accept the life of another, even if it be hostile and harmful to us, for through grace, we know it belongs to the same divine entity by which we have been accepted.”
In the light of God’s grace we strive to build community in spite of our shortcomings because “the economy of grace is bigger than our transactions.” In the book of Hebrews (12:15) we are asked to make sure no one misses the grace of God. In the light of God’s grace we can celebrate this day with our lesbian, gay, bi and transgender friends. In the light of God’s grace when we see injustice, we move to challenge it. When we see beauty, we move to celebrate it. When we see pain, we move to heal it. And when we see love, we move to embrace it. By practicing such grace, we strive to build a world as God intended. In the light of God’s grace let us go forth with joy and be in the world with grace! May it be so. Amen.
Paul Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations, p. 163.
Amy Frykholm, “Requests without end,” Christian Century, June 20, 2018.