Week of Sunday March 10 - Lent 4
Gospel: Luke 15:1-2, 11-32
Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’...
Then Jesus said, ‘There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” So he divided his property between them.
A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything.
But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’ ” So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.
Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate.
‘Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.” Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered 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.But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!”
Then the father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”
There is no such thing as free.
Adam Smith apparently taught that quid pro quo, “this for that,” is “written into the moral fabric of the world.” In my IT persona, I keep telling people that Facebook and Google are not free. We think they are free only because we fail to see that we are the product they are selling. Even the beer that mates buy us at the pub is not free. Accepting a “free beer” is a credit card purchase into a complex relationship of obligations and expectations.
I wondered if I should title this commentary something other than “Free Beer.” My old Methodist sensibilities were stirring! But I am trying to make a point here: nothing is free, not even something as frothy and inconsequential as beer. In the way of the world, your buying me free beer is a down payment on my future goodwill.
Too often, a gift in the offering bowl is down payment on visitation, or some other consideration, from the minister or the congregation.
Despite this, God gives freely. God does not oblige us. This insight has taken me some fifty years to see, and it flickers in and out of focus! We are not sure that it is really true, for it is so contrary to everything else we know.
God has freely given us life, but from our earliest learning we have been painting out the shape of our life on a canvas called Nothing is Free: “Be a good boy, and then daddy will give you a lolly.” We no longer notice this foundation or backdrop to the life we have constructed for ourselves. We simply assume—we don’t even think about it—that nothing is free. It really is the moral fabric of our lives.
J. Louis Martyn imagines the preaching of the malignant visitors to the church of the Galatians. He calls them “the Teachers.” What he calls the Two Ways is this: “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.” (Deut 30:19; cf. Jer 21:8) I’ve added the emphases the text.
In the Teachers' message, the announcement of the Two Ways was married, so to speak, to the notion of the circular exchange, "this for that." Indeed, its being linked to this notion is surely a major reason for the fact that the Teachers' message proved highly attractive to the Galatians. For like all other human beings—ourselves included—the Galatians were doubtless glad to think that there could be between themselves and God a secure and dependable exchange, set in motion by an act carried out by themselves.
Is this not the thing for which we have longed? A dependable exchange, a firm belief, a guarantee of salvation; nothing is free, but here at last, we have found a trustworthy transaction. He goes on:
Instructed by the Teachers, the Galatians apparently reasoned somewhat as follows: Good news! What is wrong—sins—is a matter about which we can do something. We can repent, commencing—in the holy rite of circumcision—observance of what the Teachers call the venerable Law of Sinai. Moreover, as the Teachers have informed us, there is that dependable circular exchange. When in repentance we commence observance of the Law, we place God, as it were, in our debt. And finally, we can be confident that God will respond. For, in the circular exchange, God has pledged himself to acknowledge our repentance by forgiving us. Blessed be the name of this dependable God!
We can do something! We can be deserving. We can oblige someone to us; this we can understand, it makes sense of life, it is how life works! We have fitted God into our world; an honourable God, what is more, as a real God should be! He is dependable.
Martyn points out the problem with the teaching of the interlopers.
In Israel—and in Jewish traditions from Ben Sira to Qumran, and on to the rabbis— the God who lays the Two Ways before the people is the God who has already elected this people in the gracious move that has no presupposition other than God's own love (Deut 30:20). For Israel, the drama began with God's act of grace, not with threat and an exhortation to choose and follow one of two ways. Taken to Gentiles, the Teachers' message of the Two Ways is another matter altogether. It does not begin with God's gracious, presuppositionless, and powerful good news. Beginning with a form of bad news, this highly religious drama calls upon the hearers to move from bad news to good news via the religious form of the quid pro quo.
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In the text we call The Story of the Prodigal Son, all the notions of quid pro quo; you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours; there is no such thing as a free beer; you keep your side of the bargain and I’ll keep mine, are totally undermined. This is why the elder son is so angry. He has spent his whole life fulfilling his side of the bargain, and it has been hard work— knowing the younger son has not kept the bargain— only to find there was no bargain to start with!
The older son is a son! “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” There was no need for a bargain; he was loved; he was a son.
In the welcoming of newcomers to church, and in the giving away of our church by letting them be a part of it, rather than eternal probationers and newcomers, there is to be no bargain, no obligation. We received without cost, we must give without cost. (Mathew 10:8)
I used to think of the issues around the acceptance of new comers to our congregation as being about ownership; we do not like to give up that which is ours. I would say, “This is not our church; it is God’s church! We do not own it.”
I wonder if I was wrong, or at least only partially correct. I wonder if at a very deep level we are like the older son. We have worked hard to get this, to build this, to maintain this. Therefore there is an obligation to us. We cannot give it to these people; they need to work for it. If we give, it will undermine our bargain with God; if we give, it might just imply that we were given to, and that all our work to keep a bargain was a category mistake.
Giving the church away is to acknowledge that quid pro quo is not the universal currency of the universe. It is to enter the goodness of God, which simply gives to us without obligation.
So, at a very deep level, in the strong undercurrents of our being which we keep hidden from ourselves, we recognise that the giving away of our church will acknowledge we have been keeping our side of a nonexistent bargain! Lack of obligation offends us. It is not right!
My family and I once spent an inordinate amount of time looking after someone. It was costly. We gave them money, large amounts, which we could not afford. We drove them, we carted goods, we acted as advocates. “How can we ever repay you,” they asked. “You have done so much!”
I had already begun to think I was being more blessed than they were, in all this! I was finding a deep blessing and healing in simply, practically being able to help someone. And then, from somewhere, I was given a greater blessing again: this answer. “You don’t have to pay me back. You don’t owe me anything. One day, when life has come together for you a bit, you will be able to help someone else.”
This will not be obligation for them. This will be opportunity to bless, to be God-like, to have the sheer joy of giving without obligation. They will be able to step into the life of God, and out of the tyranny of obligation, that need to always be worthy.
This is what I have found! Giving without obligation— even the little I have managed— begins to heal my sense of unworthiness, of not being good enough. In some sense that I do not yet understand, I am relieved of obligations I felt I could never fulfil.
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As kids in Sunday School, we were taught that the younger brother, the prodigal son, was the sinner outside the church who finally repented and came back to the father, who is God. The older brother was us, the good church people— well not us, but other church people— who looked down on the younger brother, and thought that we should be rewarded for our faithful service, and that he should not be allowed back in the house. He should, at best, be housed out with the servants.
Later I learned not to look so much at the sons, and that maybe the emphasis should be more on the father. I began to speak of the Parable of the Profligate Father, and even of The Prodigal Father.
I certainly come to the story of the parable with the requirement for repentance deeply imprinted into me.
There was a man who committed a heinous crime during my childhood. His parents owned a shop in our local town. If he had come home, I’m not sure we would ever have accepted it. But if the parents had celebrated his return, and thrown a party, the whole town would have been in uproar. I cannot imagine what might have been done.
This is the situation of the parable. The son has committed a heinous social crime; effectively wishing his father dead by demanding the inheritance, then wasting the inheritance, and then having the gall to return.
Yet many read the parable for this week, and see no real repentance on the part of the younger son. They see him as pragmatic, or even calculating; one colleague said his prepared litany for his father struck him as a “cock and bull” story to get out of a mess.
These people do not see a returning prodigal so much as a profligate father, who ignores good sense and propriety in his love and haste to receive his son.
They understand that the neighbours at the next farm down the road will likely be scornful of the father. “The old fool!” They understand the older son is well within his rights to complain, and [he] will garner much local sympathy.
In the culture where the story is set, the Father would have [gone] way above the call of duty even to have accepted the wayward son as a hired man. But to kill the fatted calf, and pull out the best robe!!!
The father is prodigal. In truth, part of us disapproves of his actions. The son should at least have repented before he did this. And even then....
The parable highlights the unconditional love of a prodigal father, not the repentance of the son.
In Australia we had a young tearaway, a prodigal, called David Hicks. Hicks got involved with terrorist training and was eventually captured by the Americans, and held in Guantanamo Bay under the American suspension of human rights and justice along with so many other people. And the Australian government, unlike the British who at least have had the guts to stick up for their own, went along with this.
One man in particular stands out in this tale of injustice and heroism. His name is Terry Hicks, David Hicks’ father. In 2006 Hicks was nominated by ACT Chief Minister Jon Stanhope for the Australian Father of the Year award. The campaign of this very ordinary Aussie dad “included staying in a Guantanamo Bay-sized cage on a New York pavement and outside a convention centre in Adelaide, confronting Prime Minister John Howard on talkback radio and being interviewed by al-Jazeera.”
In the various hostilities about this controversial nomination, someone wrote, “Surely [Terry Hicks] represents everything a Father of the Year should be? A man who stands by his son and supports him even when he's royally fucked?!!”
My own father said to me that I had his full support, as I was in crazily leaving my job and going back to university with a young child, to train for ordination. I heard his statement of love: “We’ll support you wherever we can.” But I heard it as the good oldest child, (which is what I am) the one who knows that if you do good by God, God will do good by you.
But God is like Terry Hicks! Even if we do bad by God, God still loves us. God loves us unconditionally. There is no bargain; all we older children have to learn this. And when we younger children grow up enough to realise, or to be honest enough to admit, that we made up a self serving sob story when we came home to Dad, we will see there is no bargain. God simply loved us, and always did. We are his child.
The beer really is free. You don’t have to go off and have a wild fling. All the beer we need is here, free and better. God wants us to have all things as they are needed and good for us, even the beer.
I need to pay attention to how I receive people who have turned around in their journey seeking God, and are travelling a new path; that is a clear intention of this parable. But in doing this it will not be the case that I am ‘welcoming sinners and eating with them.’ (15:2) That is the category mistake of the Pharisees, who are still trapped in the lie of obligation to God. The people I welcome are simply, and only, people like me, loved by God, even if they are “royally f...d.” After all, that’s about where I am a lot of the time.
But most of all, I need to pay attention to my reality, and all the assumptions attached to it. For God owes me nothing. I have done no work of repentance. I have done no work of discipleship. I have simply lived in the goodness the father always had planned for me, and mostly unconscious of the precious and abundant gracing of my life. And grace is that I owe God nothing for this.
If I begin to understand this, then the world of obligation disappears. All that stuff I have learned about quid pro quo, will drain out of the backdrop of my world, and I will be free. Free to love, and free to give, and free to receive even more blessing.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!