A sermon based on Psalm 32 and Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 preached on July 5th, 2015.
When we were younger, my brother and I both got presents on the other one’s birthday. My parents didn’t want my brother to feel forgotten and left out when my birthday came around—and vise versa.
I’m not sure if giving presents to all the other siblings on another sibling’s birthday is a regular thing that parents have to do. It sounds exhausting, but I get why my parents did it. Being there on the outskirts of a sibling’s birthday party is a lonely feeling. All the attention is on somebody else that day, and even though you might be happy that your brother or sister was born, people could afford to tone down the celebration a bit—either that or pay more attention to you. That sounds utterly selfish, but don’t we feel that way often—even as we grow older? We compare ourselves to each other like this all the time. We think thing like…
It’s great that a co-worker is getting an award at the company’s annual ceremony. I guess she deserves it, but why not me—was I even considered?
The neighbor across the street pulled into his driveway in a new Mercedes this afternoon. My car is starting to feel kinda old. I wonder if it’s time for me to start looking for a new one.
There’s this couple from my son’s soccer team who throws parties at their house every couple weeks and invites everybody.
I’m not sure how they find the time or the energy to do all that, life as it is is already exhausting, but maybe it wouldn’t hurt to step up our game and invite a few folks over for a party at the house once a month or so.
We know this parable well. It’s probably the most well-known of Jesus’ parables, in part because all 3 characters in it are rich. We can put ourselves in their place.
There’s the younger one. Most of the ink on the page of this parable is about him—in fact we know this as the parable of the prodigal son. He cashes in his inheritance, which is just as good as wishing his father dead, and he goes out at blows it Vegas-style. He makes a series of terrible and short-sided, selfish choices and ends up crawling back home, hoping to be accepted back by his father—if only as one of his hired servants.
Then there’s the responsible older son. He’s the one who does everything the way it is expected of him. He is duty-bound to his father. He lives his life and makes all of his choices by the book. But as perfect as the older son seems, he has troubles of his own, which we’ll get to later.
Then there’s the father. The one who gives his younger son his part of the inheritance and watches him run off with it—saying nothing of how much it hurt him to have his son do that to him. And when his younger son comes groveling back home, just hoping to be made a hired hand, the father welcomes him back like he’s royalty.
Which of these 3 characters can you relate to? My guess is each of us have a little bit of all 3 inside. Maybe at different times in our lives, we’ve played the role of all 3.
We call this the parable of the prodigal son, but I think that’s the wrong title for it. The trouble that the younger son gets himself into is surprising, but what’s even more surprising is that his father welcomes him back home. What’s the most surprising—maybe we could even say the most offensive or scandalous thing—is how easily the father celebrates his return: no chastisement, no record of offenses mentioned, no anger or betrayal, only pure joy and celebration because his son was “dead and now is alive, he was once lost but now is found!”
This parable should be called The Parable of the Grace-filled Father.
This story is indeed about God’s grace, because while we are still a long way off—wondering, just like the prodigal son, if we will be welcomed back home, God is the One who comes running toward us in the person of Jesus Christ, and who, despite all we’ve done wrong, despite all the terrible decisions we make in our lives that have us wander far away from God, we are always welcomed back home again.
But that sort of grace isn’t just extended to you and me. It’s extended to everyone. And this is where this parable becomes scandalous and offensive.
The older son sees his father running out to his younger brother to call him back home. He sees his father pouring over his younger brother—putting a ring on his finger and dressing him in royal garb, and placing sandals on his feet—and the older brother wonders why. He wonders why his father has never given him the royal treatment. The fatted calf is killed for his younger brother’s return, and they throw him a huge homecoming party where he’s the center of everyone’s attention, and in that moment, no one even seems to care that the older brother even exists. The older brother sees all the efforts his father makes to welcome his younger brother back home, and he wonders aloud why no one’s ever thrown a party for him. After all, he’s the son who’s followed all the rules, and did everything that was expected of him. He’s the one who made sure never to offend or disappoint his father. So, where’s his party? Why doesn’t he get a gift, or at least some recognition for how faithful he’s been?
God’s grace can be offensive, especially to those like the older brother who think they deserve more reward from God—more of God’s love and attention—because they’ve lived a clean life and played by all the rules.
As the younger son’s homecoming party carries on, the father sees that the older son isn’t there to celebrate, and he goes out to find him. The older son says to his father,
Look, I’ve served you all these years, and I never disobeyed your instruction. But despite this, you’ve never thrown me a party, not even when I’ve asked for one!
So, who’s the lost son here?
The fact is that both sons are lost. Both sons misunderstand grace. The younger son comes home underestimating his father’s grace—he comes home begging, just hoping to be made a hired hand—he assumes that the only way to be accepted back home is to bargain for it—to manipulate his way back into his father’s presence. And the older son just doesn’t know grace. He’s stuck in this mentality that the only way to get on his father’s good side is to live by the rules, to never make a mistake, never move to either the right or to the left but to live his life perfectly, rigidly following all the rules—earning his way into his father’s love. The older son also has a hard time letting go of grudges, which is graceless in itself. The tighter he holds on to his grudges, the more distant he feels from his father.
The younger brother was once lost and is now found, but the older brother, even though he never took a step off his father’s farm, is like a foreigner is his own home—just as lost as the younger one, if not more so.
Brené Brown says that part of living a wholehearted life is to let go of comparison and replace it by cultivating creativity.
is the thief of happiness…Comparison is all about conformity and competition. And we compare ourselves to others every single day whether we realize it or not.
When we compare ourselves to others, we tell ourselves two paradoxical things at once:
Fit in and stand out. Be like and do everything just like everybody else, but be it and do it better.
We’re at once told to be our own selves—whatever want to be—but at the exact same time we’re also warned: don’t stand out too much or else…
Brené Brown says that the way to break free of this exhausting, half-hearted lifestyle of constantly trying to conform to, but at the same time compete with, others is to let go of comparison altogether, and we do that by asserting our creativity and our uniqueness. Creativity, she says, is the expression of our originality—that every single one of us is unlike anyone else, that what we bring to the world is completely original and cannot be compared to.
When we embrace our wholeheartedness, comparison loses its meaning and sway in our lives. Concepts like ahead or behind, best or worst lose their meaning. So, instead of cultivating our standards of meaning and worth from others, we need to let go of rivalry and comparison, and cultivate our own unique set of standards by living our lives creatively—making our own, original dent in the world—striking out and cultivating meaning that’s like no one else’s—living creatively by making our own way, however we might define that.
The father in this morning’s parable never once compares the two sons. There are no thoughts of who’s better or worse, more or less. No measuring sticks at all. The father responds to both his sons according to their uniqueness. Each son is uniquely and completely loved. The older son underestimates his father’s love, thinking that love given to the younger son is love taken away from him, but that’s just not true.
We live in a world that is constantly comparing us to others, so what Jesus is saying to us through this parable is not an easy thing for us to grasp. God loves with a divine love, a non-comparing love, a love that fully loves us in our uniqueness and others in their own uniqueness.
Even though we know in our heads that this is true, it’s still very hard for us to comprehend. But that’s God’s grace: ungraspable and incomprehensible—a love without comparison. May we each know of God’s unrivaled love, and may we each find our way back home.
All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!