A scandalous God

Pentecost 17   2013

Luke 15:11-32

Marian Free 

In the name of God who cares not what we have done, only that we  trust God enough to return home. Amen.

If you were to read the Gospel of Mark (or even Matthew or John), you would look in vain for the best-loved and best known stories and parables. If we did not have the Gospel of Luke there would be no shepherds to accompany the Christmas story and no manger to adorn our Christmas cards, no accounts of Jesus’ childhood or reports of thankfulness (the ten lepers).  The parable of the Good Samaritan and the parable of the Prodigal Son would be nowhere to be found. Parables which are so well-known that they are part of our cultural heritage would have been lost.

Luke’s gospel has another claim on our attention. The author, for reasons that we can only guess, likes numbers (or repetition). Where other gospels only have one story, or one character, Luke often has two. For example, in Mark’s Gospel, there is only one Gerassene demoniac; in Luke there are two. There are two parables for guests and hosts (14:7-14) and two parables about counting the cost (14:28-33). Luke also presents pairs of stories: a man is healed and a woman is healed (13:10-17, 14:1-6). (In fact, stories of men are often paired with similar stories which feature women – for eg the annunciation to Zechariah (1:5-25) and the annunciation to Mary (1:26-38)).

This pattern of repeating a story or an event is evident in the stories of the lost. The parable of the lost sheep is joined by the parables of the lost coin and the lost son both of which are unique to Luke’s gospel. Perhaps the author of the Gospel is using repetition to ensure that his readers really understand the (shocking) point that Jesus is making – that God seeks out the lost and expects those who are found (or who have never strayed) to understand that such seeking is integral to the nature of God. Despite their popular names, these parables are of course about God – not the sheep or the coin or the son. For that reason, what is popularly known as the parable of the prodigal son is better called the parable of the Forgiving Father.

Just as the parable of the lost sheep is designed to shock and confound the listeners, so too, the parable about the son is intended to shake people out of their complacency and to force them to see God, and their faith, from a different perspective. According to these parables, God does not behave in the way that God is expected to behave – rewarding the good and excluding those who stray from the straight and narrow path. In fact, to the surprise of Jesus’ listeners (and perhaps to many of us today) God behaves in exactly the opposite way.

It is not the complacent, independent, law-observing believers who are God’s primary concern. In fact such people are often so self-assured that they seem to believe that they can achieve salvation by their own efforts and who do not recognise their faults and failures. (They don’t need God to assist them). God, as depicted by the parables of the lost, is more concerned with those “outside” those, who like the younger son, become aware of their own shortcomings and throw themselves on God’s mercy.

In order to understand the scandalous behaviour of the father (God) in the story, we have to understand the cultural context. In the first instance, we have to be aware that in the culture of the time, honour was a very important value. The son has shamed the father (and himself) in multiple ways: by asking for the inheritance, by spending it unwisely and by working with the pigs. At the same time, no self-respecting man would allow a son to insist that the estate be divided, nor would he welcome back the same son after he had wasted the money in loose living.

However, contrary to expectations, the son is not cast off. In fact, it seems that the father has been hoping for, watching for his return (15:19). Not only that, the father casts aside all pride and dignity and runs down the road to meet him! He is so glad to see the son that he doesn’t care what anyone thinks. For Jesus’ listeners this would be outrageous behaviour – the father doesn’t even know that the son is sorry – only that he is coming home and that is all that he needs to know.

As Jesus continually reminds us, God’s values, kingdom values are often the reverse of human/worldly values. (The poor will be blessed, those who weep will laugh. Do not only love those who can love you in return and so on.) What is more, the conventions and standards of the kingdom do not conform to the conventions and practices of the world. God can and does behave in ways that many of us would consider scandalous or unfair.

This parable has a coda. While the main action is between the father and the younger son, we are also given an insight into the reaction of the older brother – the one who remained behind. He represents all the good, law-abiding Jews, who are – not surprisingly – horrified by the father’s shocking behaviour and incensed that all their efforts to behave appropriately are not given more recognition, that they are not commended and rewarded for doing what is right.

It has been my experience that most people who hear or read this parable, identify with the older son.  They have a very human idea of fairness and justice and while they might think God is wonderful for welcoming the younger boy, they experience at the same time some disquiet that the older son receives no extra recompense for his conformity and his dutiful behaviour.

This is exactly the attitude that Jesus is trying to confront and to challenge. Jesus has identified a mind-set that is likely to cause some good, well-intentioned believers some difficulty. That is that they will find it difficult to accept that God behaves in ways that contradict their expectation, that the values of the kingdom are not the same as the values of the world and that the economy of exchange (if I do this, I receive that) does not count for anything in the world to come.

The problem is this: there is only one reward (eternal life) and only one way to receive it (faith). That means that at the end ALL those who have faith will receive the same reward – whether they come to faith only in old age after a life-time of crime or debauchery, or whether they have been faithful and well-behaved for an entire life-time. If faith is the sole criterion for inheritance of the kingdom of heaven, God will not be grading us according to any other criteria.

The sooner we grasp this concept the better. We would not want our resentment and bitterness to exclude us from a gift we have spent a lifetime longing for. We would not like to be like the older brother – so angry at God’s grace and generosity to others that despite God’s pleading we refuse to go in.

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