'The extravagant gesture of the father, beyond any semblance of proportion, explodes the world the brothers live in, the world we live in. Deserve; owe; earn; but the father instead is full of joy.'
The Rev. Maurice C. Frontz, III
Text – Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
There’s something in me that thinks these things – and maybe there is in you as well. And this shows us just how far we are from Jesus’ knowledge and understanding of the character of God his Father.
Think about the words I’ve used to describe the thoughts and feelings of the elder son. Justice. Respect. Honor. Deserve. Owe. Earn. In the world we live in, those words come to our lips so easily. We use these concepts so frequently. And there are used on us. ‘You deserve a break today.’ ‘Fighting for Justice.’ We demand a world that makes sense. But this scene doesn’t make sense. Not in the way we’ve been trained to believe.
What about the younger brother? We are used to sympathizing with him, hungry and in need as he is. We are even told that we ought to be like him – at least when he ‘comes to himself’ and returns home. But why does he return home? Not because he has a sudden change of heart about his responsibility to his father. He goes because he’s hungry and there is nowhere else to go – and he knows that his father owes him nothing. He had already given what was ‘owed’ when his son demanded it of him. He hopes that even though he doesn’t deserve to be welcomed as a son, for he has squandered his inheritance – he might at least earn his daily bread as a hired worker. We are back in the same world – deserve, owe, earn.
But the extravagant gesture of the father, beyond any semblance of proportion, explodes the world the brothers live in, the world we live in. Deserve; owe; earn; but the father instead is full of joy. Whoever calculates who deserves what, what is owed and earned, who is worthy to receive attention or care, is operating outside the realm of joy.
Of course there must be bean-counters in the world, accounts payable and receivable. But this father’s love does not play by the numbers. For though mathematicians may disagree, numbers in general are not joyful. A man who runs from his house to greet a son returning in shame is joyful. A man who goes from a party to invite his angry son to join the celebration desires to share his joy.
There is another famous parable of joy that is not in the Bible. It is Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Scrooge’s world is determined by the words deserve, owe, earn. He sees the world in neat rows and columns, with tidy numbers, and one is a creditor or a debtor. But he eats alone. He lives alone. He is alone. It is only when he can see people as more than creditors or debtors that he can be joyful and enter into community.
For joy is experienced in community. One cannot be joyful if one is truly alone. This does not mean that one cannot know joy in solitude. But if one is not in community, present in mind or memory with God and neighbor, one is alone. This means that a person in solitude can be joyful and that a person with many people around them can be alone, if the person is not in community with them.
Remember why Jesus is telling this parable. Like the other parables which accompany this one but which we didn’t read today, the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin, this parable explains the actions of Jesus in eating with tax collectors in ‘sinners.’ The Pharisees and the scribes view this is indiscreet at best and blasphemous at worst. But Jesus is incarnating the joy of the Father and creating the renewed beloved community which is begotten by that joy.
If we must assign an identity to the father in the story, it could be God the Father, who sent his only Son that all who believe in him may not perish but have eternal life. But it could just as easily be God the Son, who enfleshes the love the Father and gathers the joyful community around himself.
We may wonder where we are in the parable. Are we the younger son, slinking home only to be greeted with extravagant love? Or are we the elder, standing aloof in our pride only to be asked in love to leave our pride outside and come in to the feast? Truth be told, there’s room for both the elder and the younger in us. They both inhabit the same world of earning, owing, and deserving. But when we come face-to-face with Jesus, there can be no more talk of this. Neither staying home nor returning home merits us a place at the table. Luther reminds us in the Catechism: ‘We are worthy of nothing for which we ask, nor have we earned it. Instead we ask that God would give us all things by grace, for we sin daily and deserve only punishment. So, on the other hand, we, too, truly want to forgive heartily and to do good gladly to those who sin against us.’