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"Annoying" Grace
    A homily based on Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
by Rev. F. Schaefer

I think all of us are familiar with the parable of the prodigal son. In a nutshell: the younger son of a farmer asks for his inheritance, leaves his father’s house, lives like all get-out, spends the entire inheritance, hits rock bottom, and returns house only to be welcomed by the father and be clad in royal attire.  The composer of our good old favorite hymn "Amazing Grace" seems to have composed the hymn under inspiration by the parable of the prodigal.

"Amazing Grace how sweet the sound..." When I volunteered for the pastoral service at Philhaven (a local mental institution) I often helped lead worship on the adult unit.  Amazing Grace was being requested by at least one patient every time I remember leading worship.   One day, I remember Anna, a 35 year old patient who had been a patient for quite some time at that point in time.  When we were about to sing the old hymn once again, she blurted out: "You know, when you sing that song as much as we do here, after a while, it is not that amazing any more!"  I didn't know whether I succeeded in holding my amusement in. I was certainly laughing on the inside.

This morning, I intend to take Anna's remark seriously.  Here is the question I would like to raise: is God's grace really so amazing?

Why does Jesus' parable end in a way that the prodigal comes out smelling like roses and the responsible son as a "party pooper?"  What if we were to look at this parable from the perspective of the responsible son: The older son, according to the Law of Moses, was to inherit a double portion. For good reason: he was the one who was expected to keep the farm going after his parents retired, he was to take care of his parents in their old age.

In this light, the younger son’s request for his share wasn’t unusual in first century Judea. He was the one who had to start his own business, trade, or farmstead. What is outrageous indeed is that he spends all of his money partying, drinking, and womanizing instead of starting his own household and providing for his family. He squanders his entire inheritance, and when he hits rock-bottom, he comes to his senses.

Historically, the rock-bottom experience of the prodigal has been interpreted as a moment of repentance.  But did he really repent?  It doesn't really say it specifically in the text, nor even that he was sorry for his lifestyle. Instead, the story line expresses that he came to his senses, questioning "what on earth am I doing in this pigsty?  I am from an honorable house.  I don't have to live like this."

Following this realization, this young man has an idea that thousands of young folks have had before him and millions after him to this very day: I’ll call on dad. Notice that the account has him rehearsing a speech: "this is what I’m going to tell dad: "Look dad, I have sinned against you and God. I’m not even worthy of being called your son anymore. But don’t send me away, please.  At least treat me like one of your hired hands.  Give me what I need and I promise, I'm going to pay you back."

Had there been telephones around and post offices, the story would surely have ended differently, something like this: Rrriiiiing ."Hello dad. Listen, I’m real sorry for letting you down, but I really need your help. I’m stuck in this little town, with no money and I'm starving. Can you cable me some dough? I’ll pay you back later. Promise!

How do we know that Junior really meant what he was saying in his rehearsed speech? Perhaps he was just saying what he knew dad wanted to hear--just the thing that would invoke his father’s pity. I mean which father would turn his son away after a speech like that?

What a contrast to his older brother. It is significant that the first time the older son is mentioned, it says that he is out in the field working. As a person of integrity, the older son takes responsibility. His father is apparently not working anymore. He is not in the fields, he probably sat on his front porch when he spotted his younger son in the distance.

And what does dad do? He runs out to him and even before Junior can deliver his rehearsed speech he finds himself hugged and kissed, he is dressed in a nice robe and receives a ring on his finger and once again he finds himself at a party.

Meanwhile, the older son works hard in order to provide for the family. Unlike his younger brother, he proves his love to dad in very tangible ways. He’s been out there in the fields every day, laboring and sweating.

On his way home, tired from the day's hard labor, he notices music and laughing coming from the farmstead. He is wondering: "what is going on?" He finds out from one of the hired hands: "your brother has come home and your father is throwing a party--he even slaughtered the prize calf for him."

Can you understand the older son's disappointment and resentment? I sure can! His father had the nerve to kill the prize calf for his irresponsible brother. Killing the prize calf was a big deal for any small farm--the prize calf was the basis for the future breeding success. And on top of that, nobody had bothered to get him from the fields. He wasn’t even invited to the party! No wonder he reacted so angrily as the story unfolds!

Apparently he was so upset that he was not capable of going inside. So dad, after being told that his older son is out on the front porch, comes out and begs him to come in.

And the faithful son replies with a simple, but justified question: "what about me, dad?  I worked hard, but you never even gave me a goat! Junior, here, spent all your money on prostitutes! And you give him the prize calf?"

Notice that the father cannot argue against his son’s point. He doesn’t say: "you’re wrong--remember, you were bad when you were young!" The responsible son has a valid point.

Instead, the father responds: "But...he’s your brother! He’s back. He was lost, but now is found." Now, that’s not very convincing to his older son. If anything, he must have thought that his father’s grace was irresponsible. How did dad know that his brother wouldn't leave with more of his money the following week?"

Those of us who have experienced problems with troubled teenage children, brothers or sisters, know that you can’t just throw your love at them. Sometimes you need to show them "tough love." You’ve got to learn how to say "no" when they ask you to help bail them out. Sometimes giving them money is enabling them to feed their addiction, etc. They got to learn to take responsibility for their own actions.

It is my theory this morning that most of us here at church are probably the more responsible members in our families--the ones that have been faithfully providing, the ones who have worked hard--supporting those who are weaker, not expecting anything in return.

So what about God's grace?  According to the parable of the prodigal,   God’s grace does not seem all that amazing. It doesn't seem fair. God’s grace can even be annoying to the more responsible people. God’s love doesn’t seem to be responsible, not ‘tough’ enough.

What Jesus is trying to teach his disciples is that God’s grace is unconditional. And not only is it unconditional, it is also totally unmerited--in other words, it doesn’t matter whether we deserve God’s grace or not. God simply welcomes his lost son back--no questions asked.

Now, that is a tough concept to understand. In fact, this kind of grace may even offends us--it goes against everything that our culture taught us. It goes against our "Protestant work ethic."

When you stop and think about it, It’s a grace that truly is amazing--in a mind-boggling kind of way.

And here is where this grace turns from annoying to amazing for anybody--even the more   responsible believers.  Given the fact that none of us is perfect, given the fact that according to St. Paul in Romans 3 "all have fallen short of the glory of God" it is that kind of amazing grace that gives us hope that we, too, will be welcomed back into God's arms.  This amazing grace of God is available for us as well.  The knowledge of God's unconditional love and amazing grace allows us to face the future with a great sense of security. And that is reason enough to join the party, isn't it?

The world will hardly give us a second chance, certainly not a third, or a fourth--only God will. Praise be to God! Praise God for such amazing grace. Amen!