What if God is a sucker?

St. Jonh’s Episcopal Church, Beverly Farms

Lent 4, Sunday March 10, 2013

Luke 15:1-3, 11-32 Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3So he told them this parable

11Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12The 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. 13A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17But 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! 18I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ 20So 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. 21Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22But 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. 23And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. 25“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29But 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. 30But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32But 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.’”

It was a war waged by Post-it notes. Three inch squares of pastel paper, with names scratched by blue ball point pens, each script a slight variation on Mrs. Hoffman’s third grade penmanship class. The pink Post-its were from Liz, the Yellow from James, the Green from Robert. There were Post-it notes on the backs of dining room chairs, on the box of silverware and the good china, on a painting of horses that no one much liked anyway. A house covered in grief and Post-it notes. Equally divided. But the problem with the cheap Post-its is that they don’t stick very well after that ½ inch of adhesive dries up. After a while, as the air grew stale and the casseroles stopped arriving, the names began to drop off and flutter to the ground. It’s nothing really, but when the pain is thick and tension high it’s much easier to accuse your sister of removing your name from the chandelier. A war of inheritance waged by Post-It Notes. “Give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” Let us pray…


This story is so familiar that it risks losing meaning, like a dish sponge wrung too many times; the grit to effect any change in us is almost gone. We know this text from Luke as “the Prodigal Son.” By naming the story that way, we make the younger son the central character. When this scripture lesson comes up for the Eastern Orthodox Church, people sign this hymn:

I have recklessly forgotten Your glory, O Father;
 And among sinners I have scattered the riches which You gave to me.
 And now I cry to You as the Prodigal: 
I have sinned before You, O merciful Father;
 Receive me as a penitent and make me as one of Your hired servants.

When the Orthodox Church hears this story, the people sing in the voice of the Prodigal. We are the ones that squander the treasure. We are the Prodigal Sons and Daughters. When Rembrandt paints “The Prodigal Son in the Tavern/Brothel” in 1637, it’s Rembrandt himself as the wayward son and his wife Saskia as the mistress. It’s an audacious claim that we are the prodigals.  Do we really sin that boldly? Prone to wander, yes, but to travel all the way to that distant country? And are we good people ever that tactless? The young son is so bold as to go to his father to ask for his inheritance, before the father has died. Not just a post-it note on an armchair, but a for-sale sign on the front lawn. It’s public. As a parcel of land is sold off, the whole town can see. And what of the mother? In this patriarchal society, this unseen mother would depend on her sons to care for her after her husband dies. The young son is embarrassing his father, making vulnerable his mother, and sticking his older brother with all the responsibility.

It’s March in Massachusetts, so I’m contractually obliged to make some reference to the Irish. Even the Irish folk song, “The Wild Rover” picks up this story with lyrics in the voice of the younger son:

I’ll have none of your whiskeys nor fine Spanish wines,
For your words show you clearly as no friend of mine.
 There’s others most willing to open a door,
To a man coming home from a far distant shore.

I’ll go home to me parents, confess what I’ve done,
 and I’ll ask them to pardon their prodigal son.
 And if they forgive me as oft times before,
 I never will play the wild rover no more.

In Luke, verse 17 begins “ 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! 18I will get up and go to my father. “ We don’t know why he turns and heads home. Does he realize that he is wrong? Is he remorseful? Or there in the slop among the pigs and the corn cobs and the whiskeys and fine Spanish wines, has he hit his bottom. Is it utter desperation? Or does he realize he’d be better off at home. Is he scheming or has he hit bottom? In the end it doesn’t matter why he goes, which utterly violates the sense of order of those of us responsible ones.

It used to be that this story of the Prodigal Son came up in Ordinary Time.  But in 1992, the Revised Common Lectionary, which serves as a collaboration among divided Christian denominations to read the same Scripture texts together, placed this lesson in Lent. Our Sundays in Lent are little rests from the rigors of our Lenten fast. Placing the story here in Lent 4, shift the focus away from the penance of the younger son and towards the joyous celebration of the Father.

I don’t know about you good people, but I more often feel like the older brother. I stand with my arms crossed, brown furrowed as the older son, constantly silently judging and increasingly judging out loud. I believe in duty and responsibility as point of personal pride to be worn like Girl Scout merit badges.  I understand the older brother’s distress, the way this younger child violates my sense of order. I know of a young woman who sat with her arms crossed in a tiny kitchen. Every time, every time her heroin-addicted brother would return home, her mother would make him macaroni and cheese from a box. He would have stolen from the mother’s purse that very day, already pawned their dead father’s watch, and still: macaroni and cheese.  The cheese would barely be dried on the edge of pot before he would leave again. And still, she kept making it, perhaps with the vain hope that he would stay long enough for breakfast, stay safe and secure long enough to avoid the dread and dark of the night. Stay long enough to see the dawn. I know that cross-armed glare of a weary sister who wouldn’t mind someone cooking macaroni and cheese for her one of these days.

The older brother is right. He’s right! This extravagant feast for the wayward son messes with our sense of how we think justice works in the world. We believe that if you work faithfully and diligently, you get rewarded. You should get rewarded in proportion to your good works. You serve on the various committees, you garner praise.  Attend town meeting, get lauded as a model citizen. Recycle. Shoot, you even separate out your recycling! Donate every week and even something extra to the capitol campaign.  Shovel your sidewalk. Do what you are supposed to do. There is a simple formula. Work hard and responsibly, get what you deserve. We want someone to notice! That older brother is tired of being obedient; weary of being dutiful. Perhaps we are the dutiful ones.  Yet, the Prodigal Son and the extravagant father up-end our smug math.

This story fails our sense of order.  We expect acts of repentances first and then forgiveness.  The younger brother does none of that. We don’t even know if he’s sorry or just choosing the last road back from a desperate situation. The reformer Martin Luther believed that forgiveness comes before repentance, not after it. Luther insisted that pastors are required to give absolution without requiring acts of penance. We want the equation to work left to right, and it works right to left. We want an order for our operations. But in the economy of God’s grace, we dutiful humans cannot proscribe how and to whom God offers forgiveness. Underneath it all, we want to be rewarded for our good behavior and we want others to repent for their sins before they get to come to the party.

This whole family is a mess. One commentator renamed this “The parable of the dysfunctional family.” This father is a mess. To the younger son’s offensive request, he says “sure.” I once sat on an airplane with a mother and a young son. The young boy asked to have his kazoo back, the mother said sure.  The prodigal father hardly seems like a healthy model for parenting. If we said yes to every one of our children’s wishes, we’d be having cupcakes for breakfast everyday. The Prodigal Father lets is foolish kid run roughshod all over him, treat him like he was dead. He then rewards bad behavior with a party. He runs through the fields (not something a dignified landowning man would do at that time) to greet his son who may or may not be remorseful, but certainly is hungry. Undignified. At best this father is gracious, at worst, he’s a sucker.

If Jesus is telling this parable to show us something of the love of God, even for the least worthy, then the logical conclusion is this: What if God is a sucker? There is no good reason for the father to do what he does. He reward bad behavior. God so foolishly in love with us, so excited to welcome us home that God would do illogical things to welcome us to the feast.

This father invested in a son who put Post-It notes on his inheritance before his father had even died. This kid’s a bad bet. Either God is the world’s worst investor, or it’s an entirely different calculus. Not about winners and losers. Not about making a good bet. What was spent is utterly unimportant. Our sense of scarcity and duty reigns supreme. But God’s math is different. The audience for the parable are the religious skeptics anxious about the economy of grace: if grace abounds for sinners, then why would people behave well? Jesus isn’t interested in this, he’s telling the story of God’s crazy, stupid love.

That’s the invitation. We can walk through the door and join the feast. A ridiculous, illogical feast of fatted calf and macaroni & cheese, of cupcakes for breakfast. Maybe even the bread of heaven. The father said “All that I have is yours.” We can stand outside the party with our arms crossed, or we can walk in. That’s the invitation. May it be so for you this day. Amen.

Published by RevEverett

I'm a pastor in the United Church of Christ here in Boston. I serve as the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches. Cycliss, seamstress, my book is "Holy Spokes: The Search for Urban Spirituality on Two Wheels." NJ by birth, MA by choice. Opinions are my own. Love abounds.

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  1. Thank you for this, and for your prayer for Boston. I was particularly struck by the statement “Even as we grieve, we will remain steadfast in charity, defiant in hope, and constant in prayer.” Words of hope for all. Thank you.

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