March 31, 2019: Lent 4C (English)

Lent 4C: 2 Corinthians 5:16-21 and Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Zion Lutheran Church, March 31, 2019
Pastor Anke Deibler

Grace be to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

“Christ has given us the ministry of reconciliation,” Paul writes to the congregation in Corinth. He explains how God reconciled himself to the world through Jesus Christ. He writes, “In Christ, God has reconciled the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them.”

The reconciliation and forgiveness God extends to us is completely based on grace. We are sinners. We have sinned against God, repeatedly. God knows that full well. Yet in his mercy, God decided not to hold these sins against us any longer.

I often hear people say that we should ‘forgive and forget”. That, they think, would be the way to repair a relationship. But I am not so sure that is true. If we could forget, truly forget, what the other person did to us, then forgiveness wouldn’t be much of a challenge, would it? In fact, you wouldn’t need to forgive at all, because you wouldn’t remember the offense in the first place.

Here is an example: A colleague of mine is the chaplain in a nursing home, including the dementia unit. One day, a new resident was admitted. The chaplain did not know she was a new resident and assumed she was a visitor. He ended up saying something impatient to the lady which really upset her. He felt terrible.

The next day the chaplain went to visit this lady. She was delighted to meet him and introduced herself. She had absolutely no memory of the incident from the day before. There was no reconciliation needed here because there was no recollection of how the relationship had been hurt in the first place.

Indeed, if we could forget, we didn’t need to forgive.

That forgetting, however, is a tough challenge. Insults, slights, and injustices from years past still haunt us. We lie awake at night and recall the way people have wronged us. We hold grudges. We simply cannot forget.

According to Paul in his letter today, we are not called to forget. God knows we can’t do that. What we are called to do is forgive. We are called to reconcile. We are called to repair relationships. God expects us to know full well what the other person has done, and still reach out and reconcile and live in peace with that person.

The parable Jesus tells us today is a great illustration for this kind of forgiveness. It is usually called the parable of the prodigal son, prodigal being an old word for wasteful. A better name might be “The Parable of the Forgiving Father”, for his forgiveness is really the main point in this story.

Let’s look at it a bit closer.

There is a father with two sons. They live and work on a family farm. The older son dutifully goes about the daily chores. The younger son is restless and fears that he is missing out on life, being stuck there on the farm. This fear drives him to make a request of his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.”

There are several things wrong with this request.

Number one: The son is asking for his inheritance before his father is actually dead. It’s as if he is saying, “I wish you were dead so I could have your money.” This is incredibly rude in any culture, but especially the culture of Jesus’ day, where parents were to be honored.

Number two: By requesting to be paid his share in cash, the younger son is jeopardizing the family farm. Farms are routinely land rich and cash poor. There was a farmer in our other church who died a few years ago. He left the farm to his four children. One of the sons is farming it. If any of the other three kids had requested to get the value of the land in cash, the farm would not have survived. The younger son’s request is likewise a real threat to the family business.

Number three: The son and his behavior are an embarrassment to his father. Village communities were very tight back then. Your standing in the community had everything to do with honor and shame. You rose in the eyes of the village if you and your offspring behaved honorably; you were sunk if you or your kids behaved shamefully. What the younger son does is definitely shameful. He is bringing shame on his family.

Yet so eager and restless is the younger son that he does not see any of this. He takes the money and off he goes. For a while, things go well. People with money always find friends. The trouble starts when the money runs out. At the same time, there is a famine in the land. The young man is far away from home; nobody feels compelled by family ties to help him out. In the end, he has to herd pigs, a terrible thing for a Jew to have to do. He is starving and desperate and lonely.

As he sits there with the pigs, he has time to think. He compares his current life with his former life. That’s when he realizes that even hired hands have a better life on his father’s farm than he has in the pig sty. So he decides to go back home and ask his father for a job.

Now, the commentaries are split on whether or not the son is sincere in his remorse and apology. Is he truly sorry for his behavior and the pain he caused his father? Or does he practice a speech he knows will get his dad’s heart? We don’t know. And it doesn’t really matter, because he never gets to give the whole speech anyway.

His father has spotted his son at the end of the lane and is running towards his son. This is one of the scenes in the Bible that really gets me. This father has been scanning the horizon for days and weeks and months, hoping to see the siluette of his son appearing down the road. And finally, there he is.

The father runs. The village would have frowned on that. Old men don’t run. It is not dignified. But this father doesn’t care. He sees his son and he runs, out of love, out of joy – and out of the need to get to him before the village folks do. They are so angry at the shameful behavior of this son they are likely to drive him away.

The father needs to get there first, and he does. He hugs the son. He calls for shoes and a robe and a ring, all signs of the son being reinstated as a member of the household. The father throws a party. Why? Because at this party, everyone who comes will have to talk to the son and acknowledge him. This paves the son’s way back into the community.

This father does everything possible to reconcile his son to himself and to the village community. He hasn’t forgotten a thing this son did to him. He remembers full well the heart ache, the shame, the pain, the scandal this boy caused him. And yet, the father reaches out to him in forgiveness and love. He is an inspiring example for the kind of reconciliation Paul is writing about.

Once the younger son is reinstated through the father’s forgiveness and mercy and generosity, however, the father’s work is not over. For there is a second son, the older one, who is not happy about this development at all.

He is outside working when he hears of his brother’s return and the party his father is throwing for him. And he is mad. He refuses to join the celebration.

Now it is the older son who is hurting the father.

Number one: He is refusing to feel the joy his father is feeling and is thus dampening the father’s happiness at the son’s return.

Number two: He slanders his brother. Notice that the story does not tell us how exactly the younger brother had spent his money. It is the older brother who assumes that he spent it on prostitutes. He can’t possibly know that, but he states it anyway.

Number three: He is blinded by jealousy. In his fury at his brother, he loses out of sight all the blessings he has been enjoying in his father’s presence all along. Everything the father owns was at his disposal the whole time. But all he can see is not what he has, but what his little brother gets.

The father urges this brother to come home, too. The father forgives this brother, too, and reaches out to him with reconciliation. Twice in this story, the father crosses his threshold: Once to reconcile with the younger son on the road, and once to reconcile with the older son pouting in the field.

Twice, this father remembers well how these sons have hurt him; but twice, this father decides to, in Paul’s words, “no longer count their trespasses against them”.

Paul and Jesus both remind us that God has acted like the father towards us. We have been like those sons, selfish and greedy, walking away from God’s love, blind to the blessings God is sending us, jealous of people who seem to have a better life. Always afraid we are missing out on something. God has met us, desperate in the road and pouting in the fields. God has reached out to us in love and forgiveness and reconciliation, and he has brought us home, to his house, to his table, to his celebration.

“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Thus we pray in the Lord’s prayer. This is the call we hear in today’s Bible readings. God has welcomed us home countless times, has forgiven us countless times, has reinstated us as children countless times. We have experienced the emotion of being joyfully greeted and hugged and fed at God’s table.

Our calling now is to let others experiences the same blessing. “Ambassadors of Christ”, Paul calls us. As children of God and members of the body of Christ, we represent Jesus wherever we go. Today, God asks us to represent Jesus’ forgiveness and reconciliation. Let us do our best, for the sake of the world, which needs reconciliation so badly. Amen.

And the peace of God which surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

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