The other day I heard a talk by someone. And one of the things they said was: “If your preaching of grace isn’t giving offence, then you’re not preaching grace hard enough” Grace: the idea of God’s free, unconditional love for everyone, God’s welcome for absolutely anyone who will turn to him, Grace: God’s longing for us to allow him to love us. If that isn’t such a powerful emphasis in what we say, and how we act as Christians that it isn’t offending and upsetting people, then our emphasis of Grace isn’t strong enough!
Now the talk wasn’t about this story of a father and his two sons. It didn’t even mention this parable. But by coincidence or providentially, I do think that idea: “if grace isn’t offensive, then you’re not saying it hard enough” I do think that idea is the key to understanding this parable
The parable is still usually called the parable of the prodigal son. With the parable of the Good Samaritan and the Parable of the Sower it is one of the top three best known parables in Jesus’ teaching. I suspect that people outside of church have at least heard of it. Even if they could no longer recite the story’s outline. And the name we give to the parable indicates how we used to read this parable. We used to read this as the story of the younger son. But I think there has been a change in how we read this. A change that has taken place relatively recently, in the time since I started preaching, so in about the last 30 years. We used to read this is a powerful story of conversion.
The younger son did something terrible. He demanded his share of the family inheritance. Which would be one third of its value. But to ask for his inheritance there and then is in effect to say his father was dead to him, to his face! That might have been just about excusable, if he had used the inheritance to something remarkable, to do more and better with that money than if it had been left as part of the family business. But that is not what happened. As if it wasn’t bad enough to declare his old dad dead. He went away and wasted all that money. He didn’t treat it as value, “property”, that needed to be nurtured and build on and grown. He used it as cash. He simply spent it:
A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property on dissolute living
Which sets up the turn in the story. The younger brother hits rock bottom. His money spent he falls on hard times. So that when the crisis comes, a famine hits the place where he is now living. He can longer care for his own needs. He hires himself out to a foreigner. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, to be dependent on a stranger. He is sent to feed pigs. Which is the lowest of the the low, the greatest possible humiliation, that Jesus’ first Jewish listeners could have imagined. But once he was there, and finding himself looking hungrily at the pig food he came to his senses. He decides that he will be immeasurably better off back at home, even as a hired hand there. At least he won’t have to feed pigs. The surprise in the story is that his father was watching for him, that his father rushed out to meet him, that he could barely get his apology out than his father had wrapped him in the best robe, killed the fatted calf and thrown a party.
And in the past that was the story we told, the one we listened to, the one we heard. We were invited to, and I certainly recall, to identify with with the younger brother. We were encouraged to somehow feel that his story was our story. We were invited to identify first with the sense of shame and regret, over the broken relationship with the father, which we knew represented our relationship with God. We knew that everyone had effectively said to God: you’re dead to us. And then to identify with the burden of guilt being lifted, that sense of liberation, of weight being taken away following the experience of repentance and conversion. And then the restoration of the loving relationship between the father and son, which we knew represented what we might have called: life lived in the Spiri,- the life in all its fullness offered by Christ to all who turn to him. All of which issues in a joyful celebration. This was very much what Methodism especially was all about.
From its very beginning. From John Wesley’s heart-warming experience. The shape of that story came down to us as the defining shape of our story. It was that story of guilt-repentance-return-restoration-celebration which shaped who we were and what we were trying to do for others. And it is undoubtedly a story of grace. It is a story of the free unconditional loving welcome which God offers to those who return to him.
But something changed! We don’t really tell that story anymore. And we don’t read this parable like that anymore. Possibly it was changes in social attitudes. We became embarrassed by that idea of conversion. We were unwilling to see everyone as bad. Especially not as bad as the younger brother in the parable. We became to too shy to put pressure on our neighbour and suggest that they needed to turn their lives completely around. Perhaps without realising it we caught on the the same trends in the modern era as the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Towards the end of his life, in a Nazi prison cell, he posed a question: Why does Christianity have to make people feel bad before it can make them feel good? He actually calls that “Methodism” And he doesn’t mean it as a compliment to us! What he identifies is a kind of manipulation. That the way we were telling the story, getting people to identify with the misdeeds of the younger son, to make them feel guilty, before we offered them the good news of the welcome which God offers, is an manipulative strategy. It is also a pretty good description of Wesley’s evangelistic approach! But if it is, then the same criticism could apply to the whole history of Christian mission, starting with St. Paul. But Bonhoeffer says the world has grown out of that. We live as he put it, in a world come of age, where people are more self-confident now, they aren’t susceptible to that kind of manipulation. Nor should they be, it isn’t healthy. I think Bonhoeffer has a point, even if he isn’t altogether correct.
But the change may have more to do with us. We stopped reading the parable that way, because the younger son’s story isn’t our story. That isn’t us. We don’t and indeed can’t identify with his story. Almost none of us are converts. Actually to even called Wesley’s experience a conversion like that of the younger son is to strain the meaning of repentance and conversion, Wesley never declared God dead (that was Friedrich Nietzsche). Identifying with that story was often contrived. The younger brother’s story is an “outsider’s story” a story of someone on the outside who is brought in. We simply don’t have the experience of reaching rock bottom and having to turn around and finding a welcome when we came back. We haven’t experienced grace like that.
What I think the change is, in reading this story, that has taken place on in the last generation, is that we pay much more attention to the the older brother. The older brother’s story is the “insider’s story”, the story of someone who has never left in order to come back. But he has just always been there. Whenever I talk to anyone now about the parable of the father and his two sons now – and as it happens I was talking to someone on Monday about it, I always get the same reaction: “I feel sorry of the older brother.” Naturally, instinctively, I think we now identify with the older brother. We have, quite recently, recognised that his story is much more like ours than his brother’s. We sense that his younger brother is getting off way too lightly. There seem to be no bad consequences for the younger brother’s terrible behaviour. He is getting away with it, scot free. With the older brother, we doubt the sincerity of the younger’s conversion. We suspect that he only came back when he was hungry enough. That his repentance is driven entirely by his hunger, that he took advantage of their father before and he’s doing it again now! And perhaps like the older brother we are angered by the naivete of his father for being taken in, and letting the prodigal return. Maybe we know enough to be ashamed that this is what we sometimes think. On those rare occasions when we do hear of this kind of conversion we might find ourselves suspicious or resentful, that anyone, just anyone, can walk in and find a welcome from God no questions asked! We do sometimes still use the word “prodigal” in ordinary speech, it’s very old fashioned word that we barely understand the meaning of. But we do still sometimes hear it in the exclamation: “Ah the prodigal returns!” But that phrase is almost always spoken with a sarcastic sneer. That kind of grace really does offend!
The trouble is, I don’t find the older brother very likeable. He is ungrateful. He is resentful. He is full of self-pity. None of which are attractive characteristics. The older brother has everything. All of his father’s property will be his. His brother might have declared their father dead. But he almost wishes that his father was dead. He doesn’t recognise his father’s love and generosity. He has seen his brother ask for one third of the property and been given it! Yet he hasn’t the confidence in his father’s love to ask for as much as a goat! And whilst his brother, recognising his failure, is prepared to accept the place and the role of a servant. He imagines that is what he has been doing all along, failing to see that his work ultimately benefits him.
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 even given me a young goat so I might celebrate with my friends.
The trouble is, there are people like this in church. People who do good things, who are faithful in their attendance in church, who are generous with their time, energy and resources in all the causes which the church is engaged. Yet all the while are bitter and resentful of what they are doing, and who are especially annoyed that God loves and cares for everybody no matter who they are, how little they do, or how late in the day they turn to God. They are cross because there is no extra from God for those who have always been committed to him. Grace, when it’s free, and when it’s for all, is offensive. The parable, it turns out, does show us how hard you have to preach grace. Hard enough that the scandalous behaviour of the prodigal can be forgiven without question. Hard enough for it to give offence
Our more recent reading of the parable is probably more true to Jesus’ telling of it originally. The end of the story leaves one question hanging: Will he or won’t he? Will the older brother go with his father into the party for his brother? Or will he stay outside bitter and resentful? To go in, and to be part of the celebration, the older son will have to forgive his younger brother and accept him back into the family. This question hangs in the air for us. God’s grace is offensive. God loves people we don’t want to love and who we don’t want God to love. God doesn’t give us anything extra. But how could he, he already gave us everything. But only by accepting – and then imitating God’s grace can we become part of God’s great celebration
Offensive Grace by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0