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March 22nd, 1998 (St. George's URC, Hartlepool)
Lent 4 (RCL - year C )
Revd. Phil Nevard

Joshua 5:9-12
Psalm 32  
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Luke 15:13, 16-32 *

Grasping the Hand of Grace...

   Last week we were talking about the chances that God gives us.  We 
   read about a God who is extravagant with his chances, a God who is 
   infinitely patient with us.  And we thought about ourselves.  We need 
   not plead with God for another chance, we know that he forgives us 
   and offers us a fresh start day after day, year after year.  But we 
   can wonder at our constant failure to accept the chances that God 
   offers to us; we can wonder at our repeated failure to make the most 
   of the chances that God gives to us.

   Today, we read of two brothers who were invited to a feast.

   Lots of Middle Eastern stories have two brothers.  Almost invariably, 
   the younger brother is the rebellious dreamer and the older brother 
   is wordly, niggardly, orthodox and hypocritical.  All of the 
   Patriarchs after Abraham were younger brothers, as were Abel, Jacob, 
   Joseph, Gideon, and David.  Jesus is following the rules of Middle-
   Eastern story-telling, his characters are behaving according to type.  
   Jesus' listeners are expecting the younger brother to be a bit 
   flighty, a bit full of himself, and they are expecting the older 
   brother to be a bit mean and niggardly.

   Which one are you?  Mean and niggardly - or wild and flighty?

   But they are not expecting the younger son to go as far as he did.  
   The dividing up of an estate was only done after the father had died, 
   or occasionally, when he was on his death-bed.  To ask for the estate 
   to be divided up was treating your father as if her were dead.  
   Furthermore, to then go ahead and sell it was a devastating insult to 
   his father and the family, and the village community.

   But neither were they expecting the older son to go as far as he did.  
   They were expecting the older son, when offered his portion of the 
   estate, to throw up his hands in horror and make loud protestations 
   of unending loyalty to his father, refusing to accept his share in 
   protest against his brother's actions.  But he accepts in silence.  
   Then they expect him to take up the traditional role of reconciler.  
   If two members of a family are in dispute, in Middle Eastern society, 
   the next closest family member has a duty, a responsibility, to try 
   to bring them back together.  But again he remains silent.  It is 
   clear that both sons have a broken relationship with their father.

   And neither were they expecting the father to go as far as he did.  
   They were expecting him to give both of his sons a good hiding and 
   get on with his farming.  The two of them had behaved disgracefully.  
   They certainly weren't expecting him to give in to his impudent sons.  
   How wrong they were!

   The younger brother gets his way and sells his share of the farm.  He 
   has to sell it quite quickly.  You can imagine him trying to hawk it
round the area. Most of the villagers will have nothing to do with him
because of the insult to his father. So in the end he has to sell it quickly - perhaps (horror of all horrors) to a Gentile. If he did, then the village would have considered him cut off until he bought it back. The older son stays on, and we have no reason to believe that his relationship with his father improves at all. The father has, in effect, lost both his sons. Of course, you all know what happens. The younger son loses his fortune and ends up looking after pigs (not an attractive career move for a Jew!) Famine hits the land and he is left in charge of the pigs. He herds them from place to face in search of food. The only food around for the pigs is the fruit of the wild carob. This isn't the tasty Syrian Carob that John the Baptist ate in the wilderness, this is the Wild Carob - a thorny shrub with harsh and bitter black berries. It can be eateb by humans, but only in the direst emergency.
He was, quite literally, starving to death. He hatches a plan. It's a good plan. He could go back and become one of his father's hired servants. A hired servant might not have been very secure in his employment - very much like a casual worker - but he did, at least, retain his own independance, and his status was no different than the person for whom he worked. The younger son planned to move back into the village, get a job on his father's farm, and gradually pay back his father what he owed, perhaps, in time, save up enough to buy back the land he had lost. It was a good plan. It involved admitting he was wrong for losing the money, but it also allowed him to keep his independance and give him a way to compensate for his errors. It was also a good plan, because it got him out of a fix with his brother. If he went back to live on the farm he would be eating his brother's bread. The older brother, if past form is anything to go by, will not be very forgiving, and will resent his presence. Of course he will have to put up with no end of mockery and verbal abuse from the village, perhaps even physical abuse, but that will just have to be faced. And then the father does something amazing. He runs down the road to greet him. It was undignified to run, but the father didn't care, he wanted to get to his son. The villagers would be gathering, he wanted to protect his son from them. As he reached his son, he hugged him and kissed him - a powerful sign of reconciliation. The son is completely overwhelmed by his fathers grace. He completely abandons his carefully laid plan to become a hired servant and keep his distance, his carefully laid plan to earn forgiveness for himself. He realizes that the money doesn't matter at all compared to the broken relationship with his father that needs
to be healed. He throws himself at his father's feet and weeps tears
of joy. The father kills the fatted calf - in other words, he throws a party to which the whole village will be invited. He wants his son to be welcomed back and reconciled with the whole community. He has acted
in an extraordinary way - offering his son completely undeserved and unconditional love and forgiveness. But the story isn't over yet. The older son refuses to come in to the feast. In Middle eastern culture this is an extraordinarily rude gesture. As older son, he would have had a definite role at the feast. It would have been his job to welcome the guests, to attend to them, to act as their servant for the night. For him not to be there was a devastating snub to his father, it would have been to demonstrate a family disagreement in front of the whole community. It was every bit as insulting as the younger son had been. The father might have been expected to cut his older son off there and then, or to command his presence. But once again he acts in an extraordinarily humble manner. He leaves the feast, goes to find his son, holds out his hand and gently invites him in once more. Two sons who have acted disgracefully. Two sons who have broken their relationship with their father. The father humbles himself. The father comes out to meet them, in turn, and offers unconditional love and forgiveness. The image of God's love through Jesus that
this father represents need not be spelled out. The younger son is overwhelmed, and rushes back into his father's arms; the older son holds back. We don't hear his final response, but we suspect very much that he was not reconciled. To accept that hand, the offer of unconditional love and forgiveness - grace is the word we sometimes use - to accept the hand of grace involves humility on our part to match the humility of God. To accept that hand of grace is hard. To accept that hand of grace means that we must understand something about ourselves. To accept that hand of grace we must understand that we have fallen short, that we cannot make it up to God on our own, that only God can really set things right again, that we need to come back in from the cold. We need to grasp God's outstretched hand and thank him as he heals the relationships we have broken, and restores us as children in his family, day by day, week by week, year by year... Two brothers. One grasped that hand and knew himself forgiven, he celebrated with his father the rich feast of a forgiven life. The other turned away, he stayed outside in the cold, condemning himself to a meagre and bitter life, full of resentment. Two brothers. Which one are you?