When I was in high school and college, teachers loved group projects. Maybe that has always been the case and is still the case, but in the late 90s, the group project reigned. Group projects, I suppose, are designed to help a person learn to play nicely, to function well on a team. But as every tightly wound over functioning person knows, group projects are the WORST. In group projects everyone gets the same grade, whether one person does all the work or whether the work is evenly shared. You can be a member of a group project and do nothing but snap your gum and you can still succeed! Where is the justice?
I hate to break it to you other over-functioning types, but today’s Gospel is not going to make you feel much better. Well, it won’t at first. But hang in there, because this Gospel contains grace for all of us, whether we think we have it all together or whether we don’t.
Today’s Gospel is a family parable. We have a father and two sons. His eldest is a hard working, responsible typical first born. His younger son? Let’s just say he’s still “finding himself”. In a move that must have infuriated his older brother, the younger son asks for his share of his inheritance—while his father is still alive—and then goes and blows it all on fast cars, whiskey and women. Soon he is broke and working a terrible job as a pig feeder. The moment he realizes he would be grateful sharing the pigs’ food he “comes to himself”. He remembers who he is. He wakes up. And he goes home.
He prepares a whole speech, but before he can open his mouth, his father runs to him with open arms. Not only is this young man welcomed home, but his father throws him a huge party. His brother, though, is not happy. While the younger son has been out partying, who has held down the fort? Who has consoled their father? Who has done extra work? The first born. He just cannot understand his father’s forgiveness. His father assures him that “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours,” but we are left not knowing if he ever comes around to accepting his father’s love and letting go of resentment.
Jesus told this story to some Pharisees who were NOT happy with the company Jesus was keeping. They couldn’t understand why Jesus would spend time with tax collectors and sinners when he could be spending time with the rule followers. This prodigal son parable is the third one Jesus tells the Pharisees in response to their grumbling. The other parables are about a lost sheep and a lost coin. To Jesus, this prodigal son is also lost. And Jesus’ job was to find all the lost people and tell them how much God loves them.
And let’s be honest, the prodigal son is not any more lost than the first born son. Because the first born son thinks all his hard work and responsible behavior is what makes him a worthwhile person. He believes that love can be earned.
At the WomanKind conference at St. James’ Episcopal Church in Richmond last weekend, Nadia Bolz-Weber was the keynote speaker. Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran pastor, but if you saw her on the street you would not guess that about her. She is 6’ 1”, has short spiky hair, wears combat boots, and is covered in tattoos. On one arm is a huge Mary Magdalene and on the other is Jesus. Bolz-Weber is a recovering addict, and once made a living as a stand up comic. So, not your typical pastor. She pastors a church in Denver called Sinners and All Saints that was designed for people on the margins, but now attracts a wide variety of followers.
One reason Bolz-Weber has been so popular, besides the fact that she curses like a sailor, is that she seems to truly, deeply understand the concept of grace. She was lost and she was found, and she continues to have a deep understanding of what it means to be found by God.
During her session at WomanKind, she talked about how all of us have an ideal version of ourselves. My ideal self, for example, goes to the gym three times a week and does yoga the other days. She reads poetry for fun and definitely does not snap, “Get your bottom in the car seat!” every single morning. My ideal self has a tidy house, eats quinoa, and drinks green tea. She does not have a problem with sugar.
There is a part of my brain that thinks I’ll get there some day. Like, if I just tried hard enough, I would get my act together. But Bolz-Weber reminded us that this ideal version of ourself? IT DOES NOT EXIST. It is a fictional person. The actual self? The sloppy, chocolate eating, Entertainment Weekly reading self? That is my real self. That is the self that God loves. Bolz-Weber says the Lutherans understand the gap—the gap between the real self and the ideal self as the Law. And the Gospel is the answer to that gap. Jesus came to live in a human body because he loved actual humans and he wanted to redeem the actual human experience. Jesus does not love our ideal selves because our ideal selves do not exist.
Even the most responsible of us have this ideal self. And I think this understanding of the gap between our real self and our ideal self helps us understand God’s grace better. We may not all have spectacular moments of failure like the prodigal son, but that does not mean we do not need grace. Because none of us is perfectly comfortable in our own skin. We all think there is something else we need to be doing to be worthy of full love and acceptance. We all are striving to meet these ideals, to hit some external mark of success. In an interview with Commonweal, Bolz-Weber says,
“Any system where the message is: through your own striving you can become pure in some way, morally, ethically or politically—that’s impossible. That’s what we call being “under the law.” And when you’re under the law there are only two options: pride or despair. You’re either prideful about the way that you’re nailing it, especially if other people aren’t, or you despair that you can’t live up to it. Either way it’s not good news. But we all think the law will save us.”
But the law won’t save us. We’ll either be in the position of the prodigal son—who completely fails to live up to expectations and feels deep shame, or we’ll be in the position of the first born son—who is so blinded by pride he cannot allow himself to experience the love of his father.
And I’m not just talking about religious law here. We delude ourselves into living under all kinds of systems of law—if we eat nothing but local food and drive a Prius we’ll be saved, if we make more money than our parents we’ll be saved, if we believe exactly the right conservative or liberal principles we’ll be saved, if our bodies look thin or strong enough we’ll be saved. All these systems lie to us.
Jesus did not come to earth just for the sinners and tax collectors. He came for everyone, Pharisees and Prius owners included. Jesus is the prodigal father, with his arms outstretched, delighted his son has returned. Jesus is the prodigal father, who would be just as delighted to celebrate his first born son.
Jesus chooses to love us, our actual messy imperfect selves. He chooses to love you. Right now. Not because you deserve it, not because you have your act together, but because his Father created you and his Father loves his creations.
You are loved by God whether you are rich or broke, responsible or a “failure”, whether the people in your life are kind to you or if they are awful, whether you complete your checklist every day or never get out of bed.
If you were a coin that went missing, Jesus would turn over every floorboard in this church to find you. If you were a sheep that wandered off, Jesus would hunt you down, throw you over his shoulders and carry you back home. If you were his son and you spit in his face and ran away from home, Jesus would run down the road to meet you on your way back.
So, we can let go. Let go of that ideal self. Get to know your actual self. And get to know the God that loves you.