As you may know I have two children, a daughter and a son. My daughter often received hand-me-down clothes and other things from her cousins in New York city. They are older than she is and for many years, used to send a box of good things to her at the end of the season. Each time she received a box, my son would often say, “It’s not fair. They are all girl stuff.”
I think my son is not alone with such thoughts. I often find myself saying that to myself, under my breath of course. Many people feel the same way about things happening to them or to others. There is a children’s song that goes like this.
When I am at play
and things don’t go my way,
I jump up and say, “It’s not fair!”
Well, that’s my favourite line
and I use it all the time,
Not fair, not fair, not fair!
‘Cause it’s not fair that you’re the winner.
It’s not fair that its time for dinner.
It’s not fair that I have to take a
bath and put my pyjamas on.
It’s not fair my sister is older.
It’s not fair the weekend’s colder.
If it’s anything that I don’t like,
well, it’s just not fair!
Have you had this experience of feeling that things were just not fair? Some people think God is not fair, because the Bible is full of examples of seemingly unfair situations. For example, God chose the cheater Jacob over his dutiful brother Esau and Jacob finally got Esau’s birthright by deceit. Job, a pious and good-living man, suffered the loss of everything he owned – his property, his stock and his children. Look at today’s scripture reading, the parable of the prodigal son. When the younger son returned in desperation, the father invited everybody to join the celebration. But the older son cried, “It’s not fair! It’s not fair!”
This story has been an offensive story for two thousand years. Tertullian (160-220 C.E.), an early defender of Christian faith, insisted that the parable of the prodigal son must never apply to Christians. If it did, he said, then not only “adulterers and fornicators” but also “idolaters, blasphemers, and renegades” would use the parable to pardon their sin. “Who will worry about losing what can so easily be regained?” he asked.
How, then, do we understand this controversial story? Let us first think about the younger brother. The younger brother lives entirely by grace. Having dishonoured his father, emptied his trust fund, and all but starved to death, he has weighed his options and discovered only two: stay where he is and finish starving to death or go home and beg his father to take him back. When the farther surprises him by running to meet him, there is no doubt what forgiveness looks like, nor how much it costs. The younger brother lives entirely by his father’s grace. Will anyone tell him he is wrong?
The older brother, meanwhile, lives entirely by obedience to his father. The theological word is righteousness – or, if that is too musty for you, then, he is a good son. The older brother has devoted his entire life to being the very best – the most right – son he can be. He has never left his father’s side. He has never gone against his father’s wishes. He has been loyal, respectful, hardworking and honest. Will anyone tell him he is wrong?
In chapter 15 of Luke, there are three parables: the Lost Sheep (1-7), the Lost Coin (8-10) and today’s parable, the Lost/Prodigal Son. As you read through the parables you may wonder or cry out that God is not fair: God is uninterested in the 99 sheep who do the right thing. God is not fair: God cares for the younger son who did the wrong thing.
So, our God is not fair; our God is, however, gracious. In my opinion, fairness is a basic social value. We build relationships and social activities based on fairness. Fairness is one way of seeing the world. This conventional world view is reflected in the following sayings: “You get what you pay for” or “Equal pay for equal work.” However, the God reflected in the parables is a God who cares for the vulnerable, the weak and the voiceless. Without them God cannot complete God’s creation. God cannot mend this broken world without breaking God’s heart.
In the parables, as long as the one is lost, the 99 are incomplete. As long as one of our sisters or brothers is broken by the world and called a wrongdoer by the rest of us, then we are lost, and God’s heart is broken. God will never stop reaching for the one who is lost because God’s love is too wide and deep. God’s grace is too rich to cease looking for the lost.
There are no heroes or villains here, just two brothers who have grown up as mirror images of each other. All their lives they have defined themselves by their difference from one another. While this polarity has provided the family with a perverse kind of balance, the father knows it is time to break the pattern. He does this by tipping the balance toward the younger son – the sinner – not because the boy is better by no means – but simply because he has come home. “We had to celebrate and rejoice,” the father explains to his stung elder son, “because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”
This puts the burden of a happy ending directly on the shoulders of the older son. Mind you, no one even remembered to invite him to the party. He did not know one thing about it until he came home after a full day of work in the field to the sound of music and dancing. According to his father, however, the party is not really about the younger son. It is really a family reunion – or at least the possibility of a family reunion – if only the elder brother will come inside the house.
The father embraces wrongdoers, even at risk of losing obedient sons and daughters. “Come on,” the father says to the older son, ‘stand here by our side, on the side of human beings.’ We are all invited to the party whether we are like the younger or older son. We are all welcomed into God’s loving circle. This is grace, amazing grace!
As I said at the start, this piece of the gospel has not always gone down well with the church. We have argued about it for two thousand years and I expect we will continue to argue about it for two thousand more. We are so afraid of letting people off the hook. We are so resentful of unearned love, unless we happen to be the ones toward whom the father is running, with his arms wide open and tears wetting his cheeks. Thank you God for grace. Amen.
Quiet Reflection for during the Service &Group Discussion for Lenten Companionship
In the parable of the Prodigal Son, with which son do you feel most sympathetic? Why?
The meaning of grace is unconditional acceptance. In this regard can we say God is not fair, but God is gracious?
God does not stop reaching for the one who is lost. How can we practise this love on our faith journey?