My late aunt never had children, but she doted on her nephews and niece, and one of her principles was fairness. If she gave something to one of us, she would make sure she gave something equivalent to all of us. We always all got the same birthday check. She was fair.
There is a lot to be commended about fairness. We taught it to our children, and children learn to spot unfairness pretty quickly. “That’s not fair!” can be heard on any playground, and rightfully so, since fairness is an important part of what makes any society workable, be it the small society of a school playground or the large one of a nation. Laws should be fair. Fairness is akin to justice, and the world would be a better place if there were more of it. We all want our fair share, and resent it if our neighbor is getting more than his.
In my first congregation I once preached on the story of the rich man and the beggar, also called Dives and Lazarus, which is also (and only) in Luke (16:19-31). My church treasurer, a hard working Maine Yankee, got me trapped at the door and said, why didn’t Lazarus (the beggar) just go out and get a job? Why should Dives have to help him? “It isn’t fair!”
Which is one of the reasons this week’s Gospel (Luke 15:11-32) is such a scandal to us. It isn’t fair. The older son played by the rules, and the prodigal didn’t. Yet the Father loves them both, even if their deserving is unequal.
Remember the parable of the workers in the vineyard? Jesus says the ones who come late will get paid the same as the ones who worked all day. “That’s not fair!” Try explaining that policy to either union or management.
But in the divine economy it is all grace, which by definition is unfair because the recipient is undeserving. “While we were still sinners Christ died for us.” “That’s unfair!” You bet it is, and it’s a good thing, too, because without that grace, who among us could stand?
There are many rich and insightful ways to approach this wonderful story. But to me the best one is to see it as the Christian doctrine of atonement in miniature.
Gabriel Fackre’s writes,
“Jesus’ tale of the father’s welcome of the errant son is an anticipation of the Father’s embrace of the sinner on Calvary. Neither the rigor of the earthly Semitic father nor the holiness of the heavenly Father can indulge the self-centered flight of the son/sinner. But the wrath over wasted substance does not descend on either prodigal. Where did it go? “There is a cross in the heart of God‘ said Charles Dinsmore. The broken heart of God is when the divine love absorbs the divine wrath (Luther) with its consequences, the suffering of God on the cross for the sins of the world. So too only the suffering love of the earthly father, mercy taking judgment into itself, can account for the rush forward to greet the returning prodigal.
What triggered the father’s response? The Son’s return, of course. But the father’s act was not evoked by a moral calculus- “he’s back because he’s sorry!“-for the father’s run and reach began without knowledge of the return’s rationale, while the son was “still far off.” Forgiveness is not dependent on good works here, no more than on the cross; agape is unconditional.
In both cases some human event is inextricable from the release of suffering love toward the sinner: a prodigal son in the human story, an obedient Son in the divine story. There is no proclamation of how the compassionate God came among us without the account of Jesus on the cross, any more than there is a story of the father’s embrace without the travel home of the prodigal. Finally, we are left with the narrative itself rather than a fully satisfying theory about it.” (Gabriel Fackre, Foreword to When I Survey the Wondrous Cross: Reflections of the Atonement. Richard L. Floyd, Pickwick, 2000, Wipf and Stock 2010)
So even the laborers in the vineyard who show up late do need to show up to get their pay, even if they have little work to show for it.
And the prodigal son, who has taken his inheritance (which in those times was like telling your father to “drop dead!) and wasted it, still has to return.
We all come before God with empty hands, with nothing to show but our sins, and still God the heavenly Father, like the earthly father in the parable, has been waiting and watching for us all along.
Keep in mind that those who heard Jesus tell this story fell into two groups, the Pharisees (the older brother types) who knew they deserved God’s love, and the sinners, mostly tax-collectors and prostitutes, (the younger brother types, like the prodigal son), who knew they didn’t.
Neither understood the amazing grace of Jesus’ story, and the radical invitation to come home. As Herb Davis said this week in his sermon notes, “There is something worse than being dead, and that is being lost.” Only those who have been lost really understand this. The prodigal son understood, for he had hit bottom.
For most of the rest of us, whose lostness is less obvious, the story remains a scandal, as indeed, the whole Gospel is, especially the part about the cross. Because “It’s just not fair!” No it isn’t. It’s grace. God’s love isn’t fair.
(Photo: Rembrandt: The Return of the Prodigal)