Sermon preached at Burke UMC LifeSign service 1/8/2012
Part 1 of Lord’s Prayer series “On Earth As It Is In Heaven”
Text: Luke 15:11-32 (The Prodigal Son)
My first political protest took place in my 11th grade English class. We had a very strict teacher named Mrs. Shields. One day we were reading an amazingly boring essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson, and almost our entire class had fallen asleep. So the next day, Mrs. Shields gave us a pop test. Not a pop quiz. A pop test! The highest grade anyone got on the test was about a 30. In other words, nobody was going to get an A in her class if the test counted. And that was not fair! So I made a petition and got everyone else to sign it. I scheduled a meeting with Mrs. Shields. I don’t remember what she said. I just remember that her eyes looked like volcanoes about to spew fire all over me, so I folded up the petition without showing it to her and put it back in my pocket.
How many of you have ever had a teacher do something unfair to you? It turns out that the pop test didn’t count, but I never slept in class again. And I remembered this experience when I became a tenth grade English teacher a decade after having Mrs. Shields. I suspect that teenagers in Fairfax County are a lot more mature, but where I tried to teach in North Carolina, the kids like to mess with inexperienced teachers. And “fairness” is one of the most effective battering rams for sabotaging a teacher’s lesson plan: “Why’d you give me detention, Mr. Guyton? Sarah was talking too and you didn’t write her name on the board. Why won’t you let me go to the bathroom, Mr. Guyton? Tommy was in there twenty-five minutes yesterday and you didn’t say anything to him.” My students loved to unravel me by arguing that I was being unfair.
Now I recognize that kids who get stuck on “fairness” are not necessarily trying to be manipulative. It’s a very age-appropriate moral standard: to make sure that everyone is treated exactly equal. But when you’re a teacher, you’ve got more important things to care about than making sure that Tommy and Reggie have equal time in the bathroom. The goal is for every kid in the classroom to excel to the best of their abilities, and in a classroom with a wide variety of learning styles, special needs, and personality traits, every kid needs to be treated a little differently. A good teacher will have tougher standards for students who can rise to meet them but also extend grace to students with limited abilities who do everything they possibly can to pass. The high school classroom was where I first learned that fairness and justice are not the same thing. I tried to be fair as much as possible, but to do justice to the unique set of gifts and needs that each student had, I could not treat them equally. Justice and fairness are not the same thing: the problem is that our world thinks they are.
The symbol for justice for the last two millennia of Western civilization has been the Roman goddess Justitia. She has a blindfold over her eyes to symbolize her impartiality and holds a scale in her hand to symbolize equality. Following this model, our world tends to think of justice as some kind of mathematical balance whose purpose is to make lawbreakers pay whatever debt they owe, whether this is a dollar amount or a certain length of time in prison. This kind of justice system will deter crime and preserve basic social stability, but it doesn’t invest much energy in the other needs of justice, such as healing victims, helping families reconcile after experiencing violence, or repairing communities poisoned by crime.
Here’s the difference between the Roman goddess Justititia, who is the basis for our secular world’s justice, and the God that we worship as Christians. Our God does not wear a blindfold, because He’s the opposite of impartial. He’s our Father. Sometimes we take this concept for granted, but Christianity is really the only religion that thinks of God as being a father, rather than simply the creator or boss of everything. To call God Father means recognizing that in addition to creating and ruling the world, He cares about me specifically because I am His child. So God’s justice can never be impartial; it is always the justice of a Father who is infinitely invested in the wellbeing of each of his children. God’s justice can never be equal either. He has specific, unique expectations for each of us according to the purpose for which He planned our existence. God does not have a one-size-fits-all scale by which He measures out the debt that we owe for our sins. Instead He offers His Son’s sacrifice on the cross for our sins as a means of getting rid of the scale altogether. God wants us to get past our fixation on fairness so that we can live according to His justice. The story of the prodigal son is a perfect illustration of the difference between God’s justice and our standards of fairness.
There have been many good books written about the prodigal son. One of them is Tim Keller’s Prodigal God. Keller argues that the two brothers in this parable represent two kinds of social attitudes that are constantly in conflict in our world. The younger brothers of our world are the romantics who think that their purpose in life is to follow their dreams and find the perfect way to use their talents. Younger brothers are often quite creative, and they’re dissatisfied with doing whatever everybody else is doing, which is why they leave their father’s farms behind and head off to the big city. The younger brothers help society by refusing to be apathetic and questioning cultural presumptions that need to be questioned. The problem with younger brothers is that their creativity and romanticism can turn into irresponsibility and narcissism, and they have to get bailed out.
Older brothers, on the other hand, build their lives off of rules rather than dreams. They don’t need to agonize over which career is the perfect fit for them; they simply want to know what they’re expected to do so they can fulfill these expectations. They don’t need to stand out and they often don’t, because they spend their lives quietly performing their duties. Older brothers give our society the stability it needs not to descend into chaos; they’re people who can be depended upon. The problem with older brothers is that their mastery of following the rules can make them self-righteous and spiteful towards other people.
So how many of you are more like the younger brother in the parable? How many of you are more like the older brother? Well God loves younger and older brothers alike; He created each type the way they are so that each could bring something indispensable to His kingdom. But the only way we can be what God created us to be is if we accept Him as our Father. That’s the goal of the father in the parable: to get his sons to accept him as a father so that they can live together in harmony as a family. Each of the sons has rejected the father in a different way. The younger son’s departure to chase his dreams in the city is more obvious, but the hardening of the older son’s heart by his years of slaving for his father in the fields is another form of rejection. Accepting your father means accepting his love, even for siblings whom you don’t think deserve it.
This is paradoxically why the younger brother is in a better position at the end of the story. Because he has no presumption that his father will take him back, it comes as a completely undeserved and unexpected surprise. The more that we are able to experience the same kind of grateful surprise in God’s love, the more we can accept Him as our Father and accept the love that He has for other people who don’t deserve it any more or less than we do. We don’t complain when God kills the fatted calf and throws a party for other people because we know that God has treated us unfairly, to our advantage.
The obstacle that prevents the older brother from accepting his father is his preoccupation with fairness. But in his worry about fairness, he is profoundly unjust towards his father. His father says in response to his complaint, “Everything I have is yours.” The father is talking about his son’s future inheritance, but he wouldn’t have been wrong to say the exact inverse of what he said: Everything you have is mine. Every tool that the older brother ever used, every skill he ever learned, every piece of food he ever ate was something that his father gave to him. Before he did anything to faithfully serve his father, his father had already treated him unfairly, to his advantage. He was so focused on his sense of what he deserved that he erased from his field of vision all the undeserved gifts he had received.
When we’re preoccupied with making sure that God treats us fairly, we will not do justice to the blessings He has given us. The truth is that we’ve all been prodigals to some degree, because we reject God as a father anytime we put our ultimate trust in something other than His love. One of the most insidious ways that we do this is to have faith in what we do for God rather than what He has done for us. This is what we’re effectively doing whenever we make comparisons between what we deserve from God and what other people deserve.
When you know that you don’t deserve what you have, then you can do justice to God’s blessing, because then you look around to see if there are other people who need to be blessed by God through you. That’s how God’s justice works: through making a whole world of people as unfairly biased in favor of each other as God is unfairly biased in favor of us. He makes us a family. We become God’s justice by joining the family of grateful and unexpectedly forgiven sinners who know that we owe everything to Him. Then God can set everything right with the world, not by blindfolding Himself and using scales to determine what everyone deserves, but by relentlessly pursuing each child of His who is lost. And we’re all lost, whether in obvious sin or in the righteous toil that becomes sin when it turns ungrateful.
So let yourselves be found by God. Maybe you’ve been off partying in the city and it’s time to abandon the shallowness of that lifestyle and come back home to your Father’s house. Maybe you’ve been slaving away and building up resentment, and it’s time for you to step into the party that your Father’s throwing for people who don’t deserve it, any more or less than you do. Don’t let your sense of fairness keep you from becoming part of God’s justice. Let’s be the people who recognize first of all that we owe everything to our Father in heaven.