4TH SUNDAY IN LENT—14 March 2010
St. Luke’s, Cedar Falls — 9:15 a.m.
Joshua 5:9-12 | Psalm 32 | 2Cor 5:16-21 | Luke 15:1-3,11b-32
"Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends."
One of my favorite windows on what’s really going on in people’s minds is the advice columns in the papers. In the Iowa City Press-Citizen that would be Dear Abby. (Although of course now it isn’t the original Dear Abby any more, it’s her daughter, who actually is a pretty good counselor. But I digress.) Sometimes these columns are kind of depressing, because it’s fairly clear that there are a whole bunch of people running around out there who are profoundly clueless. But one of the recurring themes that keeps popping up in the letters that come in to these columnists has to do with gifts. “My nephew who lives on the west coast and whom I haven’t seen since he was seven has sent us a high-school graduation announcement; do we have to send a gift?” “My cousin is getting married for the fourth time; she could furnish a whole house with the engagement, shower, and wedding presents we’ve already given her, and we don’t even like her very much! Do I have to send a gift?” I remember a marvelous one from some years back — “Should the value of the wedding gift equal the price-per-couple being spent by the bride’s parents on the reception and dinner?” Or this: “I keep getting Christmas presents from so-and-so, and so we give presents back, but it’s more than we can really afford, and we really aren’t all that close anyway . . .” And on and on. You know how it goes. Most of us have been in that situation ourselves a few times.
What this suggests to me is that we have a real problem with the whole business of gifts. We don’t understand about Gift. Gifts are free. Absolutely free, or else they aren’t really gifts. We don’t pay for gifts (then it’s not a gift but a purchase we’ve made). We don’t deserve gifts (then it’s not a gift but a wage we’ve earned). We don’t owe gifts (then it’s not a gift but a debt we need to pay off).
But no. We’re all brought up to believe the wise old saying, “There’s no free lunch, you get what you pay for, and nothing’s going to come in the mail.” And so too often for us there’s no real giving in our lives, only transactions.
There is no virtue in irresponsibility, and real life is not lived in idle wishfulness. God knows our modern society understands poorly enough about actions and consequences. But our normal operational prudence must not blind us to the realization that at the deepest level of how things really are, everything is Gift. That’s at the heart of our faith as Christians.
The religious establishment in Israel—the pillars of the Church, the Scribes and Pharisees—have been grousing at Jesus because he hangs around with sinners, outcasts, non-observant Jews, and other such riffraff. The Pharisees’ basic problem is that they think that the old dictum “there’s no free lunch, you get what you pay for, and nothing’s going to come in the mail” is a Fundamental Law of the Universe. And so they think that God’s special favor rests upon those who, like themselves, have “earned” it by observing all the minute details of the Law of Moses, and further that God’s favor does not rest upon “undeserving” folks like Jesus and his trashy friends. The Pharisees were very much hung up with the question of “deserving.” Like the older brother in the parable this morning. Like us. (And of course, it is the older brother and his father that the “Parable of the Prodigal Son” is really about. And us.)
In this morning’s epistle, St Paul reminds us that God does not keep score on the past. “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them.” No, God’s plan is to give everyone a whole new start. “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” God “made him (who knew no sin himself) to take on sin for our sake, so that we, in him, might take on God’s righteousness.” A whole new start, not earned, not deserved, but given. “All this is from God,” St Paul says. God’s doing, not ours. Gift. Free gift.
That’s hard for us to accept. The economics of our world doesn’t work that way. “You only get what you pay for.”
We’ve heard and told and retold the story of the prodigal son for so long that we instinctively see the older brother as a hardnosed coldhearted whiner. He’s not. The older brother is the good guy, by our own usual standards. He’s the one who is hard-working, loyal, thrifty, responsible, brave, clean, reverent. The older brother is us. He’s the one who embodies all those ideals that you and I usually hold about human life. He understands that there’s no free lunch in life, you get what you deserve and should deserve what you get, we’re not to sit around waiting for something to come in the mail. And by these standards which all mature and responsible people share, his father is not being fair.
Well, no. God isn’t fair. Not if by “fair” you mean some human standard of “deserving” or “just deserts.” God’s justice is really a whole lot more encompassing than our rather narrow and often retributive notion of justice. (And a good thing, too. If God were really fair, and gave us all what we deserve, then we would all have long since perished in our sins!) Thanks be to God, divine justice is concerned not with what we deserve but with what we need; not with fairness but with forgiveness, with love and with life, new life, new creation.
At the very deepest level, all is Gift. Lunch at God’s banquet table is utterly free, if we will just sit down and eat. We get more than we can ever pay for, if we will just quit fumbling around with our wallets and reach out our hands to receive. “No eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him,”  if we will just go look in the mailbox.
 1 Cor. 2:9; cf. Isa. 64:4