St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Joshua 5.9-12; psalm 32; 2 Corinthians 5.16-21; Luke 15.1-3, 11b-32
Today’s gospel reading is truly gospel, for it gives us a vision of a loving God who is always ready and waiting for our return. Yet much of Christendom, across the centuries, has preached and continues to preach a very different understanding of God. Consider these words from “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” a sermon delivered by Jonathan Edwards, a Congregationalist minister in 1741:
There is nothing that keeps wicked Men at any one Moment, out of Hell, but the meer Pleasure of GOD.
By the meer Pleasure of God, I mean his sovereign Pleasure, his arbitrary Will, restrained by no Obligation, hinder’d by no manner of Difficulty, any more than if nothing else but God’s meer Will had in the least Degree, or in any Respect whatsoever, any Hand in the Preservation of wicked Men one Moment.
The God that holds you over the Pit of Hell, much as one holds a Spider, or some loathsome Insect, over the Fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his Wrath towards you burns like Fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the Fire; he is of purer Eyes than to bear to have you in his Sight; you are ten thousand Times so abominable in his Eyes as the most hateful venomous Serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn Rebel did his Prince: and yet ‘tis nothing but his Hand that holds you from falling into the Fire every Moment: 'Tis to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to Hell the last Night; that you was suffer’d to awake again in this World, after you closed your Eyes to sleep: and there is no other Reason to be given why you have not dropped into Hell since you arose in the Morning, but that God’s Hand has held you up: There is no other reason to be given why you han’t gone to Hell since you have sat here in the House of God, provoking his pure Eyes by your sinful wicked Manner of attending his solemn Worship: Yea, there is nothing else that is to be given as a Reason why you don’t this very Moment drop down into Hell. [Emphasis added] (file:///C:/Users/larry/Desktop/Sinners%20in%20the%20hands%20of%20an%20angry%20God.pdf )
Yes, there is a degree of mercy present, for God had not yet dropped those who heard the sermon into hell – but any moment now. Repent how you have the chance! Tomorrow may be too late!
As a child I remember hearing sermons of this nature. I recall the story of the young man who, though he heard God’s call, refused to repent at a revival meeting – perhaps the next time. After the meeting, he drove away, and on the way home he was killed in a horrible auto accident. Although the evangelist did not say so, he might as well have added, “Refuse my offer of salvation, and see what you get!” This is the image of an angry and wrathful God.
In contrast, note how the tax collectors and sinners were drawn to Jesus; they wanted to hear his message, to experience his love and acceptance. This was too much! The Pharisees and the scribes grumbled about Jesus’ practice of welcoming sinners and eating with them! So, Jesus told them a parable – actually three parables one right after the other. First, the parable of the lost sheep wherein the shepherd leaves the 99 in search of one lost sheep. No self-respecting shepherd would act in such a manner – why put the 99 at risk? Second, the parable of the lost coin in which the poor widow swept her house ever so carefully until she found it. And third, the parable of the lost son – the prodigal son. Here we encounter a very different image of God.
A father had two sons. The younger comes to him and asks for his share of the property which he will inherit. By law and custom, the older son was to receive two share and the younger one share. In other words, “Look, Dad, I don’t care to wait until you are dead to inherit; I want it now!” The father had every right to be enraged. The son’s request dishonored the father in a social setting in which honor was all important. Yet the father divided the property and granted the younger son’s request.
The younger son gathered his belongings and moved to a foreign country in which he “squandered his property in dissolute living” (Luke 15.13; NRSV). I suspect it was quite a party! Free drinks for all – anything the flesh desired. A famine came, and he found himself impoverished. He found employment as a swine-herd. By Jewish standards, the young man had become unclean and was now reduced to tending unclean animals! He was ravenously hungry; he would gladly have eaten the carob pods the pigs were feeding on. He came to his senses and said to himself, “How many of my father's hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands’” (Luke 15.17-19; NRSV). He practiced his confession and returned to his father.
While he was still far off, his father saw him, ran to him, put his arms around him and kissed him. After being dishonored, the father further dishonored himself by tucking his robe into his belt, baring his legs, running to his wayward son, and embracing him. This was improper behavior for an elderly Jewish man! The son made his confession: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son” (Luke 15.21; NRSV). The father was so filled with joy that he ordered a robe be brought, a ring be placed on his finger, and sandals placed on his feet. All of these were symbols of honor and prestige – he was fully recognized as his son. And as if this were not enough, the father commanded the fatted calf be killed and they celebrate, for as he said, “This son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found” (Luke 15.24; NRSV)!
So far, well and good, but the elder son returned from his work in the field. Upon hearing the music and the sounds of celebration, he asked one of the slaves what was happening. The slave replied that his brother had returned, his father had killed the fatted calf and was rejoicing in his son’s safe return. The older son refused to go in; no celebration for him! The father came out to meet the elder son – note how the father has come out to meet both sons – and pled with him to join in the celebration. The elder son replied, “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 so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” The father replied, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found" (Luke 15.31-32; NRSV). Did you note how the elder brother referred to his brother as “this son of yours,” and how the father stressed “this brother of yours”? The father emphasized the familial relationships involved.
Undoubtedly, Jesus told this parable for the immediate benefit of the Pharisees and the scribes – the elder brother. The tax collectors and sinners play the role of the younger brother. The father would remind us that we are all one family. But the parable communicates so much more! What is remarkable is the love of the father for both sons.
As I have mentioned before, Henri Nouwen, in The Return of the Prodigal Son notes that the mature Christian has embraced all three roles. Which one of us has not been the prodigal son? Which one of us has not told the Father to give us what is ours so that we could squander it in riotous living? We deserve hell, but that is not what the father chooses to give us. We are lovingly welcomed back into God’s family.
And which one of us has not played the role of the begrudging elder brother? God, I have been faithful; I have diligently worked in and for your Kingdom, yet I feel so unappreciated! It is only natural that we get stuck on the idea of what we do, on the idea of our own importance, but the Father reminds us that he is always with us, that all He has belongs to us – that we are heirs of the Kingdom.
God would have us mature in our faith to the point where we can also play the role of the father – where we can extend the Father’s love to others – yes, even to those who do not deserve it. None of us deserve it, but God lavishes love on us.
Jonathan Edwards supplied us with an image of an angry and wrathful God, one who acts on his pleasure with an arbitrary will restrained by no obligation! On this view, we are likened to a spider dangling over the fires of hell! Jesus supplies us with an image of God who extends God’s love to us in a prodigal fashion – God desires to grant us the finest robe, a signet ring, and sandals which signify that we are members of God’s family. God desires to celebrate our homecoming.
It strikes me that a truly loving God never acts of an arbitrary will. Our loving God acts out of a loving character; given the very nature of God, God can do no other. This does not deny the justice of God, nor the existence of hell, but I rather suspect the hell we experience is of our own making and volition – at some point in our lives we are all starving Jewish boys reduced to feeding pigs. But God waits for us, watches for us, to return home where we are lovingly restored to the family. Might our image of a wrathful God be its own special form of hell?