This parable of Jesus that we have just heard is one of the most familiar and beloved passages in all of scripture. It touches us on so many different levels, and is like a bottomless well from which we can draw an endless supply of living water to slake our spiritual thirst. Every time I come to it, I find something new. This time around, my attention was arrested by a detail that is casually passed over as Jesus tells the story in Luke’s gospel. The younger of two sons asks his father for a premature distribution of his share of the father’s estate; in other words, he wants his inheritance while Dad is still 98.6 and vertical, rather than room temperature and pushing up daisies. This is really an outlandish and incredibly selfish request. Not only is it offensive on a mere personal level—talk about breaking a parent’s heart—but it was also a considerable financial imposition. Imagine what it would take for you to come up with half of your net worth in cash. He probably had to sell some livestock and some precious metals and some real estate on terms that were not particularly advantageous.
I bring this up because, later on, when the “prodigal son” returns home penniless and disgraced, we are in awe of the father’s love that welcomes him back without any recriminations or awkward questions. For the son, that homecoming was a wonderful experience of forgiveness and grace. But for the father, it came at a cost. It cost him on both ends of the transaction—first when he liquidated his assets in an untimely manner, and then again when he threw a welcome-home party for his younger son that jeopardized his relationship with his faithful older son.
And, of course, since the obvious point of the parable is that we should transfer our regard for how the loving father treats his flaky son to how our loving God treats us flaky children, it’s also easy for us to overlook the cost factor. It’s easy for us to conclude that our salvation—our redemption, our reconciliation, both “vertically” with God and “horizontally” with our fellow human beings—it’s easy for us to conclude that our salvation doesn’t really cost God anything, that it’s just a matter of God shrugging his shoulders and saying, “Oh, well, people will be people. You gotta love ‘em, though, so I’ll just overlook their screw-ups and wink at their infidelities.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and theologian who was martyred by the Nazi regime toward the end of World War II, coined the phrase “cheap grace.” Cheap grace doesn’t exist in reality, but it’s often alive and well in our imaginations. We see passages of scripture like “Return to the Lord, for he is gracious and merciful; slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love,” and the image that pops into our mind is not so much God the Father as God the Grandfather, who thinks we’re cute even when we’re naughty, and who pats us on the head and tells us to try a little harder to be nice as he slips us a piece of candy on the sly.
We continue to have a healthy appetite for “cheap grace,” I think, because we have a generally distorted conception of love. We confuse who we are with what we do, so we think that if someone loves us, they are obligated to approve of everything about us, to overlook our faults, and never confront or challenge our opinions or our behavior. No embarrassing questions about just how we managed to squander our inheritance in, as the King James Version puts it, “riotous living.” No parental advice on how to avoid repeating the disaster that we have brought on ourselves. No judgment, no consequences; just support, encouragement, and acceptance. That’s what love is, right?
Our taste for cheap grace is also nourished by a distorted notion of forgiveness. “It’s OK, think nothing of it.” “Not a problem—no big deal.” …as if the most serious thing we ever have to forgive is somebody accidentally stepping on our toe. Reinhold Niebuhr, an eminent Protestant theologian from the last century, described the theology of cheap grace as presenting us with "a God without wrath [who] brought [people] without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.” No wonder the cross has turned into a talisman, a fashion accessory. You’ve probably heard the story about the shopper who inquired at a department store jewelry counter, “Do you have any crosses?” The sales clerk responded with enthusiasm, “Oh, yes, we have several. Some are earrings, some are pins, and some come on necklaces. Most of them are plain, but some of them have a little man on them.” A little man. Indeed.
Let’s take an honest look at the sacred scriptures, particularly those appointed for this Fourth Sunday in Lent. What do we see? We see the second of St Paul’s two letters to the Christian community in the Greek city of Corinth. Paul reminds the Corinthians, and reminds us, that “for our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin…”. Now this is certainly a strange phrase. It refers, of course, to Jesus, who “knew no sin”—in other words, he was himself sinless; his being and his doing were at all times completely oriented toward the will of his Father. God took his own sinless son and “made him to be sin.” What does this mean? It means that Jesus was a sort of black hole for all of human sin, indeed for universal evil itself. Jesus absorbed into himself every act of genocide and mass murder, every act of tyranny and torture, every hate crime, every act of enslavement and human trafficking, every act of sexual predation, the sum total of social injustice and exploitation of the poor and marginalized, every misuse of our God-given desires and appetites, every act of infidelity and betrayal, every evasion of lawful and just taxation, every white lie, every disregarded traffic signal and every plagiarized term paper. Jesus took all of this into himself, and carried it to the cross. For our sake, God made him to be sin who knew no sin.
This quality of proactive generosity in God’s love is evident in the Prodigal Son parable: Notice how, when the son returns home to see if his father will take him on as a hired hand, he doesn’t have to pound on the door and beg the butler to fetch his father. No, the father sees him from a distance, and runs out to meet him with open arms. The father hasn’t forgotten; he’s been watching and waiting the whole time. My brothers and sisters, God’s grace and forgiveness doesn’t cost us a dime, but it is far from free. Jesus has paid the price, God has paid the price, for our salvation, for our redemption, for our reconciliation.
We’re all familiar with the gospel accounts of Jesus’ suffering and death. The details are etched into our imaginations. We are—most of us— acutely aware of the details of the agony that Jesus endured on our behalf. The verbal humiliation, the brutal scourging, the cynical crowning with thorns, all before carrying a heavy cross several hundred yards and up a hill while a crowd continues to taunt him, and then being nailed to the cross and lifted up to die. And die he did. There’s nothing cheap about grace. It is enormously costly. We’re way too impoverished to pay the price, so Jesus pays it for us.
To those of us who have experienced the costly grace of God, the cross can never be a mere talisman or fashion accessory. It is a symbol that we venerate and embrace and love, because it stands before us as the sign of the length to which God was willing to go…to save me, to save you, to save anyone who comes to him in faith. The astounding truth of God’s love is that, if you were the only person in the entire world, Jesus would still have died for you. The one who knew no sin became sin for our sake, “…so that in him we might become,” not sin, but “the righteousness of God.” We should glory in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom is our salvation, our life, and resurrection. Amen.