March 6, 2016 sermon
Grace of the Father, Arrogance of the Son
Are you familiar with Seinfeld? I am, obviously since I’m about to tell you a Seinfeld story. If you are familiar with the show, you will know that Jerry and Elaine used to date but now they are just very close friends. In an episode called “The Wigmaster”, Jerry walks into a clothes shop, gets help trying on a blazer and then in doubt says, “I’ll come back with someone for a second opinion”. The clothes shop guy Craig gives him a look and says, “Ah ha”. “Really, I will come back”! Another look, “Yeah”. So out of spite, Jerry goes back there with Elaine just to prove Craig wrong; but things go wrong when Craig and Elaine start flirting, they get a date, and Jerry ends up buying that blazer. He is annoyed about being pressured into buying that blazer, but also because Craig didn’t think Jerry and Elaine were a couple, and asked her out right in front of him. Later on, he gets annoyed again when The three of them are together at a coffee shop and a florist thinks Elaine and Craig are a couple instead of Jerry and Elaine. Then he gets annoyed when he is having a drink alone with a gay man and another gay man comes and flirts with the man Jerry is with. “Did you just ask him out right in front of me? How do you know we’re not a couple?” “Well, I just didn’t think you were”. “Well, it’s very emasculating!” Then annoyed that he lost to Craig, he goes back to the store to return the blazer. “I would like to return this blazer”. “Certainly. May I ask why?” “For spite. I don’t care for the salesman who sold it to me”. “I’m sorry sir, but you cannot return an item only based on spite.” “Well then I’m not satisfied with the product.” “Well, you already said spite, so…” Jerry is being petty and spiteful in this episode, which makes it funny.
Anyway, today’s gospel story reminded me of this Seinfeld episode. This story commonly known as “the prodigal son” is so well loved and popular; a father forgives his delinquent son who came back home after wasting away his life and inheritance. To me, describing this son as “delinquent” is such a mild treatment. Think of the ancient world where sons from a wealthy family inherit father’s possessions when he dies, sons of a king being impatient to inherit the throne waiting for their father to die; we are familiar with such stories from history. Some even actively revolted against the king their father to take his throne. This prodigal son asks for his inheritance while his father is alive and well. In his social context, he’s practically saying, “O father, I can’t wait till you die so that I may do whatever I want with your money”. This definitely reminds us of ourselves, since a lot of us often forget that what we have in this world is given to us by God. It doesn’t truly belong to us; we are just managers or stewards. In this sense, this story also has a dimension of stewardship, as well as that of the grace of God.
Now, we talked about God’s unending love and forgiveness towards the prodigal “us” through this Bible story; but there is another very important aspect of this story that not many Christians emphasize. It’s the position of the elder son, who never left his father or wasted his life away, who stayed close to his father in never-ending devotion and service. When his delinquent younger brother came home a broken man, their father welcomed him with open arms, ordered nice clothes and a banquet for him. I remember seeing a Snoopy cartoon one day; kids were reading the Bible story of the prodigal son and when they finished, Snoopy wonders, “What did the fat calf ever do to deserve this?” A perspective of an animal… Anyway, back to the elder son; we are trained to identify with the prodigal son in this story, but the truth is, a lot of us are in the position of the elder son. Those who were raised Christians, who have been involved in service and leadership of the church, we are the elder son; we haven’t been the prodigal son for a long time, probably. Surely the elder son in this story is intended for the Pharisees and other religious leaders of Jesus’ time. Those of us who have been Christians for a while should listen to this parable in the position of the elder son because like him, and like the Pharisees, we are at risk of making our devotion to God an obligation rather than out of love and joy. Like them, we are at risk of feeling self-righteous and superior to others who don’t devote themselves in God’s service. The point of this character of the elder son is that he couldn’t accept his delinquent brother who came back in repentance. This is Jesus warning the Pharisees that if they don’t open their minds and become more welcoming, they can’t reconcile with God; because God certainly welcomes sinners who return. We should also take this as a warning that if we keep being elitist and exclusive, we might not be able to reconcile with God who DOES welcome outcasts and marginalized people. Jerry was being petty and narrow-minded in today’s Seinfeld episode like the elder son. I wanted to scream at Jerry, “Who cares if people don’t think you and Elaine are a couple; you aren’t! Who cares if a gay man doesn’t think you are in a gay couple; you aren’t!” But until the end, Jerry stayed petty and resentful; so did the elder son. So let these two stories be a warning for us.
This Season of Lent, we have been reflecting on different aspects of our shortcomings before God. We reflected on our personal shortcomings, collective shortcomings as the Church, and the shortcoming of not producing fruit of good works using our talents and privileges. This week, through the story of the prodigal son that I will redub, “Grace of the Father, Arrogance of the Son”, let us reflect on this story in the position of the elder son. Let us reflect on our pride as the people of God as well as our motive for our devotion to God. Are we serving God out of obligation although sometimes we resent it like the elder son? Do we feel self-righteous and superior, and think certain people don’t deserve our acceptance and God’s? If any little part of our conscience says “yes”, “sometimes”, or “maybe”, there is room for repentance in this area. So this week, let us look into ourselves and see if we resemble the elder brother; and let us pray for the humility and joy of being God’s people.
Rev. Sunny Kim