What follows is the first of two sermons on Jesus’ beloved parable of the prodigal son (and his older brother). In this sermon, I compare Lance Armstrong’s recent confession to Oprah to the prodigal son’s confession. If we sympathize with Armstrong’s many critics who complain that his confession wasn’t sincere, remorseful, or penitent enough, I wonder if we’re not at least a little like the older son.
The truth is, we can never be sincere, remorseful, or penitent enough to win God’s forgiveness. Our forgiveness comes by way of grace, of which God has an infinite supply.
Do you wonder whether God can forgive you? I hope this parable sets your mind at ease!
Sermon Text: Luke 15:1-2, 11-32
The following is my original sermon manuscript.
Our scripture begins: “All the tax collectors and sinners were gathering around Jesus to listen to him. The Pharisees and legal experts were grumbling, saying, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’”
The truth is that when Jesus was here in the flesh, people who weren’t religious—the “unchurched,” we might call them today—loved Jesus. And many of the deeply religious people—the Pharisees and the legal experts in today’s scripture—didn’t. We talked about this a few weeks ago when we looked at Andy Stanley’s new book: Andy said that he believes that if we’re doing church right, then unchurched people ought to like us the same way they liked Jesus.
In his recent book on this parable, The Prodigal God, pastor Timothy Keller says that unfortunately that mostly isn’t the case. He writes: “Jesus’s teaching consistently attracted the irreligious while offending the Bible-believing, religious people of his day. However, in the main, our churches today do not have this effect. The kind of outsiders Jesus attracted”—represented by the younger brother in today’s parable—“are not attracted to contemporary churches, even our most avant-garde ones. We tend to draw conservative, buttoned-down, moralistic people.” In other words, Keller complains, our churches tend to be filled with a bunch of people like the older brother in today’s parable.
I don’t know what he’s talking about? Do you? Our church isn’t filled with older brother-types who can’t celebrate the fact that God is so loving and gracious and forgiving, right? We’re not like the older brother, are we?
I was reflecting on these questions just last week when the Lance Armstrong story broke. Lance Armstrong, the former seven-time Tour de France champion, finally came clean last week in an interview with Oprah Winfrey. Turns out that he did, in fact, cheat—that the sport’s governing body wasn’t mistaken last year when they determined that Armstrong, like so many others in the sport of cycling, was doping.
But we’ve known that for a while, right? We’ve known for a while that, despite Armstrong’s many adamant denials, this man who at one time was America’s most inspiring sports hero was a big fat phony—a fraud. Well, he wasn’t a fat phony, but you know what I mean. Truth be told, I feel a little burned by Lance Armstrong myself. Twice in my pastoral career I have used Armstrong’s story as an inspirational sermon illustration—once after he won his seventh Tour de France and again when he was trying to make a comeback a couple of years ago at the ripe old age of 39. If he could succeed at that level of competition at his age—which was also my age—just think what I could do! There were always allegations of doping, to be sure, but I loved his response: “Everybody wants to know what I’m on. What am I on? I’m on my bike busting my butt six hours a day. What are you on?”
And I’m like, Yeah! I’m not much for cycling, but Armstrong’s fierce determination, his ability to overcome adversity, made me want to go out and run a marathon or something. He made me feel as if I could conquer the world!
Needless to say, when I decided a while back that he was a fraud, I figured I would never use him in a sermon illustration again.
And then last week happened. Just think: on the eve of preaching a sermon about the prodigal son—the man who finally comes to his senses and repents and confesses his sins… Here we have Lance Armstrong coming to his senses, swallowing his pride, humiliating himself, preparing to go on national TV in order to repent and confess to the world that he was a liar and a cheat… And, well… He did just that… And oddly enough, his confession disappointed a lot of people.
Here are some of the things I heard and read people say in the news media and on sports talk radio: Armstrong’s confession was insincere. He was self-interested. He only did it now so that he could compete in mountain bike events and triathlons. He wasn’t forthcoming enough: He didn’t say enough about the extent of his deception. He didn’t show an adequate amount of remorse. He didn’t apologize directly to the many people he hurt. For example, there were teammates and associates over the years who, as it turns out now, were telling the truth about his doping, and he made it his personal vendetta to slander them and destroy their careers. He didn’t apologize enough to them. Then there were his stalwart defenders in the sports media—journalists who were close friends, who staked their professional reputations on the fact that their good friend wouldn’t look them in the eye and lie to them—repeatedly, passionately, on the record…and off the record. Yet that’s what Armstrong did.
One of his defenders over the past 14 years was a well-known ESPN columnist, Rick Reilly, who said he received a three-sentence email from Armstrong last Wednesday. It read: “Riles, I’m sorry. All I can say for now but also the most heartfelt thing too. Two very important words.” I’m sorry. Reilly was furious. He wrote in his column, “When he says he’s sorry now, how do we know he’s not still lying? How do we know it’s not just another great performance by the all-time leader in them?”
Be honest: don’t you identify with Rick Reilly and Armstrong’s other detractors at least a little bit?
But… if we feel this way, doesn’t that make us at least a little bit like the big brother in today’s parable? Can’t we be a little sympathetic with him? And if so, can’t we identify at least a little with the Pharisees and the legal experts who found Jesus’ message of forgiveness and salvation shocking and offensive.
After all, consider how harmful the younger brother’s actions were: He asked for his share of his father’s estate before his father died. As the younger son, he would have been entitled to one-third of the estate. In traditional cultures like the ancient near east, this request was unspeakably disrespectful: It was as if the younger brother were saying, “Dad, you’re worth more to me dead than alive. And I wish you were dead.” Also, by asking his father to divide up his property now, before his death, he was asking his father to live the rest of his life on less than he otherwise would. After all, if you’ve saved up a nest egg for your retirement, and suddenly you have to give one-third of it away long before you die, it’s easy to imagine that that might jeopardize your retirement. And then there’s the shame of it: All of the father’s neighbors—the whole town, in fact—would know that this shameful thing had happened. It would be so embarrassing to the father, a permanent blow to his reputation.
So do you see how reckless the younger son was acting? Based on what I read, no father in this very traditional culture would have granted the son’s request. In fact, he would probably have his servants take his son out back and beat him for even suggesting such a thing! But the father in the parable does something completely unexpected: he gives his younger son the inheritance and lets him leave.
In his excellent book on parenting called ScreamFree Parenting, a Christian marriage and family therapist named Hal Runkel argues that successful parenting isn’t really about the kids; it’s about the parents; that successful parenting is less about focusing on our children and more about focusing on ourselves. He admits that that sounds counterintuitive, shocking, even selfish, but look at it this way: Even though I’m a husband, I don’t have control over Lisa, my wife. Even though I’m your pastor, I don’t really have control over you, my beloved congregation. I can’t control my district superintendent. I can’t control my bishop. I can’t control Don Martin or Larisa Parker. Everything would be better if I could, of course, but I can’t! And even though I’m a parent, I don’t really even have control over my children—they are their own people, with own self-directed wills. I mean, I guess I could tie them up until they become adults, but that’s probably not a good idea!
No, the truth of the matter is that the only person I have control over is myself, and even in that area, the Holy Spirit has some more work to do to help me develop the virtue of self-control! So Runkel argues that we need to pay close attention to how we respond to our children, because our response helps determine—well—the way our kids will turn out; and the kind of relationship we’ll have with them down the road. So in the book, he talks about how we parents should work extra hard to avoid what he calls “emotional reactivity,” letting our emotions dictate our response to our kids instead of thinking it through and being cool, calm, and collected. How would you respond, Runkel asks, if or when your child says, “I hate you”? He offers insight in the book. Among other things, when your child says that it’s an opportunity to ask yourself what you’ve done to contribute to the problem in the relationship.
He also talks about how we should practice what he calls judo parenting. Judo teaches us not to resist our opponent’s attack, but, rather, to use their weight and momentum as leverage against them. Here’s an example: There was a great Leave It to Beaver episode in which Beaver announces to his family that he’s going to run away from home. He expects his parents to say “no,” of course. But instead of saying no, Ward Cleaver, practicing judo parenting, actually helps Beaver pack up his belongings. By the end of the episode, of course, Beaver decides that living at home isn’t so bad. In fact, he comes to appreciate and love his family more.
The father in the parable does a similar thing, only it doesn’t work out so neatly. But as unfortunate as this situation is, it’s still better than the alternative. If love is the father’s goal, if love is more important than his money and possessions and his social security, then the father’s response to the younger son was the wisest course of action: it was the father’s only shot at saving his relationship with his son. Because the father knew that, some time in the future, after the son faces the consequences for his foolish actions, the son might learn to see the error of his ways and repent and return home and repair the relationship. And as we know, that’s exactly what happened. The son squanders his fortune in a distant land. To make matters worse, a famine hits. The son takes a demeaning job feeding pigs. Yet he’s still hungry. He would settle for the scraps of food the pigs ate, but no one gives him anything. Then he thinks to himself, “How many of my father’s hired hands have more than enough food, but I’m starving to death! I will get up and go to my father, and say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son. Take me on as one of your hired hands.’” And with that, the younger son decided to go home and face his father.
The younger son repented. But was his repentance all that different from Lance Armstrong’s repentance?
After all, Armstrong was accused of being insincere and opportunistic because he’s trying to get his lifetime ban on competition lifted. In other words, Armstrong’s repentance seems motivated by self-interest: his circumstances are preventing him from making a living. And maybe that’s true.
But what about the prodigal son? It’s not like his motives were all that pure! He didn’t realize how badly he’d screwed up until after he was starving, after he remembered how well-fed his father’s servants were! His empty stomach motivated him to repent! Isn’t there some self-interest there? If so, the father takes him back anyway—doesn’t even let the son get to the part where he says he’ll work as one of his father’s hired hands.
In twelve-step language, the younger son is in steps 8 and 9: he’s listing all the people he’s hurt, and he’s trying to make amends. Making amends is a good thing, but keep in mind: making amends to people whom you’ve hurt is not the same thing as settling the score. If you’ve hurt someone, you can never make it even-Steven. And if we’ve been hurt by someone, I hope we’re not waiting until they pay us back in some way before we forgive them. Settling the score is not a prerequisite for forgiveness.
If I want God to forgive my sins, guess what? I can never be sorry enough. I can never do enough to make amends. I can never adequately pay God back for the harm I’ve done to my relationship with him. I want to, but I can’t! And if that’s what it takes for God to forgive me, I’m in trouble! And so Lance Armstrong’s critics are exactly right: He’s not sorry enough, he’s not remorseful enough, he’s not sincere enough, he’s not contrite enough, he’s not penitent enough to come close to undoing all the damage that he’s done over the years. No, if Armstrong’s former friends, former associates, former allies are ever going to forgive him, they’re not going to do so after he’s “paid them back” by being sufficiently remorseful. He’ll never cry enough tears of grief to fill up a bucket big enough to satisfy them! If these people are going to forgive Lance Armstrong, they’re only going to do so using a measure of that same stuff of which God has an infinite supply:
Do you know why God has an infinite supply of grace? Because God—by coming into the world through Jesus Christ—has paid an infinite price for it: he’s paid for it with the gift of his own precious life! He didn’t have to, but he chose to out of love.
I know that some of you here this morning doubt that God could ever forgive you. You think, “I’ve done too much harm. I’ve hurt too many people. I’ve sinned against God too often.” There are some of you here this morning who, even though in the past you’ve placed your faith in Christ and were baptized, you still worry and wonder about your own salvation.
Here’s my question: Do you think your sin is more powerful than God’s love? Do you think your sin is stronger than the cross? The apostle Paul talks about this in Romans. He writes, “Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.” In other words, your sin and my sin—no matter how ugly and awful and shameful and destructive—are no match for the love and mercy and grace of God that was poured out on the cross!
Look: I don’t know whether the public or these former friends and associates will ever forgive Lance Armstrong. That’s asking a lot of human beings—as I indicated, we tend to have a have a lot of “older brother” inside of us. But the question of whether God will forgive Lance Armstrong—or even regular sinners like you and me—that is easy to answer. God will… At least if we do what the prodigal son does… and take that first tentative step of faith and turn around. The moment we do, we’ll find a gracious, loving, merciful God waiting to receive us. Amen.
We still haven’t said enough about God’s love and grace and forgiveness in this parable. And we haven’t said enough about the older son. We’ll get to that next week. So come back!
 Timothy Keller, The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith (New York: Riverhead, 2008), 18-19.