St. Luke reports the motive.
The Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling, Luke writes at the top of chapter fifteen. They were outraged: “This Jesus welcomes sinners— tax collectors, even, Jewish enablers of Israel’s imperial enemy. This rabbbi welcomes the very worst sinners among us.”
So Jesus, Luke says, told them three parables. The first about a lost sheep. The second about a lost coin. And then, a parable about a family.
The father said his son had wandered far off from how he’d been raised.
He’d wandered far from home.
That’s what the father had told the tipline after the Charleston Police Department released Dylan Roof’s picture to the press just after six in the morning on June 18, already four years ago. The father called the hotline to identify the suspect as his son. The father warned them that Dylan owned a .45 caliber pistol, a gift he’d given his son for his twenty-first birthday.
But the son had taken the father’s gift and left home and was now living out of his black Hyundai, the father told the tipline, adding that they could identify the nondescript car by the confederate flag on it.
“My son’s gotten himself lost,” the father said, “obsessing over segregation and another civil war coming. I keep hoping he’ll come to his senses.”
He’d wandered and gotten himself lost.
The night before, aiming to ignite a nationwide race war, the father’s son crept into the fellowship hall of Emmanuel AME, an historically black church in Charleston. The pastor and eleven church members gathered there for Wednesday night Bible Study welcomed him and invited him to join them.
Seeing the stranger, Polly Sheppard, one of the leaders of the Bible Study, declared that “if our guest has come to Emmanuel in search of God, we will guide him to God.” She didn’t know he carried hidden in his napsack a Glock and eighty-eighty bullets— the number symbolic for “Heil Hitler.”
The class members pulled up a chair for him. They gave him a Bible. They offered him a spare copy of the study guide.
They prepared table in the presence of their enemy.
He joined them in turning to the Gospel of Mark, chapter four. They were in the middle of a Bible Study on the parables of Jesus. And he sat next to them and studied with them the Parable of the Sower as Mark tells it.
After an hour, a class leader named Myra read from their study guide: “In like manner, the seed of God’s word, falling upon a heart rendered callous by the custom of sinning, is straightaway snatched away by the “Evil One.””
Given their hospitality towards him, he almost changed his mind. But, while they all bowed their heads and closed their eyes to pray, he pulled his gun, quickly, as he’d practiced.
And then he wandered out, even more lost than when he’d come, as Felicia Sanders, one of the three survivors, wept Jesus’ name over and again.
You know the story.
Two days later Dylan Roof appeared before a magistrate in Charleston County’s bond court. Reporters, photographers, and cameramen filled the courtroom to cover the bail hearing. Cable news stations showed Dylan Roof as he entered escorted by a sheriff, wearing shackles and a gray striped jumpsuit.
As the black-robed and silver-haired judge announced the case, on the other side of the world, in Dubai, Steve Hurd, whose wife had been a victim and who was desperately trying to make his way home, stood up in an airport bar and pointed at the television screen and shouted: “That! That thing killed my wife!”
Before the bond hearing concluded, Judge James Gosnell read the names of the victims, carefully, one at a time. Having finished, he invited their family members to come forward to speak.
Nadine Collier, the youngest daughter of Ethel Lance, sat in the back and hadn’t planned to say anything.
Yet, when her mother’s name was read, she later said she felt herself rise. Something moved her to the front of the packed room, she said. And as she walked forward, she said she heard her mother’s voice warning her, “I don’t want any fast talking out of you today. Don’t be a smart-ass today.”
Nadine’s Mother, Ethel, had been the church’s custodian. Ethel had chided Nadine for her stubborness and incendiary sense of humor, but in the bond coutroom Nadine was determined that her words would be her mother’s words and her mother’s words had always been disciplined by the Gospel Word.
Nadine was so overcome by the Holy Spirit that when she stepped the microphone, at first she couldn’t remember her name.
“You can talk to me,” the judge told her, “I’m listening to you.”
Instead Nadine looked at the lost son and summoned what she knew her mother would’ve said to him:
“I just want everybody to know, to you, I forgive you! You took something very precious away from me. I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you! And have mercy on your soul. You. Hurt. Me! You hurt a lot of people. But God forgives you. And I forgive you.”
And then she turned away from him and returned to her seat.
Next, a pastor, Anthony Thompson, came forward on behalf of his dead wife, Myra. A retired probabtion officer, he knew the bond hearing was only a formality so he hadn’t planned to say anything.
Like Nadine, the Spirit compelled him, he said later. He stood at the lectern, staring at Roof. In his mind, he said, it was as if everyone else had vanished and he was sitting alone with the killer in his jail cell.
In fact, Reverend Thompson spoke so softly the judge had to ask him to speak up.
“I forgive you,” the pastor whispered to him, “and my family forgives you, and we invite you to give your life to the one who matters the most; so that, he can change it, change you, no matter what happens to you.”
When Felicia Sanders heard her son, Tywanza‘s, name read by the judge, she said she felt God nudge her foward.
As she walked to the microphone, clutching a ball of folded-up tissues, she said she’d thought about how her baby boy was in heaven now and how Jesus says the Kingdom of Heaven is like a father who forgives his son who’d wished him dead. Therefore, she figured, forgiveness was the way she’d see her son again.
And so she said to the lost son who’d killed her son:
“We welcomed you Wednesday night in our Bible Study with open arms. You have killed some of the most beautifullest people that I know. Every fiber in my body hurts! And I’ll never be the same. Tywanza Sanders is my son, but he was also my hero! As we say in Bible Study: We enjoyed you, but may God have grace and mercy on you.”
Other family members spoke too. All of them echoed the same themes of God’s unmerited grace and forgiveness in Jesus Christ.
If you read Luke’s parable closely, it’s the gratuity of the grace that sets him off.
Whatever resentments the older brother was harboring, whatever anger lay buried inside him already— it’s the singing and the dancing and the feasting and the rejoicing that send him over the edge. Why shouldn’t it?
Ancient Judaism had clear guidelines for the return of a penitent. Ancient Judaism was clear about how to handle a prodigal’s homecoming. There was nothing ambiguous in Ancient Judaism about how to treat someone who’d abandoned and disgraced his family. It was called a ‘kezazah’ ritual, a cutting off ritual.
Just as they would have done when the prodigal left for the far country, when he returned home members of his community and members of his family would have filled a barrel with parched corn and nuts.
And then in front of everyone, including the children— to teach them an example— they would smash the barrel and declare, “This disgrace is cut-off from us.”
Having returned home, thus would begin his shame and his penance.
So you see, by all means, let the prodigal return, but to bread and water not to fatted calf.
By all means, let him come back, but dress him in sackcloth not in a new robe. Sure, let him come back, but make him wear ashes not a new ring. By all means let the prodigal return, but in tears not in merriment, with his head hung down not with his spirits lifted up. Bring him to his knees before you bring him home.
Celebration comes after contrition not as soon as the sinner heads home. Repentance is more than saying “I’m sorry” and forgiveness cannot be without justice. It’s the outrageousness of the forgiveness that outrages him. Here’s the thing: the eldest, he’s absolutely right.
It’s as if, in this parable, Jesus is after something different— something bigger— than what’s right.
One of the children of the Emmanuel Nine stood on the outside, looking in on their outrageous Gospel celeration.
Sharon Risher is Nadine Collier’s sister.
Of church custodian Ethel Lance’s five children, Sharon is the oldest.
She is the one who’d helped their mother care for her deaf brother. She is the one who showed up and did whatever needed to be done when Ethel’s second child, Terrie, struggled in a fatal battle with cervical cancer. She is the one who made their mother proud by being ordained and working as a trauma chaplain in Dallas.
Resentments still lingered between Sharon, the eldest, and Nadine, the youngest, from the fight that exploded between them at their sister, Terrie’s, funeral.
Sharon was still in Dallas, packing for a late flight to South Carolina, when the bail hearing came on the network news. Pacing her apartment and chain-smoking cigarettes, she heard her youngest sister, Nadine, mention their Mother— Ethel’s faith in the Gospel of Jesus Christ— before announcing in a quavering voice, “I just want everybody to know, to you, I forgive you!”
With her black horn-rimmed glasses pointed at the TV screen, Sharon watched from afar as other victim’s family members echoed her sister’s outrageous sentiments.
“What is going on?” she asked the television.
Nadine hadn’t told her about any bond hearing much less anything about any plans to offer up forgiveness for him— the police hadn’t even contacted her. While busy juggling her work and now her responsibilities as the family’s eldest, she just stumbled upon it on the TV.
“Why didn’t anyone tell me?” she wondered aloud.
When the news coverage of the hearing ended and the anchors marveled at the extravagant display of grace, Sharon felt infuriated. Not two days had passed. They hadn’t even buried their mother. She still hardly knew any details of what he had done.
Seeing their outrageous display of forgiveness on the TV screen, Sharon, Ethel Lance’s eldest, refused ever to join in.
“I’m the one who knows what should be done. How can you forgive this man?!” Sharon screamed the television.
When Sharon finally arrived in Charleston, she and her sister Nadine embraced, but the latter didn’t feel any warmth from the former.
None was intended, the eldest said.
Colloquial wisdom says that Jesus taught in parables so that the everyday rabble would better understand him. Clearly, whoever first made that argument hadn’t read many of Christ’s parables.
Surely though the members of the Bible Study at Emmanuel knew better. Likely, in their study guide on the parables of Jesus, they’d already encountered Jesus explaining to his disciples that the reason he taught in parables was so that the crowds would not understand him.
Jesus taught in parables— according to Jesus— not to make his teaching clear for the eavesdropping crowds but to confuse them. “To you,” Jesus says to his disciples, “it has been given to know the secrets of the Kingdom of God, but to them it has not been given.”
Jesus teaches in parables because the offensive, upside-down nature of the Kingdom of God is not for everybody to know.
Just anyone (who knows not Jesus) cannot possibly understand such a counterintuitive Kingdom.
You’ve got to see such a Kingdom before you can believe it— you’ve got to catch a glimpse of it.
The words need to find flesh.
Jesus teaches in parables because the parables aren’t for everyone.
Jesus teaches in parables because the parables are for the new family constituted by his call his call to baptism and discipleship.
Jesus teaches in parables that are unintelligible to the world; so that, Jesus’ disciples might then live lives that make intelligible the Kingdom disclosed in those parables.
That is, the parable Jesus gives to the unbelieving world is the parable that the Church tells by its becoming a parable— by exemplifying for the world what Jesus deliberately obscures from the world.
This parable at the end of Luke 15– it’s not a picture of a generalized, universal principle of forgiveness to which anyone can aspire.
We are meant to be the way of the Son in the far country of Sin and Death.
As Stanley Hauerwas says, a God who forgives sinners without giving them something to do is a God of sentimentality. This is why the lectionary always pairs Christ’s parable of the family with St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians:
“If anyone is in Christ [by baptism] there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.”
Christ has given us the ministry of reconciliation.
Christ has given the ministry of reconciliation to us— not to Congress, not to POTUS OR SCOTUS, not to Democrats, not to Republicans, to us.
Christ has given us— the new family of the Father and the Son, created by baptism— Christ’s own ministry of reconciliation.
Christ has given it to us; therefore, it’s not simply something we should do or ought to do in order to get to Christ. We’re already in Christ. And Christ has given us his ministry of reconciliation; therefore, it’s something we can do— it’s something we get to do.
Karl Barth said one of the ways we’re hostile to God’s grace, one of the ways we contend against God’s grace is by not doing what we may and can do, for grace not only pardons; grace empowers.
Grace empowers us to live lives that make no sense if the one who told this parable of the family is not Lord.
Grace not only pardons.
Grace empowers us to live lives that corroborate the Gospel.
Grace empowers us to live lives that corroborate the Gospel because what God wants is not just your life but the whole world.
We are, as St. Paul says in that same passage, “ambassadors of Christ.”
The Living God, the apostle Paul writes, is determined to make his appeal through us, the particular, peculiar people called Church.
We’re the parable Christ communicates to the wider, watching world.
At the end of their testimony at Dylan Roof’s bond hearing, the Charleston police chief, Greg Mullen, said he sat in awe of how, with the world watching, God’s Church had rendered every reporter in the courtroom speechless, their jaws all hanging open, dumbfounded, amazed at grace.