“But when he came to himself…” (Luke 15:11)
It’s such a little word. “But”. But I find that this little, tiny, three letter word often signals a HUGE change. A re-direction. An alternate view. An objection. It does so again in what I find to be the most memorable, grace filled parable ever told by Jesus. It starts out this way. “There was a man who had two sons.”
Immediately you and I can expect the comparisons and the tension. It’s the very nature of any well-constructed parable. And to my way of thinking, Jesus, the Master of Grace was THE master at telling stories that teach and instruct. The hearer in that day, and you and I in this day, tilt our heads. We lean in a little closer. We cup our ear with our hand. “Sssshh”. “Listen”. Something’s happening here. Not with one son, but with two. And not just with two sons, but also the man.
For there to be a re-direction, something or someone must first be heading in one direction. And Jesus wastes no time at all in telling us where the younger son is headed. “Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.” Everyone in the crowd of hearers gasps!
“Why, the very idea,” you say!
“How insolent,” I respond!
“How disrespectful! Another demands, “How could any son in his right mind treat his father this way? It’s as if he wants his father dead!” “This is downright embarrassing!” “He’d better not show his face around here again”, is the collective demand.
And it quickly goes from bad to worse. The young man abandons his father’s farm. He splits. He’s ‘outa’ there, pronto! There’s no “I’ll be back sometime soon”. No “Good-bye dad. Thanks for changin’ the rules for me”.
The young man is excited for his new life. No more responsibility. No one telling him what to do, when to do it. He’s got money in his pocket and not a care in the world. “Surely the grass greener over there, in the “far country.” But, you and I know, in a society that was based in agriculture, to abandon the family farm brought loss of respect. Even the younger son in the family would have responsibility to care for an aging father. To split the scene would be to say, “I don’t care a thing about you!”
Jesus tells us pretty quickly that it doesn’t take long. The younger son squanders his newly acquired assets on “reckless” living. A famine strikes and he’s running on empty. He hires himself out to one in the far country who sends him out into the fields to feed pigs. Back at home, this activity would be disgraceful. Jews prohibited the raising of swine. They were unclean, not to be touched. The young lad is so broken and destitute that he feeds himself on the carob pods, the food reserved for pigs or desperate human beings. At first, he can’t hear their sneers. Can’t sense their derision.
“But when he came to himself…”
When I stop to think about it, I find that there is true grace in this very moment. And it starts with that little three letter word! “But when he came to himself”. There is, in this short phrase, true, honest introspection. He came to himself. He saw himself – face to face. Finally. Real. Transparent.
You and I, no one, can truly make a change, re-direct, until we come face to face with … ourselves. You and I have to see the bottom of the barrel, run on empty, and have the intestinal fortitude to stare ourselves down, to see the distortion, the disfigurement. And say, “no more of this!” Only then can we turn around, come home, begin to live into “the who” the Master Creator intended us to be.
Perhaps that’s me there in the younger son. Perhaps it’s you. Perhaps we both have been “there”. Perhaps we found that the “I’ve got this” doesn’t work. Perhaps that tower of self-sufficiency that we built for ourselves began to crumble. Perhaps you found that self- trust wasn’t enough. Or, perhaps you or I traded truth for a lie, for the lure of what really doesn’t satisfy. There comes a moment of grace…for you…for me…for the younger son…
“But when he came to himself…”
Grace is anchored in God’s purposes. Grace does its best work in human weakness. Grace did its work in the younger son. He stared down the barrel of his own weakness. Pride melted into humility. “I will arise and go to my father”, he said. “I will confess to my own unworthiness, my undeserving. Perhaps he will... Maybe he will…”
“But”, scripture says. “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him”. He didn’t need the younger lad’s confession. He knew the change had been made. “Bring the best robe! Put a ring on his finger! Put sandals on his feet! Kill the fatted calf! Start the celebration! It’s party-time!
Sssshh! Listen! Can you hear them? Every angel in heaven is rejoicing. For this one was dead, BUT now he’s alive!
It’s all about grace!