“Amazing Grace” is without a doubt one of the most famous Christians hymns ever to be sung. It is full of powerful emotion and hope, which is why we tend to sing it in moments of suffering and hardship. It is a hymn which banks everything on the amazing and shocking grace of our God and nothing on our own accomplishments. It was written by an Englishman named John Newton in 1772. Newton’s personal story adds much to this beloved hymn. He had a troubled childhood with his mother dying when he was only 6 years old. He rebelled against authority all his life and even tried to desert the Royal Navy in his late twenties (for which he received eight dozen lashes). He was eventually abandoned by his crew in West Africa and became a servant to a slave trader. On a return trip to England, a storm sunk his ship and he cried out to God to save him. This, you might say was the beginning of his coming to faith, but only the beginning. He soon became a ship master on a vessel bringing slaves from Africa to England. He would later speak about his complete lack of empathy toward the Africans onboard the ship. The Lord continued to work on Newton and eventually he gave up the sea going life. After a few years, he applied to become an Anglican priest. In 1764 he was ordained.
He was a broken, terrible sinner. He made a living in human suffering and exploitation. Now he was to preach the Word of God and administer the Sacraments. It was in this setting he penned our famous hymn. Gives it a little more punch, does it not? When I think about Newton’s story, I think about it as the encroaching embrace of God. We have all either received a hug from someone or given a hug to someone where it is, at first, resisted, but then you melt into it. There have been many times where I have been in the midst of disciplining my own children, where we stand in opposition to each other, and I can see them crumbling under the weight of the law I expressed. I have learned over the years (probably far too many years) how the best thing to do at that moment is to hug them. I hold them and tell them I love them. In an embrace, stiff opposition melts, there is comfort, forgiveness, and hope.
Now, I do not know if this is the best pastoral practice, but I have realized it has become a go-to for me. When a member is sharing their grief and I am listening and unsure of what to say, when I realize there are no right words for the situation, I often resort to a hug. A moment in time to let them know they are not alone. To remind them they are loved, they are forgiven, and there is hope. And it was our Lord’s embrace of Newton which caused him to eventually write, “Amazing Grace – how sweet the sound – that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now I am found, was blind but now I see!” An underserved hug, undeserved forgiveness, amazing grace to be sure.
I share this with you because today we are going to consider what is probably our Lord’s most famous parable. The parable of the Prodigal Son has been retold, preached, and studied over and again. It has been dissected and examined in all sorts of ways. But Newton’s story and the embrace of God might give us the rare ability to see this old word in a new way. The parable is part of a larger group of parables told in response to the Pharisees and Scribes who were grumbling against Jesus because He receives sinners and eats with them. So, He tells a story about the amazing love of a father, a father who had two sons, two very different sons. The older one was good and faithful and did his duty without complaint. The younger one, he is easy to dislike, is he not? He demands from his father his share of the inheritance. This is tantamount to wishing your father were already dead. In fact, when we read he divided between them his property, it can be translated as he divided his life and gave it to his sons.
So, what does the younger son do with his share of his father’s life? Well, he has a fun time, for a while. He squandered all the money in a foreign land and if this was not bad enough, when he finally had exhausted the money, a famine arose. With the famine comes scarcity, and with scarcity comes a lack of generosity from those he had hoped would care for a foreigner like himself. He ends up working for a man doing the most despicable thing imaginable for a young Jewish man. He feeds pigs. He is so hungry he longs to share in the food with the unclean swine. He is broken, humbled, and ashamed. His thoughts return finally to his father. His servants have plenty of food. He could return home. After what he had done, he did not deserve to be a son but perhaps he could be a hired servant. Anything would be better than this. He resolved to return home and rehearsed his confession, “Father, I have sinned against Heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”
What happens next is incredible. The father sees his son when he is still a long way off, as if he has never stopped waiting for his return, never stopped longing to have his son back again. And what does he do? He runs down the path to greet his son, and he hugs him. He embraces him and kisses him. The son begins to make his confession but in the embrace of his father, he is cut short. Instead, the father calls the servants to bring the best robe and put the signet ring on his finger and shoes on his feet. He is restored and it is time to celebrate, to have a great feast. For the father who embraces his son declares, “This my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.” And they began to celebrate… amazing grace how sweet the sound.
If we stopped here, things seem good. But the parable was not about a father with one son but two. In fact, since it is given in response to Pharisees and Scribes who grumbled because Jesus was receiving sinners, perhaps the real focus is on this older son. He is the son who hears about the celebration and return of his brother, but he will not go in to join the celebration. Again, the father goes out. He goes not with anger and pride but with love, compassion, and a desire to embrace his son and bring him into the celebration. But it is not fair. Why celebrate one who has done such destruction? Where is his celebration for all his years of faithfulness? There is a beautiful play on words when the older son says to his father, “This son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!” And the father responds, “It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.”
The parable ends without a resolution. Did the older brother join the party? Did he eventually fall into the embrace of his father? Did he know the love, forgiveness, and welcome that such a hug could bring? How there in his father’s arms you find you are not alone, you are not left to your own righteousness, and there is great cause for celebration? For without that love, he is left with only his own justice and pride. Outside the embrace of the Father is a lonely place to be.
So, where do you fit in this parable of our Lord? Are you the prodigal son, the broken and undeserving sinner like Newton, committing sin after sin, piling up a debt you can never pay? Why, yes you are! You sin in thoughts, words, and deeds. You do not deserve to be a hired servant much less a beloved child. Yet, you are the older son as well. You are the one who feels betrayed by the reckless love of the Father. You secretly want recognition for you sacrifice, your hard work, your righteousness. You are no stranger to pride, so you too can be jealous of the Father’s love for others.
But no matter where you find yourself in this parable, the one common truth is the Father never stops coming to you. He comes to embrace you, to restore you, to love you. He embraces you even now, as your sins are laid before Him, as you resist and try to pull away. He holds you tight this day and says, “I forgive you. You are my child. All I have is yours.”
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.