Defying Gravity Week 2
Passage: Luke 15:11–15:32
10.29.2017 Defying Gravity 2: Breaking Free
Scripture: Luke 15: 11-32
In the late 80s and early 90s there wasn’t a bigger, more larger than life, more awesome and terrifying athlete than Mike Tyson. I was not old enough to fully appreciate Mike Tyson the boxing phenom, but in college I played a lot of Mike Tyson’s Punch Out, a Nintendo game, and that alone showed me how amazing and unstoppable he was in his prime. He set a new standard for fame for a boxer and set new highs in earnings. Through fight winnings, through endorsements and other business ventures Mike Tyson earned over $400 million in his career. It was an amount unprecedented for a boxer and showed is representative of his cultural stature during his peak.
For many of us in this room $400 million is set for life money. Check that: for all of us in this room $400 million is set for life money. That’s more than set for life money. That’s I’m set for life, my kids are set for life, my grandkids are set for life money.
And so it was very surprising, dare I say shocking, that in 2003 Mike Tyson filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy. That massive $400 million sum had been depleted. He had no way to cover his debts. He was in financial ruin.
Then came the stories about the financial extravagances of Tyson’s lifestyle. Mansions. Jewelry. Diamonds. Gold. Tigers. Tyson had been blessed with immense talent that he had used to accrue a vast amount of wealth. That he had squandered. I remember hearing that story and being completely and utterly shocked.
In 2012, ESPN aired as a part of their 30 for 30 documentary series a look into how athletes can spend and lose such vast sums of money. Entitled “Broke,” the episode showed how money is not as secure as we might think and how the culture of more can impact those with more money even greater.
There’s a familiar story in the Bible that outlines this issue, that shows how the pull of financial gravity can lead to not just financial ruin, but to ruin our lives and souls and well-being. We are going to look at the story of the Prodigal Son. Since it is such a familiar story, I’m going to walk us through it and break in here and there to offer some comments.
Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.
I don’t know what I find more outrageous about the start of this parable: that one son came to his father and said give me my share of the inheritance, while the father was still alive, or that the father gave it to him. Both are crazy. Can you imagine a son going to his father and saying, he dad, you’ve had a great run, but frankly I’d planned on you kicking the bucket a few years ago and can’t wait any longer to get what’s coming to me, ya know, like sometime soon. So um, can you hook me up, cause I’d like to just be done with this family. That’s what the younger brother is saying. But what might be even crazier, the father gives him the money. I can’t imagine ever going to my dad and saying, hey since some of the value of this house will be mine some day can you take out a home equity loan and just hook me up now, but even if I did that, I’m not sure my dad could say no faster than if I asked him to eat spinach. My dad’s a picky eater. So that makes sense. Cause he’d say no real quick to eating spinach. Just like he’d say no to giving me a quarter of his house’s value now.
But strange as it seems, the father does indeed give his son his share of the inheritance. And our story continues.
“Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
The son takes his money and sets off on an epic road trip. He thinks that he has an infinite sum of money. He thinks he has money such that he will never have to worry about anything ever again. He thinks he is young, invincible, employable and that the world is his oyster. And he spends and spends and spends and spends and spends and spends and spends and spends and spends. What he discovers, much to his surprise and terror, is that his money does have an end. And that he has found it.
Then he is struck with a bit of bad luck. Just as his money is running out the economy tanks. And the friends that he thought he had back when he had money won’t take his calls. There are no good jobs available to him. His investments tanked. I might be taking some liberties with the historical aspects of this story. So he takes a dirty job as it’s the only way to barely scare by.
“When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and went to his father.
Finally he realizes that his father will take him on and whatever job his father will give him will be better than the dirty job he’s doing. No matter how much shame he has to bear, that’ll all be better than the life he has made for himself on his own.
Up until this moment this story has lived in the economy of me-me-me. The younger son felt entitled to his share of the inheritance. It was his. His money ran out. And in the me-me-me economy, when his money ran out it was a problem of infinite proportion. In the economy of me-me-me what’s mine is not yours and don’t ever expect it to be. No one was willing to take care of, be associated with, or help out someone who had nothing.
What is the solution to this? Where does grace, salvation, good news come in? When we leave the economy of me-me-me and enter into an economy of grace.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
The father doesn’t live in an economy of me-me-me. The father lives in an economy of grace. He lives in a space where the goal isn’t to acquire more and more and more, instead where the goal is to bless. The father seeks to use his possessions to bless others. The son left his father taking everything and returns with nothing. The father gives the son who has nothing a ring, a cloak, a party, the fattened calf. The father doesn’t give the son who has nothing just a little bit. He gives the son who has nothing everything. Out of abundance.
Our father has given us everything. Out of abundance. We are the younger son who had nothing. We are the younger son who had no ability to make our own way and who had nothing to give to the father. Nothing to make it right. And the father has given us more than we could ever ask for.
What is the response to extravagant generosity?
“Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’ “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’ “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”
This is a story we tell a lot in church. And the focus on the story typically is always on the younger son and the father. The older son doesn’t get as much screen time. But when we do talk about the older son we talk about how jaded and cynical he is. How wrong it is for him to brood instead of celebrate. We may even talk about how we shouldn’t be the older son when it comes to welcoming new people into the church. Rarely do we assume that we ourselves already are the older brother.
And rarely do we look at the economic outlook of the older brother.
I think the older brother might also be operating in the economy of me-me-me. I think he older brother might be standing off at a distance, angry, because the younger brother has already gotten his share. The older brother already took what was his. And yet here was the father giving the younger son more. And perhaps the older brother might be thinking, here is my father giving my brother things that are mine.
The older brother cannot join his father in the economy of grace. The older brother feels the weight of the financial gravity that ties him to his stuff. But friends, I gotta tell you, we might be more like the older brother than we think.
Christian Smith did a five year study on American’s giving habits called the Science of Generosity Initiative. In the resulting book authored by Smith and Hilary Davidson called The Paradox of Generosity, he reports that 44.8% of the thousands of people in his study report giving $0 to charitable purposes. 44.8%!!! 4 out of every 9 people said they gave nothing to church, nothing to the Red Cross, nothing to American Cancer Society, nothing to their alma mater, nothing to the myriad non-profits that send you free address labels. At Christmas time they walked right by the dude ringing the bell. In the spring they told the Girl Scouts they wanted no cookies. Nothing. Nada. Zilch. Before you think I’m being too harsh, this is self-reported. This study didn’t come as the result of court subpoena. These are 4 out of 9 people freely admitting they give nothing.
And another 41.9% reported giving less than 2% of their annual income for charitable purposes.
Now what we’ll hear a lot of time when it comes to talking about generosity, stewardship, and giving is that people really want to give more money but they can’t, so they give their time. Maybe this 44.8% has very little disposable income so they give their time. However, in this same study 76% of people reported giving zero volunteer hours to any organization.
All of this is despite the vast majority of Americans wanting to live purposeful lives, wanting to make a difference, wanting to be the type of people and live the type of lives that generosity makes possible. And yet nearly half of people give nothing to charity and three quarters give no time.
But Pastor Matt, you might say, this is a survey of average Americans. If you were to survey Christians you’d surely see that those in the church are more generous. I mean, every year we hear pastors talking to us about giving and our Bible tells us that God asks for one tenth of what we have.
And you would be right that Christians are more generous than the population as a whole. Christian Smith wrote another book called Passing the Plate that looked at generosity patterns of Christians. While the are more generous than their average American peers, still one out of five American Christians makes no financial contribution to any charitable organization including the church.
In 1998 a General Social Survey showed that the average American Christian contributes 2.9% of their pre-tax annual household income to charitable organizations. Additionally the survey showed that 72% of American Christians contribute less than 2% of their income to charitable causes. Again this includes the church. And this data is nearly twenty years old. In the past twenty years we have seen rates of church participation decrease sharply. I imagine if the data was current, that percentage may well be in the 80s.
None of this is to browbeat you. All of this is to say that generosity isn’t about resources, it’s about identity.
In this parable we have three characters. The younger son is weighed down by financial gravity because he is a spendthrift. He is completely caught up in the culture of by more, have more, get more experiences. The older son is also weighed down by financial gravity. His comes through trying to hold onto and lock down the things that are his. At the end of the story financial gravity has kept them caught in the me-me-me economy.
Only the father is able to break free of financial gravity. Only the father is able to show love and grace with his possessions. Only the father finds joy in his possessions. Only the father does something lasting and of importance. Only the father can be generous. And that’s because he lives in the economy of grace. Generosity isn’t about resources, it’s about identity. Which of these do you want to be?
I want to show you a video real quick that’s a testament to generosity. PLAY MRS. MARGARET VIDEO.
Generosity isn’t about resources. It’s about identity. There’s something beautiful and compelling about Mrs. Margaret’s story. There’s something lasting about it. There’s something beautiful and compelling about the father in our story today. There’s something lasting about it. There’s a reason why so many people know the gist of the prodigal son story. There’s a reason when you hear a story like Mrs. Margaret’s you don’t quickly forget it.
Who do you want to be? Do you want to be weighed down by the financial gravity of a me-me-me economy? Or do you want to break free of that gravity through generosity? What is your identity? Next week Kevin Barr is going to lead us in looking at practical ways we can prepare for generosity and practice generosity. But between now and then, prayerfully consider what is your identity? Which is these characters do you want to be like? Do you want to break free of gravity’s pull? Let us pray.