Consider Yourself at Home Luke 15:1-3, 11b-21 3-31-2019
Reconciliation can be defined as settling, resolving, or restoring harmonious relationships. It is the task of the church, according to Paul’s letter to the Corinthian Christians. Jesus has reconciled us to God, and it is our job to spread the uniting grace and peace of Christ with everyone. That’s the concept, profound and clean. In practice, it’s usually messy. Luke’s Gospel gives us a fleshed-out version of this idea, a vivid depiction the difficult and beautiful task of working toward reconciliation.
This parable is often called the Parable of the Prodigal Son, but might also be known as the Forgiving Father. It begins with the younger son saying, essentially, “Dad, I wish you were dead, so I could get my inheritance now!” We don’t know what led up to this scandalous statement, what prompted such rudeness, nor do we learn anything about how the older brother reacts to his sibling’s request. All we know is that the dad goes along with it; the second son goes off with his money “to find where demons dwell” as the hymn Borning Cry puts it.
For awhile the kid has fun, but Jesus’ original listeners would have understood just how low he’s sunk when he ends up in a foreign land, feeding pigs. It can’t get much worse for a nice Jewish boy than tending to religiously and culturally unclean animals amidst strangers. To add insult to injury, he only stays alive because the pigs are generous enough to share their food with him. That’s where this unhappy young man’s rebellion has taken him.
I wonder why the father—who surely could have commanded his servants to go after the boy and bring him back home—doesn’t do that. Maybe he guesses that if he brought the boy back forcefully, the child would resent him, running off again as soon as he got a chance. Or maybe the father and mother actually do go searching for him, night after night, under the bridges and in all the local bars and shelters. Maybe they even glimpse him on occasion, but he wasn’t ready to return to them yet. Maybe, as our friends in AA describe it, he still needed to “hit bottom.” His parents loved him enough to let him find his own way home.
When he does finally “come to himself,” it’s because he realizes that even his father’s servants live better than he does at present. He begins heading home, rehearsing his apology along the way. I’ve never been able to decide if the script he’s creating is manipulative or repentant. It doesn’t matter, though, because he never gets a chance to deliver it. “While he was still a long way off,” the father—who’s obviously been watching and waiting for him— sets off running toward him, embracing him and shouting for gifts to be brought.
It would have shocked Jesus’ first hearers to imagine a distinguished head of a household throwing away his dignity by running. But this dad runs, not caring what anyone thinks. He doesn’t listen to his son’s excuses, nor ask for an explanation or apology. He does not lay down rules about conduct if this son is to be re-integrated into the family. Instead he gives out the kinds of presents that could only belong to a powerful free person.
My favorite among the gifts is the sandals, of course. I have a thing for shoes, as you already know, so there’s that. But this particular pair of shoes carries a poignant message from father to son. In first century Palestine—and I imagine in other places—slaves were often kept barefoot because it made running away less likely. Giving his son sandals, therefore, conveys enormous trust on the part of this father. After all, his child has run away before.
The real surprise, though, is the ring. Signet rings were worn by people with authority, used to seal legal documents. The dad would have worn a ring bearing the insignia of the master of the house. If he’s giving such a ring to his son, he’s also giving him the authority to command whatever he wishes in the father’s name, entrusting his own credibility and reputation to one who has shown himself to be anything but trustworthy.
Finally, the father calls for the fatted calf to be killed and a feast arranged. You may think that this ties a little bow on a parable about reconciliation between doting parent and wayward child. But this isn’t the end of the story. Just as the party is getting underway, the older son comes in from working in the fields, and—in my mind—the more difficult work of reconciliation begins. Yes, it is important for us to return to a harmonious relationship with God, as sinning child and forgiving parent. But our calling is not only to be reconciled with God, but also, as “ambassadors for Christ,” to be reconciled in our relationships with other people as well.
The older son discovers a party is going on. Who’s paying for this feast? Who reared that fatted calf? Remember how Jesus began the parable with the younger son taking his share of the inheritance? That means the father divided his wealth, and whatever was left of that inheritance became the older son’s. “All that is mine is yours,” the father assures his elder son. So who gets the bill for the cloak, the ring, and those precious sandals? Is it any wonder that the older sibling is too angry to come into the party being thrown on his dime by his dad for his bratty brother?
Except it’s not his dime, is it? All of creation is God’s own; we are just stewards of a little part, entrusted to us for a time. And God’s perspective, like the generous father in this story, is that the flourishing and joy of all creation is what everything is for. We may resist reconciling with others when we feel like we are losing something in the bargain. But in the big picture, nothing is ours to begin with. Everything is a gift from God for the good of the world. We get in trouble when we start imagining we have a better claim on God’s grace than anyone else does.
There are many things Jesus leaves hanging when his parable ends—does the elder brother ever go in to the party? Does he promise to be kinder to his brother and more appreciative of what he, himself, has received? What happens the next day? Do the brothers go out into the fields to work together? Do they strive to honor each other, and practice living like grateful siblings with a generous father?
Those questions may be left unanswered so that we will have to wrestle with our own answers. Every time I hear this story I get pulled into its questions again. Who am I in this story? Am I like the younger brother, turning my back on God and the loving community God has provided for me? Do I consider how my behavior affects others? Do I casually waste the gifts entrusted to me? On those occasions when I do repent, do I disrespect God’s grace by trying to take on the role of dutiful servant instead of accepting God’s decree that I am part of the family?
I tend to identify with the older brother most often. I have often resented the attention and care lavished on those who’ve been so flagrantly sinful, while I’ve worked so hard to be good. The younger brother in this story isn’t just free of punishment, he’s actually celebrated! It’s so unfair? Do I submit to God’s correction when I angrily refer to someone as “this child of yours,” so God has to remind me we are talking about “this brother of yours”? Am I authentically invested in the welfare of all, or do I reserve my compassion and care for those I think deserve it?
No matter which brother feels more like you today, no matter how well or ill behaved we are, no matter how considerate we are of our siblings in faith (or of our God), we are all embraced and welcomed into God’s family. That’s the scandal of it all. God refuses to let us abandon the community of compassion, instead drawing us close, as tenderly as a parent of a willful child. Our almighty God never, ever, uses that might against us, but instead listens to us, blesses us, and turns us toward reconciliation with each other and with God. There’s a party going on, and all of us are invited! Through our baptisms, we are new creations, and full citizens of the kingdom of God forever. All that God has is ours, and all that God has is available to others, too–even those we’d rather not claim as part of the same family.
Still, since we are simultaneously saints and sinners, we humbly acknowledge that we are not exactly reconciled, but still reconciling. Whether we’ve taken our place inside or outside the party, we have to practice recognizing that those on the other side of the door are God’s beloved children too. So we come here together to ask forgiveness for the ways we’ve strayed from our commitment to be reconciled to God and each another. Here we renounce the ways of the world that lead us to distrust anyone who thinks or acts differently than we do, and reject the world’s encouragement to say awful things to or about each other. Here we share a feast and rededicate ourselves to being a different kind of community. Here we praise our surprising God who keeps on welcoming us all home again and again and again.
This story is to be continued….
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