A man had two sons . . .
2 Cor 5:17-20 says: “If anyone is in Christ, 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; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”
What an amazing message of reconciliation! Everything has become new, God does not count our trespasses against us. In fact, we need to be reconciled to God because God is making the appeal to reconciliation to others through us!
Now keep that in mind as we go through the Gospel story. (Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32)
All the tax collectors and sinners were coming to listen to Jesus, and Jesus welcomed them. The good church people, that is, the Pharisees, were highly offended, and tried to insult Jesus in the harshest way possible. “Not only does this Jesus welcome sinners, he eats with them.” We have a hard time relating to this, but it would be something like saying that not only do you welcome prostitutes, you would marry your son to one!
So Jesus tells them a parable, a story that has many meanings. We have called this the story of the Prodigal Son, but that is not the correct name for it, because it starts out with the sentence: There was a man who had two sons. What happens with both sons is important. What the father does with both sons in important. This is a story where the context is also very important.
They live in a traditional village, and the father is well-off, but not wealthy. He has two adult sons. The younger son commits the first sin, the first trespass. He breaks relationship, by asking for his inheritance, which is essentially saying that he wishes his father were dead. Instead of throwing him out of the house in anger, the father divides his property between them. Legally, the older son gets 2/3 and the younger gets 1/3 of the property. The father still gets to do whatever he wants with the property, but now legally it belongs to the sons.
The younger son shames his father further by selling off his property for cash – and in a country where property sales can take months, you know he got very little for it – and then he takes off for a foreign country. He uses his money to make friends in this new place, which works until there was a famine. Even then, he tries to make things work, and hires himself to a local farmer. The farmer really does not want to deal with this kid, so he sends him out to do the most obnoxious job possible, feeding the pigs. All of his former friends are gone, he has nothing to eat, and so, before he loses all of his strength, he decides to go home.
He decides what he will say to his father, a pretty little speech, but when we poke at it some, we realize that he still thinks he can bargain with his father. He would like his father to treat him like a hired hand, that is, a skilled workman. He realizes that he has blown it as a “son.” So the next best thing is to learn a skill. That way he can pay back his debts, and also not be beholden to his brother. It’s all very neat.
He’s forgotten an important piece of the puzzle. They live in a village. The village has rules. When someone goes away, that is bad enough, especially when the father did not send him, but rather he went on his own. But if he comes back empty-handed, if he took money from the village, and remember, most of these people would have been related in some form, and lost it out in the foreign country, the village will cut him off. There is a ceremony where a large pot is broken in front of the offender, to symbolize that the relationship between the person and the village has been broken – and of course a pot cannot be put back together.
He also has not realized the depth of his father’s love. While he is rehearsing his lines, and still far off, the father sees him. What happens next is totally astonishing. The father picks up the hem of his dress and races out to meet him. You cannot run quickly in one of those long dresses unless you pick it up. But by doing this the father is shaming himself. Gentlemen in that society did not run. Slaves ran. Nor did gentlemen show their legs. Now of course, when the father took off, his slaves would have run with him, eyes wide open at seeing their master move like this! And then when he reached his son, the father kissed him like men in that society did, and started ordering his servants to bring out his best robe and his signet ring and shoes. At the same time, the son starts his speech, I am not worthy to be called your son. But he only gets the first part out before he is cut off. The father will not let him continue. The servants come with the father’s best robe, clearly showing the father’s favor, the signet ring, showing authority, and shoes, which said he was a son and not a slave. Slaves went barefoot.
The father, by shaming himself, has gotten to the son before the villagers did. He has “redeemed” his son from the possibility of being cut off. The son finally realizes what the father has done, and allows himself, like a lost sheep, to be “found.” The father names it later – this son was lost, now he is found. He was dead, now he is alive. This son trespassed, this son sinned, and this son is now reconciled through the father’s initiative and the father’s willingness to do something unprecedented, something very new, in order to effect the reconciliation of the relationship.
That is definitely worth a party.
The older son, the good boy, comes home after a days work and hears celebration. He asks a boy, what is going on? Your father has killed the fatted calf because your brother has come home. He is angry, and his anger breaks the relationship with his father. He now shames his father by not coming in to the party. The father, who by rights could have ordered him sent to his room for his behavior, instead again takes the shame upon himself. The father leaves the party to try to get the older son back into relationship. The older son will have none of it. He is angry. He talks about “this son of yours” – not “my brother.” The father tries again. Your brother was dead, and now is alive. How could I not celebrate?
The parable ends without us knowing the ending of the story. But that is the point. The good older son is like the Pharisees, and like us, who are so angry about God loving the sinner and making this reconciliation that it causes a rift that they, and we, are unable to see.
Over and over, God invites us back to the table set with a feast in our honor. We may have gone off to a foreign land and squandered our inheritance, and God welcomes us back, over and over again. We may have been good and played by the rules, only to be offended that God welcomes the bad ones back as much as us.
God is always wanting us to come home, and God wants all of us, not just the ones who have been “good.” I am reminded of the number of “nice” older women who had cancer or other terrible things, and when I talked about letting go of anger so they could be healed, most of them were simply unwilling to let go of their anger – and it killed them. It will kill us also, just as surely as it was killing the relationship of the older son with his father.
God is doing a new thing.
God is always doing a new thing. There is a saying, if you want to hear God laugh, explain your plans, how life is going to be. We have these nice boxes that we want life to fit into, and God laughs, and says no, those boxes are not nearly big enough, and there are these other people who belong here with you. Those people? surely not!
But if we refuse to be with those people, we are also refusing to be with God, refusing the love of God, the reconciliation with God, that is there for us – and for those people. God refuses to shut them out, God invites us all in, God comes out to where we are, and says: please come in.
In this time of wonder, let us open ourselves to reconciliation at all levels, open to the love.