Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our heart be acceptable in Thy sight, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer.
Who hasn’t been the younger son? Who hasn’t gone out and broken relationships with other or with God because we can do it on our own? Who hasn’t ended up in a spiritual pigsty, with no other option than having to cry out to God and relying upon God’s grace and forgiveness?
On the other hand, I’ve always seen myself as the elder son. I’ve always been the rule follower. But like the Pharisees in Jesus’ time, rule-following leads to pride and entitlement. And when forgiveness is offered to the prodigal, instead of joy, there is resentment. Who hasn’t looked down on those in the church who don’t measure up to our standards of morality, theology, music, or even dress?
But the overall purpose of this parable isn’t to teach us that God will always welcome us home. And it isn’t to tell us to be a joyful rule follower. Rather, the heart of the parable, and indeed the very heart of the Gospel, is to teach us what it means to become the Father. To teach us what it means to become like Jesus Christ.
The scriptures begin with the radical statement that we are created in the image of God. And it is this image which is defaced when we rebel against and run from God like the younger son, or put on our self-righteousness as the elder son.
Jesus commands us that we are to be compassionate as the Father is compassionate. And it is through this compassion of humility and self-emptying love that we should look anew at the parable through the eyes of the Father.
When the younger son leaves, he essentially tells the father I wish you were dead, give me my stuff so that I may abandon you. In his actions, the young son turns his back on not only his father but his entire family, his ancestors, his village, and all that his society values. And yet despite this contempt, everyday, the father goes out to look for his son’s return.
And when he sees him returning, he runs to embrace him because he had compassion. In the ancient world, an older man of great stature, like the father, never ran. Young men and slaves ran, not rich men with servants. And yet, he humbles himself, like a slave. He empties himself of his pride and self-regard. He empties himself of his stature and pulls us up his tunic to run to embrace his son.
Now the father not only forgives his younger son, but he fully restores him. He doesn’t make him work the debt off, doesn’t put him on probation, he doesn’t bar him from the household. Rather he receives him with peace and full reconciliation. And he emphatically restores his wayward son to his former position. Rings, and robe, and that fatted calf. And he calls the whole village to rejoice. There is neither punishment nor retribution, only celebration.
For us the parable raises the issue of how do we model the father in our lives? How do we show a humble love of complete reconciliation to those who have embarrassed us, wronged us, and rejected us? The challenge is to be the father to these people. We are called not simply to forgive and forget, but to forgive and to be fully reconciled. But this is only possible 1) when we understand that God first loved us and reconciled himself to us and 2) when we empty ourselves of the works of our flesh: of our pride, our anger, our desire for control, our need to be right – that radical humble love of Christ comes to live within us. For as long as we are concerned with ourselves, the reconciliation of the father is never possible.
Loving the older son is a more difficult problem for us. A self-emptying, self-sacrificial love is easier when the object of the love asks to return. But the older son refuses to return. He hears the rejoicing and realizes it is because his younger, prodigal brother has returned and been reconciled despite what convention dictates. He refuses to join the celebration. The younger son should have been punished in some way, but he wasn’t. Therefore, the elder son refuses to participate. By refusing to go in, the elder son personally insults the guests and his father. Just as the younger son once said to his father, I have no need of you, so now does the other son. And yet, once more, the father humbles himself, forsaking his pride and social standing, and goes to find his son. And once more, the father willingly endures shame and self-emptying love to reconcile himself to his son. He goes out and begs his prideful, self-righteous son to come to the celebration. It is not the father’s role to go to his son, but he does it anyway. However, unlike the younger son, Jesus never tells us the result. He never tells us if the father’s efforts are successful. We simply don’t know.
And so it is with us. How easy is it for us when faced with a resentful self-righteousness to respond in kind? It is for me. How easy when others say of us, we have no need of you, that we write them off too. They have offended us and we take offense. And yet, this is not the option that Jesus gives us. And it is only when we, like the father, empty ourselves of our pride and of our own self-righteousness, that we can go and invite and beg the elder brothers in our lives to come to the banquet with us and rejoice. For Jesus says, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who abuse you. We are commanded to do this even if that love is rejected.
Once more, only when we realize that God loves us in spite of (and not because) of our self-righteousness and our pride in following the law, that we can love those who do the same.
The ultimate end of the father’s actions towards both sons is to restore the relationship that was broken. This relationship is not based upon the fulfillment of obligations or the following of the rules, but one based upon the humble, self-sacrificial love of God. A humble self-sacrificial love that Jesus demonstrates to us in his Incarnation and Passion. And a humble and self-sacrificial love that we who are in Christ must engage in with others.
The result, of course, of the father’s actions, is a banquet (and very common biblical theme) where the entire village is invited in celebration. And, in a few moments, we too will have a foretaste of that great banquet, when we come to share the Holy Eucharist. For it is here that we celebrate the reconciliation of us to our Heavenly Father and to one another through Jesus Christ. It is this banquet that the self-righteous elder brother refuses. In coming forward together, and in sharing one bread and one cup with one another, we announce to the world this reconciliation and that this very image of God is being restored.
And so, after the dismissal, as you go about this week think of the father’s love for his sons. Think about the depth of his forgiveness and the costliness of his grace. Think how you can go forth and allow this love to shine through you. And like the Father, seek out those opportunities to humble yourself and be reconciled. As Paul wrote in the epistle today (2 Cor 5:16-21) how can you have a ministry of reconciliation and be an ambassador for Christ?