We live in a divided world. This is nothing new, but what is perhaps surprising, especially for those of us who grew up in stable times in the West that seemed to carry so much promise for the future, is that the world seems only to be growing more divided, not less. We have increasing disparities between the wealthy and the poor, widening gulfs between the experiences of People of Colour and the willingness of many White folk to hear and understand them, and gaps between ‘left’ and ‘right’ so wide that those on ‘the other side’ are increasingly viewed as enemies rather than as fellow citizens. Even simple public health measures have become sources of deep and angry division over the course of the pandemic. But, as Christians, we have to recognize that all of this is far from Jesus’ “very good Gospel,” the Good News of God’s peace. Today I’d like to reflect on this a bit through the lens of the Gospel reading for this fourth Sunday in Lent, the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15.1-3, 11-32).
At first glance this parable might be seen as supporting this divisive human tendency: The story rests on the different dispositions of two sons: a younger son, disrespectful and wild-living but ultimately repentant, and an older son, dutiful and law-abiding, but ultimately resentful and jealous of his father’s affections. And indeed, there is a long history of this parable being interpreted in ways that run with this contrast and ultimately exacerbate divisions among us. While the contrast for Jesus was between the Law-abiding and the ‘tax collectors and sinners’, in the early and medieval Church, the contrast became between Gentiles who accepted the Gospel and Jews who did not; and, during the Reformation, it was Protestants who accept salvation based on God’s grace alone and the Church of Rome, which the Reformers believed to promote a ‘works righteousness’. According to this model of interpretation, the question for the reader is ‘Which brother do you want to be?’ And, there is a right answer.
As easy as such an interpretation may be, it has born some pretty bad fruit in our world, and doesn’t quite seem like something Jesus, who was far more interested in healing divisions than he was in strengthening them, would say. It also misses the real point of the story, which is not to point out the differences between the two brothers, but to express the father’s love for them both. The father has every reason to despise his wild, younger son (who had essentially wished him dead by demanding his inheritance), and yet sees him “while he was still far off” and runs with abandon to embrace him and welcome him home. The father also has every reason to be disappointed in his trusted older son, who has worked at his side all these years and yet seems to have absorbed so little of his character. But he doesn’t reject him either. The older son is invited to the party; the only question is will he attend? And so, the story is ultimately not about two brothers of different temperaments and values, but about their father’s love that embraces them both and longs for them to be reconciled.
As is so often the case, when we see contrasts in the Scriptures like the one between the prodigal son and his older brother, we are on dangerous ground if we interpret them as being about us and whoever it is that we consider to be ‘not like us’. That’s too convenient, and it lets us off the hook. We are on far more solid footing if we ask ourselves how we are like both, and what we are being asked to do about it. The truth is, we all have some of both brothers in us. We have ways in which we are impatient, disrespectful, and inconsiderate of others, and irresponsible with what we have been given. We all have ways in which we are self-righteous and stingy to those who have sinned against us, and whom we feel are undeserving of mercy and forgiveness. The question for us is the same question that is asked of both brothers: Will we come home to God’s love? Will we make family together again? Will we attend the party no matter who else is invited?
Today’s Epistle reading touches on precisely this theme. Writing to the Corinthians, Paul writes:
From now on, we regard no one from a human point of view … So 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. (2 Corinthians 5.16-20)
“God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself,” and in that beautiful way of our fractal faith, this means that in Christ we have been given “the ministry of reconciliation.” We are invited home to be reconciled to God — our loving divine Father in the symbolism of the Gospel reading — and to join the celebration and be reconciled to our siblings who have been lost to us for one reason or another.
Once again today, we have a Gospel that doesn’t let off the hook. Jesus’ teaching doesn’t let us sit back and revel in our prejudices, grudges, and righteous indignation. Instead, it calls us up once again to the table, into that difficult arena of spiritual struggle that is human relationship. Reconciliation is not easy and it can never be one-sided. It requires open, honest, and hopeful participation from everyone involved. And that’s sadly a rare thing in our world. It’s a narrow path. But it is a joyous path. For it is in these deep bonds of loving relationship that we experience the true peace of God.
As we head into the home stretch of Lent, may we all accept the challenge, to dust ourselves off, get up, and come home once more.
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