I’ve always had a hard time with the story of the Prodigal Son. Maybe it’s because I’m the oldest of two sons, and always identified with that older son—I was always the well-behaved one, good at doing my chores, and I should probably actually stop right there because my parents happen to be in the congregation today and I don’t want them to have to speak up and let you all know just how untruthful I’m being.
Now, that said, I always did identify with that older son. I mean, how fair is it that “this son of yours” – I love that turn of phrase, he can’t even bring himself to call him “my brother” – is feasted like a king, even after he’s squandered half of the family inheritance in a “distant country,” had made himself ritually unclean by sleeping with the pigs—remember, Jesus’s Jewish audience would’ve been particularly disgusted at the idea of him living with an unkosher animals—and his father doesn’t care AT ALL about that. He throws a party for this errant son and doesn’t even think to send someone out to the fields to invite the older brother. No, he shows up when the party’s already in full swing, and it’s one of the slaves that gives him the news. How incredibly inconsiderate.
You know what? I don’t think I want to preach on this story right now.
[tears up page and tosses it over shoulder]
Let’s talk about the epistle. Good old Saint Paul is sure to have something less stressful to think about in the excerpt from that letter he wrote to the church in Corinth. Yeah.
“In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us” oh dear.
“Entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.”
That’s a phenomenal amount of trust that God’s putting on us.
In the parable of the Prodigal Son, Jesus is trying to make the point that God loves us. Unconditionally. No matter how horrible we are, no matter what we’ve done, God is willing to put all that aside and say, “come here, my child.” Even if we don’t deserve it. Especially since we don’t deserve it.
But Paul…Paul takes it a step further. Not only will God forgive us, but he expects US to forgive as well. We’ve been entrusted to forgive those who trespass against us. That…sounds familiar.
But…reconciliation is, in fact, a two way street. I can forgive the driver who cut me off when I was making a left turn the other night. That’s easy enough, and probably a good idea because if I dwell too much on how much of an idiot he was and that he could’ve caused a bad accident, and right as we were crossing the light rail tracks too, and…yeah. Moving on. I can forgive that. But that driver can’t be reconciled to me unless he takes that first step.
Which, it seems takes me right back to the Gospel reading. Now when the younger brother was at his lowest point, what did he do? He made the choice to return. All those years that I was feeling sympathy with the older brother, what I missed what the amount of courage it must’ve taken for the younger one to go back to his family. Knowing he had disgraced himself, and his family, with his wild spending and “dissolute living,” as the New Revised Standard Edition so delicately translates it, he still comes back. That…that takes guts. Maybe the story isn’t just about the grace of the Father, who can forgive anything, or just about the older son, who can’t understand that level of forgiveness. Maybe it’s also about the courage it takes to stand up and say, “I have made a terrible mistake.”
Speaking of terrible mistakes…when I was growing up, I was a big fan of Christmastime. The yearly ritual of going out and finding a Christmas tree, putting it up in our living room, smelling the evergreen scent…wonderful. And then one year, when I was about 14 or so, my parents went and got an artificial tree. Now, you understand, I was raised on the Charlie Brown Christmas special, where everyone wanted one of those soulless aluminum trees, but Charlie Brown wound up getting that little fir with needles falling everywhere, that could barely hold a single ornament. I was Not Happy. So, I took the box with the fake tree and hid it. I stuck it inside something in the garage that I knew wouldn’t be used until the spring. So there. Now they’d be forced to get a real tree.
Did it work? Naw. As Advent came around, they started looking for the tree and, well, I hadn’t exactly been quiet about my distaste for this break in tradition. I might’ve chosen to remain stubborn, to refuse to tell them where it was. I probably wouldn’t have forced them to spend MORE money on a real tree, though…we’d more likely have just not had one at all. But I couldn’t do that. I chose instead to be reconciled to my parents, and to the idea that it was OK to have an artificial tree. I showed them where I’d hidden it. And we had an artificial tree that year. And you know, it was fine. Like the Prodigal Son, I made the decision to return to the fold, despite the consequences. Well, I didn’t get a feast. I did, however, get a pine scent atomizer that I could spray on the tree a couple times a day so at least the smell was right.
Change is hard. It was hard for the Israelites, who for 40 years had subsisted on manna from Heaven, until they finally reached the promised land and tasted its produce…after which, they had to re-learn how to farm. It was hard for the church in Corinth, to whom Paul had to write multiple letters explaining the concept of God’s grace and how, regardless of whether we deserved it, we had God’s love available to us without any conditions. It was hard for the younger brother in Jesus’s story, who thought he’d enjoy his life while he could but wound up working as a servant and being jealous of the pig slop…but was still able to swallow his pride and return home. And it was especially hard for the older brother, who was furious at the grace his father showed on “that son of his,” when he never got a feast or a fancy robe despite his being the dutiful, good son.
But, as the father in the parable says, “we had to celebrate and rejoice.” The love that God has for us is greater than any terrible situation we may put ourselves into. No matter what, if we wish to return to the fold, God will be there waiting for us.