The story that Jesus tells in our gospel reading for this morning is one I imagine you’ve probably heard before: the story of the “prodigal son.” Even if it is really familiar, I’m curious to know what your reaction is to this story. To ask the pastor-y question: How does it make you feel?
I’m curious because, in my experience, this is a story that tends to make people angry. Or, at the very least, it’s a story that leaves people feeling frustrated because it feels unfinished – we’re left wanting to know what happens next in the life of this family, with these two brothers. I think most of us see ourselves in this story; it reminds us of situations or relationships in our own lives, in a way that often leads us to kind of root for a particular character. I mean, what could be more relatable than a story about family conflict? There’s a reason the bible is absolutely full of them.
Most often, I find that people relate to the older brother in this story. He seems like someone who is responsible, hard-working, and reliable – he probably files his taxes on time and has an excellent credit score. He stays home on the farm and works diligently with his father to make a living. By contrast, his younger brother goes to their father and demands that he be given half the family inheritance, right now. He takes the money and splits, leaving behind the farm and his family to go blow his fortune on wild living in some far off place. Eventually he comes crawling back home, after who knows how many years. But instead of being angry with him or even demanding an explanation, their father throws this degenerate son a party! Meanwhile, here’s this hard-working older son who’s been there for his father the whole time, but the minute this irresponsible younger son shows his face, dad kills the fatted calf and throws a feast! It just doesn’t seem fair. And sure, the younger brother says he’s sorry, but we never actually see if he really changes his ways because the story ends before we get the chance.
On the other hand, this older son isn’t exactly perfect himself. Sometimes I find that what makes people angriest about this story is his bad attitude. The younger son knows that he has screwed up. He knows that he’s made a lot of very bad choices. And he has been suffering the consequences: he ends up penniless and starving and far from home or help, looking after pigs that eat better than he does. He decides to make the humiliating journey home, to beg to be a servant in his father’s household just so that he can have something to eat. And bear in mind, this was in the days before smartphones or Facebook or even landlines (just slightly before landlines 😜) – so his family had no way of knowing where he was or whether he was even still alive. His father means it when he says, “this son of mine was dead and is alive again”!
But when the older son finds out that his little brother is alive after all this time, his immediate reaction is to pout – because his brother got a party and he didn’t. He doesn’t show love for his brother or even seem to care that he’s still alive. You could easily read this as a story meant to shame the older brother – after all, Jesus tells this story to the scribes and Pharisees when they complain about him eating with tax collectors and sinners. And just as the father runs out of the house to greet his younger son, he leaves the house again to go find his older son, to try to get him to come celebrate with them. But again, the story ends before we get to see whether the son changes his ways.
When all is said and done, neither of these brothers ends up looking very good in this story. And both of their stories are left unfinished. As the “Parable of the Prodigal Son” – or even perhaps the prodigal sons – you’d think there would be some kind of clear moral here, or at least some kind of resolution to their stories. But there’s not. Why would Jesus leave us hanging like this? What do you think?
One reason might be that Jesus leaves the ending open as an invitation for us to consider how we ourselves would continue the story. But really, I think it’s ultimately because this story isn’t actually about the sons. This story is really about their father. We never see what choices the brothers end up making; what we do see is their father choosing, again and again, to be generous and compassionate and loving. In fact, rather than the “Parable of the Prodigal Son,” this really ought to be called the “Parable of the Loving Father.” It’s a story about a father who gives his children all that he has to give. Even when they break his heart, he goes chasing after them – completely undignified – wanting nothing more than to be reconciled with his children and to bring them safely home. Jesus isn’t telling us a story about the sinners and tax collectors or about the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus is telling us a story about God.
And it’s a story clearly reflected in all of our readings for today. In our first reading, the people of Israel, led by Joshua, have just crossed the river Jordan and entered into the promised land of Canaan. God has kept the promise God made to their ancestors: to lead them out of slavery and wandering in the wilderness to bring them home, to a land flowing with milk and honey. They don’t even need manna anymore, because there’s already plenty there in Canaan for them to eat.
In our psalm, the psalmist meditates on the joy that comes through repentance – because of how eager and ready God is to forgive. God protects and cares for everyone who cries out in times of trouble. As the psalmist writes, “Mercy embraces those who trust in the Lord.”
And in our second reading, Paul rejoices that God – through Christ – found a way to reconcile all humanity to Godself. Paul writes to the Corinthians: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” Rather than “counting their trespasses against them,” God chooses to wipe the slate clean for all God’s wayward children. Like the father in Jesus’ parable, at the end of the day, God just wants us to come home.
Now, to be clear, it isn’t that God just doesn’t care about things like justice or righteousness – on the contrary, God cares very much! God loves justice and wants for us all to live in righteousness. The difference is that these things are not prerequisites for God’s love. God loves us because God made us and we belong to God, forever. We aren’t reconciled to God by virtue of our own righteousness. Instead God makes us righteous by choosing to be reconciled with us.
And Paul writes that, since we have been reconciled with God, we ourselves are now called into the ministry of reconciliation. We have become ambassadors for Christ. And as Christ’s ambassadors, we are called to go and proclaim God’s reconciling love to all the world. God likewise calls us to be imitators of this love, to model reconciliation in our own lives as a witness to all that God has done for us.
It’s a call I think we’re sincerely trying to live out here in our congregation. Lately, I’ve been especially encouraged and excited by the conversations that council and other groups have been having about how we can work on rebuilding our relationships with one another and with the community. Our Safe Church team has been working hard on revising our building use policies, so that we can open our doors to the very neighbors these policies were once designed to keep out. And in almost every team from Finance and Stewardship to Worship and Music, we’ve been talking about ways that we can be intentional about offering prayer and support to our community. The Spirit is doing exciting things in our midst!
And honestly, as divided as the world we live in is these days, just by choosing to be church together we are participating in the ministry of reconciliation. One of the things I love most about the ELCA (and sometimes struggle with most about the ELCA) is the way this church manages to hold together so many different people from so many different places and backgrounds and perspectives. I mean, think about it: there just aren’t that many places in this world where people from across the political spectrum come together in such an intentional – let alone loving – kind of way. And yet here we are, even in this room, doing our imperfect best to care for one other and to pray for one other and to be a community of love.
We don’t always get it right. I’m certainly not trying to paint us as saints. We’re only human, after all. And, like the prodigal son and his brother, we sometimes still get caught up in family conflict, or in feelings of anger and resentment toward our neighbor. But the good news is that this, too, is God’s story – not our story – and it’s a story of forgiveness and reconciliation and love. And whether we succeed or fail, God meets us with open arms, always eager and ready to embrace us and to bring us safely home.