Today’s Gospel lesson is all about the unconditional love God offers each of us. Luke is the only Gospel to include this parable. We all know the story; we have heard it many times. It is good that we are so familiar with it, but that familiarity can prevent us from listening to it carefully. It is as if our brains hear a few words and say, “I already know this one”, and subconsciously turn to something else. This can prevent us from fully understanding what is taking place in the story and what God is saying to us through this story. This is a story that may have many meanings, but I believe to understand it, we need to look at the context in which it took place.
The Scribes and Pharisees were challenging Jesus. As people, described as tax collectors and sinners, were coming to listen to Jesus, the Scribes and Pharisees were grumbling that Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with them. This parable is Jesus’ response to the Scribes and Pharisees.
Now, we might think to ourselves that the Scribes and Pharisees are the bad guys and that if this message is for them, then I really don’t need to listen to it. But the Scribes and the Pharisees were the ones who wanted to keep their faith pure and enforce the Torah. There were many customs and social norms in those times, some of which still apply today, and it is important to understand some of those social norms to fully understand what Jesus is telling them.
There was a man with two sons. He was a wealthy man. One day his younger son came to him and said he was leaving and he wanted his inheritance. Back then, and to a large extent now, children don’t ask for their inheritance while the parent is still alive. In ancient times this was an insult to the father. Yet, this father agreed and gave his son his inheritance and the son left.
The son was off on an adventure, but things didn’t go as he had planned. There was a famine in the land where he went and he spent all his money. He ended up feeding pigs, something no self respecting Jew would ever consider. He realized his father’s servants were living better than he was and decided to go back, and apologize, and hope his father would take him in.
As the son approached the father’s home, the father did something no Palestinian Jew would do. He went towards his son, welcoming him home. He didn’t even give him time to ask forgiveness. He threw a big party, killed the fatted calf, gave him the finest robe and a ring for his finger.
We all probably know someone who has experienced a child who has gone astray. It could be a child wandering off in the supermarket or from a playground. It could be a child crossing the street when they are told not to, or a child who strays from a group of friends and gets lost.
The frantic search starts and thankfully the child is usually found quickly. But during the search, while the child is lost, the feelings mount up inside us. There is anger at the child for not obeying. There is sometimes helplessness when we can’t find them. There is worry about what danger they may be in. there is fear that we may not find them. There is relief when we do find them.
But sometimes having a lost child is more serious. Perhaps, like the younger son in the parable, they left home and went off on their own without staying in contact with their family. Perhaps they are struggling with addictions, which have taken control of their lives, or are experiencing mental illness.
They have become the Black Sheep of the family whose relatives speak of her or him in whispers with a sense of judgment.
Then there is the judgment the parents put on themselves, that somehow they did something wrong, that they were not good parents.
These feelings are as relative now as they were in ancient times. I imagine the father in the parable kept looking for his son, to try to find some information about where he was and how he was doing. I imagine the fear and frustration he must have felt, and the fear the son must have felt as well. I can imagine how difficult it would have been for that son to admit defeat and go home with the intention of being his father’s servant. I can imagine the scenarios that were going through his mind as he travelled home. Would his father refuse him and send him away? Would he let him work as a servant? What would his punishment be? I am certain he did not expect what he found.
As he arrived home, his father ran out to welcome him. That’s how God is with us. God never gives up hope for us, never abandons us, and is always waiting for us to return to God’s welcoming outstretched arms, no matter what our sin has been. Nothing can separate us from God’s love. God’s love never ends and never has conditions, and God always welcomes every lost child home.
There is one more character in this parable and that is the older brother. The older brother is perhaps the most difficult to understand. He has been the faithful obedient son, working for his father all those years, always doing what is right. He bears the burden of goodness, not unlike the Scribes and Pharisees. Goodness has to earn its status.
When his younger brother came home after insulting his father and squandering his inheritance, and dishonoring his family, there was no punishment, there were no consequences. His father welcomed him and threw him a party, forgiving all that he had done. The older brother refused to be part of it. The father went to him and pleaded with him to join the party, but the son refused. Perhaps most people in our society are a little like the older son. When someone does wrong we expect there to be consequences, we expect there to be punishment, we expect there to be restitution. We don’t expect poor behavior to be rewarded with a party.
Then the father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” ’
One son needed the grace of restoration and the other needed the grace of imperfection, and to simply accept himself as he really was and let his parents love him.
In Paul’s letter we are urged not to regard anyone from a human viewpoint, but to look beneath the surface, to see Jesus in every face. We are also urged not to look at ourselves from a human viewpoint, for we are God’s beloved children and God embraces us. Accept that God loves you. Let us be welcomed home and welcome all those who have strayed back into our lives.
The younger son came back to his father with a repentant heart, knowing he had made mistakes, and regretting his decisions. His father welcomed him home and forgave him. When we stray and make mistakes, we can also repent and God will welcome us home with outstretched arms and forgive us. God’s love and grace are far greater than our sin.
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