31 March 2019
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
The Extravagance of Reconciliation
Context, as they say, is everything. The very famous parable of what is popularly referred to as “The Prodigal Son” is the third of a series of stories Jesus tells about something being lost; the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost son. These stories are told to a particular audience and for a particular purpose. Jesus launches into these illustrations at a moment when “all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him” and we know the Pharisees and scribes were there listening as well because they were the ones grumbling; “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
In the minds of these religious folk, Jesus is welcoming and giving approval by his actions of those whose behaviour puts them outside the law. This is about who is in and who is out. What is clean and what is unclean. Who has a place at the table, and who may be considered an object of charity, but ultimately should be left outside when the party is on.
What today’s parable makes clear is that this is not the way Jesus views the world. Jesus comes to seek out and gather the lost – whether they be the lost younger son who has travelled away from the father, (paralleled by the sinners and tax collectors) or the lost older son, who has remained but is nevertheless separated from the father in his resentment and hostility (represented in Jesus’ audience by the group of scribes and Pharisees). Both can find the same cure: to let go of their miserly assessment of the Father’s love for them and embrace the extravagant generosity of the One who calls all creation around the one table and into a joyful reconciliation with God and one another.
Labels which define others as different in some way can get in the way of dinner party conversation. If you have ever sat around a table with someone with whom you disagreed on politics or religion, or who comes from a different cultural background or even gender or generation, you may have a sense of the way labels can isolate us from one another and make interactions forced and awkward. Even if you come to the table with good will, the difference can create a powerful sense of division.
I love the story the Celtic spiritual teacher John Philip Newell tells of a time back in the 80s when he encounters a childhood friend, Jack, who had recently come out as gay. John and his wife want to welcome and
affirm his friend, but they, at least in part, still felt uncomfortable about Jack’s sexuality. They decide to invite Jack and his partner around for dinner. A few days before the dinner party, Jack calls and tells John and his wife that they are vegetarians. At that time, John comments, “vegetarianism was as strange to me as homosexuality.” But, seeking to welcome his friends, they carefully prepared the meal. The dinner party began well, with an atmosphere of friendly politeness, until John’s wife brought in the main course. Smiling, she said as she placed the steaming dish on the table, “It’s been a long time since I cooked a homosexual meal.” There was a moment of stunned silence before the laughter began. After that, the awkwardness vanished- the discomfort they were feeling was out in the open and they were free to let go of division, sharing in the joyful release of a ridiculous moment that took them past the labels and their own anxieties to the essence of the humanity of one another.1
There is a reason why Jesus spends so much time eating and drinking with people and using the metaphor of a banquet for the kingdom of God. Around the table all are equal and we all share in the same conversation, the same laughter and the nourishment of the same good food. Both the younger son and the older son are invited to the party in the story; invited to lay down their pride and their difference, their resentment and their mistakes.
We don’t ever find out if the elder son decides to join the party. We can be sure there would have been lots of laughter regardless, and lots of gentle moments of the younger son restoring relationships with those in the community his departure had wounded.
Part of the power of this story is that it enables us to reconcile the younger and the elder son who both exist within us. At different times of your life, if you have known this story for a long time, you may have identified with either the elder or the younger son. The truth is that we carry both within us.
If you are like me, you will find the elder son particularly unattractive and resist identifying with the judgement and resentment in the part he plays. We may think that we would welcome a wayward younger brother and sit down at the table, but are there other scenarios that might leave us more resistant? How do we really feel, for example, we who have been faithful all these years in the church, if younger people come and begin to teach us new ways of seeing the gospel and a different approach to being the church? Will we turn around and just join the party? Or how do we feel if the voice of the Spirit seems to be finding the strongest voice in the mouths of those whom society struggles to accept and affirm? Will we be able to see past the labels that divide us and take our place at the table? When we find this older son lurking in the complex of selves that we find within us, could we have the courage to hear God’s blessing over us, “My son, my daughter, you are always with me and all that I have is yours.”
Perhaps in the Lenten season, you may gravitate more naturally to the younger son. The youngest is often seen as the penitent one – restored to relationship because of his repentance. Yet it is not the younger son’s repentance which is on show here. If he was being accepted based on the depth of his contrition, he would have never have made it back through the door of his father’s house. After all, the main motivation for his return seems to have its origin in his stomach; “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger!” But whatever the original motivation, his identification with his failures is strong. The younger son returns to the house intent on not being a son but a servant. He does not think of himself as having made a few mistakes but as the one who no longer has an identity in the family. This kind of identification with sin creates a resistance to grace that is hard to overcome.
If we take a moment to reflect we may find similar areas of resistance in our own hearts; parts of ourselves we believe God cannot touch, cannot heal. In a strange way we can cling to that within ourselves which we deem unworthy- and in so doing resist the exuberant celebration of all God would pour out upon us. This is what is at the heart of the prayer we are using at the Eucharistic invitation during Lent. “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word, and I shall be healed.” This is not a prayer meant to emphasise our unworthiness- rather it is a prayer that courageously invites us to stop identifying with our failures and our brokenness and to allow the Spirit of God to heal every part of us and draw us into deeper communion. They are words of joyful surrender as we discover that we do not even have to make it back to the house before the motherly, fatherly God runs out to us in the street and dances up the road with us so the party may begin.
The character in the story we may not allow ourselves to identify with, of course, is the father. We may believe that is the role of God alone, and we can never aspire to playing that part in the story. Maybe we are still attached to our past failures or diminished self-image. When we accept that God delights in our very being, we can then embrace our call to be the father…the mother…who offers forgiveness and blessing to others. We have it in each of us to bring healing where there is division and grace as we have been graced. When we finally can live into our identity as sons and daughters of love, then we too can know the extravagant joy of throwing wide the doors and welcoming our brothers and sisters to the party.
1 From John Philip Newell, (2015) The Rebirthing of God: Christianity’s Struggle for New Beginnings, Vermont. p111