>Here we are at Joyful Sunday, Mothering Sunday, Refreshment Sunday, Rose Sunday – many names for a day whose readings give us much to rejoice about, especially our Gospel lesson: love, forgiveness and joy. The focus of the Gospel, however, is not a mother, but a father whose actions are contrary to his society’s traditions, as are the actions of his sons, and his response. Even the parable is revolutionary and disturbing for its time. Nor do I think the shock and awe of this story has worn off after so many centuries.
What would you do if you were sitting down to dinner with a few friends others thought unsavory or unsuitable – tax collectors, sinners, outcasts, to name a few – and the local authorities started to complain about your behavior, the people you associate with?
We know what Jesus would do – he would teach them, illustrate his actions, his message, and what the Kingdom of Heaven was all about, with a parable.
This story about the loving father taught the Pharisees and scribes that there was no either/or with God, nor with Jesus or the Good News he brought to us. Yet it was, and is still, difficult not to think in terms of black and white: good son or bad son, Pharisee or tax collector, saint or sinner. Fortunately, God doesn’t roll that way. In all of the lessons this morning, we hear how God works with, in and through us towards reconciliation and forgiveness, with love, and offers us new lives.
See what happens at the end of our story this morning.
A father responds with patience and love to both of his sons. He puts aside propriety and runs to greet his boy – patriarchs didn’t run in first century Judea; CEOs don’t run in the 21st century – Rather than wait at the house surrounded by family and servants, or with the Board of Directors in a conference room, and demand an explanation, and it darn well better be a pretty good explanation from the boy, the father welcomes his son home with an embrace. When his eldest son reacts negatively and with jealousy to the honor his brother receives, especially the party, and that fact that his brother is being treated as if he’s only been on a trip for the family business, the father goes out to him – again, patriarchs didn’t do that in first century Judea; do you think a CEO would go out to explain an interoffice memo to a line worker? – The father invites him to come in saying, “. . . 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.” He also gives freely – to the youngest, he first gives an inheritance, then a robe, a ring and a party. To the eldest, he gives all that he has. No questions asked. No hesitation, no conditions.
This is how God responds to us. This demonstrates love and a willingness to forgive behavior that was unacceptable, and that God is willing to do the same. God is the father in this parable.
What I like about the story and you may agree with me here – or not – is that we have no ending. There’s no “and they all sat down to a fine meal and made merry and lived happily ever after.” It is left to us to decide what happens next, to think about what we’ve just heard and apply it to our own situations and lives – and isn’t that a way of God’s working in us? I would like to think that after the eldest brother got over the resentment and anger, he took a moment to reflect on the blessings in his life, on his family, and that he came around and welcomed his brother back and the relationship between them, and their father, was restored. Doesn’t this remind you of Joseph and his brothers, or Jacob and Esau? Or that fight you had with a parent, sibling, your lover? Your friend? After you came around, the initial moments of nervous conversation and confession were rough to the point of pain, but when you said, “I’m sorry, forgive me,” or you both said it at once, didn’t you just want to go out and celebrate?
Although the emphasis here is on love and reconciliation, there’s no denying that each of the players in this story is lost in some way. Both sons are lost – the youngest son for his bad choices and behavior, the elder son for his self-righteousness and anger, his jealousy. The father is lost by his society’s standards: he’s weak, a bit of a pushover, and he takes action out of love for his sons, rather than his standing in the community and as a patriarch. God is at work here and moves him towards forgiveness.
With this parable, Jesus takes us beyond a commentary on sin and righteousness to give us a sense of what it truly means to be in relationship to others and to the Lord. Yes, he socializes with tax collectors and sinners, but how glad will God be when those same people amend their lives because they have heard Jesus’ words and believed, they who were once lost, are now found? The dutiful son and the disobedient son, the Pharisee and the Savior, all are worthy of God’s love. The Kingdom of Heaven is like that!
We are all lost in some way – give us a garden to live in and we will disobey the simple rules on the gate and be evicted, offer us a covenant we’ll manage to break it, find a way to get out of it. Provide us with a Messiah – you know the rest.
But we are found, and that is more than enough reason to be joyful on this Sunday and every day. We are found, and it is through the prodigious, boundless, grace of God and love and the Good News of Jesus. And the parable we have just heard is not simply one of the best and well-crafted of stories, it is an illustration of what it means to be redeemed.