On this Rose Sunday there is a long standing ecclesiastical tradition of rejoicing that provides for a brief respite from the rigors of our Lenten fasts and solemnities, perhaps squeezing in a few alleluias or chocolates before sundown. But more than relief, we are granted a vision of what glorious grace is in store for those who repent and turn to the Lord. Half-way through this season, we get a glimpse of our destination as we set our courses through whatever wilderness we cross toward home.
We hear of the joyful welcome that awaits us through the story Jesus tells in Luke’s Gospel of a father who had two sons. Two brothers whose sibling rivalry and behavior is as old as humankind itself…Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers…the Hebrew Scriptures are filled with examples. We find this theme in all literature of all times up to and including the television saga of Downton Abbey which concludes tonight. This time it is, among many other examples in the household, the society and the changing times over the last six seasons, primarily the drama generated by the rivalry of two remaining sisters whose adoring father deeply loves both. We will have to wait a few hours to see how or if that tension is resolved in the grand finale.
Jesus would have been well acquainted with the Biblical tales as would his accusers, the Pharisees who stand by and critically observe him eating with duplicitous tax collectors and unclean sinners.
His response is to tell a parable, the third in a series of three he tells of the lost being sought and found.
We enter into the story with the Pharisees and scribes, those righteous elder brothers of Israel, those stay at home sons who serve the father, dutifully keeping the Law but disparaging Jesus’ ragtag table companions. Or, we may join in as the defiant ones who have selfishly claimed our due, our inheritance, a presumptuous demand punishable by death in the ancient world, because it was akin to patricide. What kind of father tolerates a son who essentially declares him dead?
It has been pointed out that it is fairly easy to understand and to identify with the situation of the younger brother in this story who is given what doesn’t belong to him and squanders it, hits rock bottom and comes to his senses. Like him, we do not realize or appreciate what we have until we lose it. We hear stories all the time about being lost to the selfish outer passions of the flesh. We all are likely to have some of these kinds of stories to tell about ourselves when we have been rather obviously lost in disgrace, and to remember times we have rebelled, cutting ourselves off from family or friends… in extreme need of reconnection, loving compassion and forgiveness. We can pull out memories of forgiveness, when grace was the only way to describe an undeserved turn around… a meal when Jesus was at the table with us or we perceived his healing touch in our coming to our senses.
What is more difficult to see is the way that the older brother is also lost…lost to the inner selfish passions of his soul. Where was his Egypt, his place of oppression and disgrace? The barriers of his self-righteousness and bitterness are not on the surface for all to see…he is the dutiful son…, but buried deep within his heart. If we hold on to envy and jealousy and pride we leave little room for anything else. They consume us. They become the masters we serve. It is sometimes so appealing, so delicious to grumble and condemn…like the forbidden fruit tasted, the Lenten rule broken, the impulse indulged, we taste the momentary pleasure…the sweet flavor of what we have forsworn…it has seduced us with its easy promises of power and immediate satisfaction…its payoff of quick connection and personal importance…too tempting to refuse…the juice running down our chins and the stains of its sticky residue on our hands. It is a little more difficult to see these hidden qualities that endanger our souls and eat away at our spiritual capital as surely as outright squandering of financial capital diminishes our future potential. Both brothers cut themselves off from their father. Both are dead. One returns. The Father loves and seeks both of them, just as God loves both Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, you and me. This story is not really about the sons. It is about a man who had two sons…about a father whose love is not inhibited or withheld…whose love is so powerful, it reaches out before being asked for forgiveness. There is no need to compete for such a love. It is not zero sum. There is an abundance for all who truly want to engage.it. Can we accept a love like that? Is it real for us? Can we be at home with it? What wondrous love is this!
The story of the Prodigal Son is one of the most familiar and beloved in the gospels. The comfort it provides in the assurance of a prodigiously loving God’s gracious acceptance of us is accompanied by the challenge it raises to our resistance to accept it. Jesus doesn’t tell us whether the older brother eventually joins the party or not. Ah, the challenge of teaching through parable. We must enter into the story ourselves to find its meaning for us.
God does not wait for us to grovel back to him. The spirit goes forth to us, seeking us out. God does not keep his distance when we seek him…God rushes down the road toward us in compassion …puts his arms around us and kisses us… the ring is a symbolic gift not a due … the cloak is grace not obligation… the sandals are a sign of hospitality and protection, not an entitlement. The fatted calf provides a feast for reconciliation with the neighbors. There is an abundance of love beyond measure. Until we can get a sense of this, we remain the older son in the story whose bitterness and self-righteousness and envy distance him not only emotionally from his father, but from the joy of being a beloved son himself. He cannot see his father’s love for him, and so he is jealous of the love he sees his brother receiving. Through his deep seated resentment and envy he sets himself outside the radius of home and is more distant than if he were far away. He misses the party and skulks away in dismal self-pity. He is still lost. He is in this way dead, while the younger brother who was dead is alive.
The Israelites reached the Promised Land at last. God led them out of bondage and slavery to the place they could call home…to the land of Canaan through the Red Sea, through the wilderness of Sinai, across the Jordan. God had said to Joshua as the Israelites entered the Promised Land, ”Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.” There is rejoicing. But this initial elation and focus is forgotten over time.the responsibilities of covenant languish. Israel squanders her inheritance in dissolute living. Home is lost like the Garden of Eden, but God sees the distress of his people, and while they are still far off, he runs toward them…he comes himself in Christ to meet them and to reconcile them to himself with great joy and celebration…to gather up the lost…to make all things new.
Here we are the younger brothers …the sinners and tax collectors eating with Jesus who is showing us the way home. Here we are, the older brothers, afraid to let go of our own judgments, remaining on the outside looking in, refusing to enter into the fun of the party, but we are not excluded, we just have refused the invitation. God is still looking down the road for us all to return. It is a long way home… It can take us a whole lifetime to come to our senses and repent, but and at the same time, home is always present…as close as our own soul when we are still far off that sees our father running toward us with arms outstretched to embrace us, eager to celebrate our return.