Fr. John Allison
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
March 27, 2022
Christ Church, Hudson
What is God like? That’s the implicit question underlying our Gospel reading this morning recounting the well-known story of the prodigal son. The parable comes as Jesus is journeying toward Jerusalem, toward his fate on the Cross, and wherever he goes the people flock to him, all sorts of people, not only those considered good and respectable but, as the pharisees point out, sinners and tax collectors. Those other people, the ones that aren’t generally accepted in polite society. And not only are these sinners flocking to Jesus, but Jesus welcomes them, eats with them, which is what has prompted the grumbling from the pharisees.
This parable Jesus shares in response is actually the third of three that he offers and while each illuminates the question, what is God like, in slightly different ways, it’s this story of the prodigal son that sheds light not just on the question as to what God is like but also invites us to see ourselves as well.
The story is well-known: a father has two sons, one dependable and hard-working and the other lazy and wasteful. It’s this second son for whom the parable is named; prodigal literally meaning a kind of wasteful extravagance. When this second son asks for his inheritance early his father grants it to him only for the son then to run off and squander it in what we are told is dissolute living, which invites us to let our imaginations run wild. After a time, the son has spent everything and is living in squalor; he finds work feeding pigs, which in the culture of the time would have made him to be considered ritually unclean and outcast. It’s then, that this son gets the idea that he could return to his father, his home, and be cared for and fed. So, fearing he will not be welcome, that his father will be angry and seek to punish him, he works up the speech he will give to his father, his confession of guilt and plea that he is content to live not as a son but as a servant, but when he returns his father sees him coming and rushes out to embrace him. The son offers his confession, still expecting punishment, but the father dresses him in the finest robe and throws a party—a very grand party.
Of course, when the elder, responsible son, the one who has always done everything right, returns from working the fields and sees his brother returned and his father treating him so lavishly, he is enraged. And I can imagine what he was thinking: How dare he! My spoiled brother, who never pulled his own weight and then ran off to waste the family inheritance is now being celebrated while I’m here the whole time working hard and doing everything I’m supposed to—it just isn’t fair. That’s not how the world is supposed to work. I should be the one being rewarded.
But the father isn’t thinking about fairness. His infinite love for the son who was lost wins out. Love is primary. Mercy. And he invites the elder brother into that love, into reconciliation.
What is God like? The story gives us a pretty clear image of a God who is infinitely merciful, who celebrates the return, or we could say repentance, of those who have strayed. No transgression can weaken God’s love for us; indeed, God welcomes our return with the same joy the father has for the prodigal son. It’s why Jesus is welcoming and eating with sinners and tax collectors, the outcasts of his time.
But as I said when I began, this story also illuminates something about who we are, as a people and as individuals. There is a kind of Biblical reading that invites us to imagine ourselves as various characters within the story, reflecting on who we might or might not identify with and seeing things from a different perspective. Do you find yourself identifying most closely with the prodigal son, remembering those times when you’ve turned from love to find comfort in your own indulgences? Or perhaps, you can more easily understand the outrage the elder son feels at having worked hard and done everything right only to see the prodigal’s irresponsibility seemingly rewarded. At different points in my life, I could say I see myself in both. I think that’s probably true for all of us, if we’re honest with ourselves.
What’s common to both brothers, however, is that their expectations of how the father should respond are completely at odds with how he does respond. You see, we have all sorts of expectations about who God is and what God is like that sometimes prevent us from fully living into God’s mercy for us. Sometimes it prevents us from participating in God’s mercy toward others that we ourselves might not deem worthy.
In our reading today from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians he says, “from now on we regard no one from a human point of view . . . If anyone is in Christ there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; everything has become new! All of this is from God who reconciled us to himself through Christ and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.” Paul goes on to say, “in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” We are called to be God’s agents in the world. We are called to be reconcilers, to rejoin that which has been separated from God’s love.
That’s a tall order in a world such as ours, where war and violence and disease shatter human lives on a global scale. In fact it sounds impossible. It’s hard when we struggle and suffer loss, or illness, or tragedy in our own lives—even when we think we’ve done everything right. It’s hard when we’re called to love and welcome others we think have clearly messed up by their own fault and deserve the mess they’ve gotten themselves into. It can all seem quite discouraging.
In our Lenten book that some of us are reading together, the author identifies two basic orientations from which we interpret our lives: we may see it from a standpoint of mistrust, so that life seems full of obstacles and confusion; or, we may live life from a place of hope, so that it seems meaningful and promising. Often, we get stuck in one or another or, more likely move unconsciously between the two. But our call is clear. As people of faith, as people of hope, we are called live from a place of trust rather than fear, or envy, or pride. That’s our starting point: living from a place of trust in God’s love for us, God’s mercy for us. In being able to see our lives, and see the world, from that place of trust we take on Paul’s invitation to be ambassadors for Christ. In ourselves, in our own hearts, God’s work begins.
Today we observe what is known as Laetare Sunday, which quite literally means rejoice Sunday. We’ve passed the halfway point of Lent and we begin to see resurrection a bit more clearly on the horizon. We celebrate God’s promise of mercy to us, knowing that we are forgiven and welcomed with great love and affection, no matter what. That’s what God is like. But it does’t stop there. In God’s embrace of us and welcome to us is also the invitation to love. That’s what it means to be a new creation in Christ; that’s the new relationship we celebrate every time we come to this table as a people forgiven, healed and renewed. May we all give thanks and rejoice in our shared affirmation of that call to God’s mercy. Amen.