August 27, 2013
Dear brothers and sisters,
I am taking the good news today from Luke 15:11-32 — probably the best known of all the parables.
Then he said, “A man had two sons, and the younger son said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of your estate that should come to me.’ So the father divided the property between them. After a few days, the younger son collected all his belongings and set off to a distant country where he squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation. When he had freely spent everything, a severe famine struck that country, and he found himself in dire need. So he hired himself out to one of the local citizens who sent him to his farm to tend the swine. And he longed to eat his fill of the pods on which the swine fed, but nobody gave him any. Coming to his senses he thought, ‘How many of my father’s hired workers have more than enough food to eat, but here am I, dying from hunger. I shall get up and go to my father and I shall say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.” So he got up and went back to his father. While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him. His son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son.’ But his father ordered his servants, ‘Quickly bring the finest robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Take the fattened calf and slaughter it. Then let us celebrate with a feast, because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found.’ Then the celebration began. Now the older son had been out in the field and, on his way back, as he neared the house, he heard the sound of music and dancing. He called one of the servants and asked what this might mean. The servant said to him, ‘Your brother has returned and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’ He became angry, and when he refused to enter the house, his father came out and pleaded with him. He said to his father in reply, ‘Look, all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends. But when your son returns who swallowed up your property with prostitutes, for him you slaughter the fattened calf.’ He said to him, ‘My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours. But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.'”
This story is such a great example of how I think God should behave. I think He should behave as I do — angry, unforgiving, condemnatory, punishing — when I have been hurt, disappointed, or taken advantage of. To behave otherwise is weak, foolish, or indulgent. I am right to write people off who have broken the law, who have abused me, who have sinned. They don’t deserve second or third or fourth chances. My heart can be as cold and hard as stone. I can be joyless when there is cause to celebrate. Too often I am enslaved by my own righteousness, which deprives me of compassion, of forgiveness, of mercy. I reject the offer of healing love.
God our Father is loving and merciful toward both sinners and the righteous. The righteous don’t think that’s the way it should be; it’s unfair. The basic problem, though, is that they don’t understand that they, too, are sinners. Jesus always intended his teachings to be applied to our daily lives so that we might live in the kingdom. It’s interesting that today’s front page article is about revising the State’s “Hard 50” law giving juries the option of sentencing those who have perpetrated horrific crimes to 50 years of imprisonment without the possibility of parole. The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that a jury must decide this punishment rather than a sole judge. What’s interesting to me is how we want to cast members of juries as the older brother — removing the possibility of repentance, of transformation, of redemption. Punishment for crimes against people is just; ruling out the opportunity for repentance and forgiveness is not.
We are quick to condemn one another. The older brother angrily accuses his younger brother of consorting with prostitutes even though there is no evidence of it. He accuses his own father of being miserly even though he has slaved for his father and followed all his rules. Examples of the healing of forgiveness and mercy in our lives are few. Perhaps our elected officials and legislators have never experienced forgiveness and mercy in their own lives and thus are unable to extend it to others. Perhaps they believe that they have no need of forgiveness and mercy, that they are righteous like the older son. Jesus is telling me here that when I persist in my righteousness — the failure to see my own sinfulness — that I am cutting myself off from God’s love and forgiveness and mercy, that I am alienating myself from God because I have alienated myself from His children. That I have made myself judge and jury and refused to cede that responsibility to God. That I am refusing to live in the kingdom on earth even though I have the expectation of being received into the heavenly kingdom. I have come to the realization that I can’t refuse to co-create God’s kingdom on earth and expect to be given eternal life in His kingdom in heaven
I have also come to believe that I can’t earn God’s love or forgiveness. It is freely given; it is pure grace. All I have to do is turn to Him and He will shine His face upon me. He will tell me and show me that I am His son upon whom His favor rests. It’s so simple, but I make it so complicated. He gives and gives of Himself to me. He expects me to give that love in return to others, to show the some of the compassion that He shows me. His love is the only example I really need, although I am deeply grateful for the people in my life who are instruments of His love for me. I want to be His instrument in return.