It’s not just God, you can do that too…
March 27, 2022
Scripture: Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
The Parable of the Prodigal is one of the most familiar to us all. The study of human relationships and the lessons to be learned in studying this passage are many indeed, regardless of which of the three characters one chooses to focus in on. Even in my own treatment of this passage over the years, I have never found it not to be fertile ground for discussion and for fresh understanding of the nature of our God. The levels and layers of possibility in locating oneself within the lines of the text are many as well, making this passage one of those that applies to every one of us regardless of who we feel we best represent, or would like to come to represent in the story.
Most common treatments of this tale focus in on the younger son, for that seems to be the most ‘prodigal’ of the three at first glance. And I think this is due to the church teaching that what the younger son decided to do made him a ‘prodigal’. The definition of ‘Prodigal’ would seem to support this as it is usually defined as one who is found to be, ‘spending money or resources freely and recklessly’; or, living in a way that can be characterized as, ‘wastefully extravagant’.
But I think a case can be made that not only was the younger son living in a way that could be seen as ‘wastefully extravagant’, but so too was the father in the over-the-top love and forgiveness he so quickly offered to his wayward son upon his return home after blowing through all of his inheritance. I don’t think this story would have been hard to accept if instead the father had scolded the younger son and in fact allowed him to take his place among the servants, until perhaps he had earned his way back into his father’s good graces…that it seems would not be so far out of line given the circumstances. But no, the father’s love and forgiveness that was extended immediately upon his son’s return certainly qualifies as extravagant as well, giving us at the very least two ‘prodigals’ in our story.
And so, rather than doing the usual character study of all three of these very different individuals, instead of limiting ourselves to seeing only the younger son as the ‘extravagantly wasteful one’, I would like to look today at the father, the one who was so extravagant in his love for both of his children.
Now, it is common for readers of this story to see the father in our story as being representative of God, for our understanding of our Lord is indeed as one whose love is boundless and all-forgiving. We accept that God would do this for one such as the wayward son for that is what redemption and reconciliation is all about. We understand that God is capable of accepting this one back into his good graces, for that is what we sort of expect from the God we worship and pray to.
But was not the purpose of Jesus here on earth among us to teach us, to make us into disciples? Are we not called to work at becoming more and more like this one who called us his friends, this one who outrageously, even extravagantly claimed that we would do even greater things then he had done when he walked among us? Are we not in our words and in our actions called to live out the commandment to ‘love one another’ as God so loved us? And if so, what does that do to our understanding of this parable? We see God as capable of forgiving in ways we find even hard to imagine…surely our Lord cannot expect that we too could follow in these steps as well can we? Is it possible that we might actually find ourselves called to look like the father, or to act like the father in this story? Really?
I think that may be the case. But if so, what does that mean? What does this extravagant side of God look like? And, if we are willing to accept this as a possibility, what do we need to do in order to get there?
First we need to accept the most difficult characteristic of God’s love…and that is that God’s forgiveness is without condition, and, there is no expiration date for it either. Truly, there is nothing anyone can think, say, or do that is outside of God’s willingness to forgive. Now obviously, this is not a license to continue on a path of continuing sin and separation from God as though if it is all forgiven in the end, what does it matter what I do now? Rather, it is to affirm that there is available to all of us a fullness of relationship with a living God who is so much more that the little the world can ever offer to us. Rather than continuing to live a life that is a half step off to the side of the path at times, we need to know and to share, that turning back towards God in search of forgiveness and restoration or renewal of relationship at any point in our life’s walk, is a request that is never turned away, and never returns to us unanswered.
‘Sin’ in the Greek language is translated as ‘missing the mark’. Repentance on the other hand is translated as choosing to turn back, to turn around and to go in a different direction…much as the younger son finally realized and set his face back towards his father’s home and the love he had first found there.
Secondly,forgiveness is in two parts…it must be offered, but to be complete it also needs to be received, and that is not always so easy. In fact, sometimes it is easier to offer, than it is to accept forgiveness. And honestly, it may be most difficult at times to forgive oneself. But doing so comes with no small measure of blessings. Our Lord is all about liberation, about setting his children free from all manner of bondage to live fully and freely within the glory of Creation, as a community in love, balance, and harmony. And the freedom that God seeks to gift each one of us with, is that which is the result of knowing who you truly are before God. Complete with all our individual strengths and weaknesses. But more importantly, realizing how truly blessed we are that God could love, and does love us just as we are. In the light of an open and fully revealed relationship with our Lord, no longer does life need to be a search for acceptance coupled with the fear of rejection for anything you may have said, thought, or done in the past, or even for potential miss steps you may make in the future. Accepting that God loves you as you are, and dwelling in that place where the Holy Spirit is constantly and actively working to mold you ever more closely into the image of divine love is the most liberating thing that one can ever experience. For that truly is love without any strings attached…
Now, that is God’s love for us…but what about our love for one another? Are we too able to extend forgiveness without any conditions? Does our own willingness to forgive ever have an ‘expiration date’? Are there some things, or some individuals we just refuse to forgive, even if repentance is offered? Accepting God’s love for oneself has consequences it turns out when it comes to this question. Do you remember when Peter asked Jesus, ‘How many times Lord must I forgive one who sins against me, up to seven times’? To which Jesus replied, ‘No not seven times, but seventy times seven…’.
There is no justification in the Christian faith at all for what I would call ‘forgiveness fatigue’. For the offer of forgiveness is something we are called to willingly give to another. And when we give something, we are doing just that – ‘giving’. Just like the father in our parable who gave so willingly and freely to his youngest son, without hesitation or regret. Knowing how much the Lord has done and continues to do for us in the midst of our imperfection and weakness, we cannot refuse to extend that same gift and blessing to another…for if we do so, we are rejecting the very grace that was first bestowed upon us.
And it is interesting to note as well, that this scripture shows up in our readings some three short weeks before Holy Week and Easter…that moment in our faith when we remember the greatest sacrifice ever made on behalf of all humanity…the sacrifice on a cross that was meant to teach us both the power and primacy of love over all things less so.
Forgiveness is liberation, unforgiveness is bondage. It is a weight upon one’s soul that only grows more burdensome over time. Numerous times in the bible, both in the New and Old Testament we hear of references to the people of God being ‘stiff-necked’, being hard hearted and stubborn for refusing to follow after the ways of God. And that very image of ‘stiff-necked’, at least for me, brings to mind how I feel after a poor night’s sleep, perhaps having slept with the pillow just not being right, and finding myself unable to turn my head either to the right or to the left…stiff-necked, totally out of sorts, totally unable to enjoy the day, or even worry about another’s problems…probably not too nice to be around either.
Unforgiveness, or an unwillingness to extend God’s love, grace, and forgiveness to another, which has already been so graciously offered to us already, makes us stiff-necked…and out of sorts…and definitely not feeling liberated or free at all! Truly your whole body suffers when you withhold the love and the blessings you have been asked to extend to another.
However, in spite of the fact that forgiveness is a gift that is meant to be freely offered, that does not mean that it will always be accepted…you cannot force someone to accept the forgiveness you are offering. But that in no way frees you from the obligation or the call to offer it nonetheless. And while it may feel like a ‘waste’ to do so in these circumstances, you are not in fact the one charged with creating the results of God’s work in the world. We are simply the vessels asked to share the love. It is God who takes that gift and ensures that at some point it will do its work and have its divine way.
Last week we read from Isaiah Chapter 55. We did not read the ending verses of that chapter however, but I think that they might bear fruit in our thoughts for today. In verse 11 of Chapter 55 we hear the Lord say, ‘so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it’.
As did the father in our parable today, ours it is merely to find it in our hearts to offer it, and to offer it fully and without condition or hesitation…it is God’s work to prepare the heart for which that forgiveness was given. Both sons in our parable today needed the work of the Spirit upon their hearts to prepare them for the father’s extravagant offer of forgiveness. The younger son realized how far he had strayed from the path of goodness and decided to go seek his father’s willingness to at least allow him to be a servant in his household. He was not ready until he was in the presence of the overwhelming love his father extended to him upon his return, to fully accept the gift he was offered.
We don’t actually know if the older brother ever forgave his brother, or if he ever was willing to accept that his father had been so generous towards the one who had behaved so poorly. We do not know, but can only pray that as the work of the Spirit in finding and redeeming us is never finished, perhaps one day he too came to forgive his brother and accept that his father’s love extended to him just as completely. Perhaps he became hard-hearted for a time and grew bitter and stiff-necked as well. But I do believe that even then, the Spirit of grace did not give up, but continued to whisper into the soul of that young man the love and grace which knows no limits.
Now that’s a lot to take in as this story has a lot to tell us. But I hope and I pray that it at least gives us pause enough to look within our own souls to see if offering forgiveness to another without condition and with the lo0ve that has already been offered to us is not only possible, but perhaps a goal worthy of our pursuit.
Truly, it is not just God who can do this, not just our Lord of love who can forgive to this extent…we each can extend love and forgiveness extravagantly, and yes, even wastefully to our brothers and sisters as well…
In closing, I guess the real question for today is this…‘when God looks in the mirror…is there a hint of your presence there’?
I pray that that may be increasingly so for each one of us…amen