Reading: Luke 15:1-3,11-32
Let us pray:
In all that is said, O God, may there be a searching for truth, in all that is heard may there be a hope for our lives, in all that speaks to us today may the Spirit guide us and nurture us. In Jesus name. Amen.
It might be that the Hobbits of Middle Earth (aka rural Matamata) could teach us something about how to celebrate a birthday – on their special day, so JRR Tolkien tells us, they give out presents rather than receive, they go to the trouble and expense of gifts for everyone else when we would be expect just the opposite, to sit back and receive. So what is so appealing about this back to front approach? Well, it’s fairly obvious - instead of just the one party you get to attend many parties in the year and at each party you, of course, receive another gift. They understood the concept that in generous giving you end up with more – more parties, more fun, more loot! Maybe they might just have a keen insight into the story of the prodigal son? How’s that?
The three players in this parable – wastrel younger son, reliable ‘good’ older brother and the embarrassingly compassionate father – bring us an enormous challenge, I believe - to be abundantly generous (to the point of stupidity), and to recognise that when we do that, it doesn’t lessen but increases our share of the treasure we seek after. But before we get to this point, we need to deal with the context and our natural reactions to this tale that Jesus tells. For there is so much about this story that is just plain wrong if we think of our normal inclinations for fair play, justice and understanding consequences of action. First of all we have an irresponsible father – tut, tut for not teaching a lesson to this wayward son, for not making him sweat, for not waiting at the gate, inwardly rejoicing but outwardly stern!
In this story the Father doesn’t even let his son finish his stumbling confession before he calls for the celebration for the return of one who has been lost. Is there not within each one of us a wee bit of a sympathy for the older brother – sure he is ungracious, grumpy, but doesn’t he have a right after all, isn’t he justified in being upset at such an extravagant response to one who has patently ‘done wrong’? In discussing this with various people one commentator suggests that the majority sympathize with the older brother and resent what the younger brother gets away with. And there you have it pretty much in a nutshell – what he gets away with. This story, whilst wonderfully generous in the love and forgiveness of the Father, is also challenging our ground rules of fair play, understanding consequences and working hard for reward in the response of the other son.
Then let us put the story in context in this gospel. This is the third of a series of parables on those who are lost (the other two are the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin) – and it is in direct response to the Pharisees and Scribes challenging Jesus on his associating with people known to be abject sinners – tax collectors, prostitutes etc. It not just his associating with them though – it is his exuberant, over the top, undignified joy that he greets each with – almost as if nothing else matters, and his apparent lack of judgment.
I have not yet been bored by the story of the prodigal son – there is always something to discover, some new truth to learn about. For me this time it has been found in the generous gifting of mercy by the Father (and by generous I mean not just forgiving his sin but throwing the biggest party ever, celebrating outrageously – some would say less than tactfully - his return) and the difficulty that the other son, the faithful, hardworking son, has with the injustice of it all, a stance that prevents him extending that same mercy to his brother.
We aren’t told how the elder brother responded in the end to his Father’s words, but we do know that there is a fundamental truth here that Jesus challenged him and challenges us with – and I think it would go something like this: “When does our sense of justice and fair play prevail at the expense of generous and embracing love and mercy being shown?” When does judgement prevent us showing unconditional mercy and grace offered to those in the most need, the ones who have gone to hell and back and have nowhere to turn, nothing to say but Father forgive me?
In the beatitude story for this week on ‘Blessed are the merciful’– April Blain shares the story of Laura – a toothless, poverty stricken, down and out single mother who can barely make ends meet and continues to make terrible decisions about everything – decisions that have definitely contributed to her current, relatively destitute, state. April discovered that Laura, instead of being just another poor soul who came by the church for some help and advice to try and make ends meet, was in fact living just round the corner from her, and suddenly found she couldn’t send her off to an agency as she would normally do – she was challenged to extend abundant and loving mercy to this woman – not just in giving to her materially but in offering her friendship and welcoming her into their family as Laura welcomed her. In doing so she discovered how, in the midst of her ongoing struggles and mistakes, Laura deeply loved and cared for her children, and of the life she had led from childhood, devoid of love and mercy in any shape or form. April was struck by how many people made judgments on people like Laura straight up– that they expected her to pay for her mistakes, not be offered a second chance until she was able to show she could get it together, serve her time before she was truly forgiven and embraced, receive a share of society’s blessing. The handouts she was given seem very similar to the younger sons expectations of treatment on his return to the family fold.
But God asks us to take it further – not just to accept the prodigal’s need for forgiveness and restoration, or Laura’s need for food and guidance, but to wholly and completely generously welcome them into our lives, giving more than they ask for, more that we might consider their fair share.
We are to be ridiculously generous for those who have suffered, those who have been at the bottom of the pile, those who continue to make mistakes, those who have never known mercy and love and compassion – they are to be not just dealt out sustenance and a measure of help but we are to extravagantly welcome them as someone precious who once was lost but now is found, and rejoice that they are in our lives no matter that it takes – do we, like April, have the capacity to do that – or do we hold to the outrage of the older brother and hold our mercy and compassion back until conditions have been met.
Can I finish with the words of a song by Deidre Browne:
Come as you are: that’s how I want you.
Come as you are; feel quite at home,
close to my heart, loved and forgiven.
Come as you are: why stand alone?
No need to fear, Love sets no limits;
no need to fear, love never ends;
don’t run away shamed and disheartened,
rest in my love, trust me again.
I came to call sinners, not just the righteous;
I came to bring peace, not to condemn.
Each time you fail to live by my promise,why do you think I’d love you the less?