Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." - Luke 3: 21, 22
When John the Baptist was preaching repentance and the people were asking "What shall we do?" Jesus was in the crowd.
When John was telling tax collectors and soldiers to behave themselves, and urging people to share their extra coats with those who had none, Jesus was there.
When the people crowded forward for baptism, Jesus was in their number. And when his turn came to be baptized in the river Jordan, and a voice from heaven said, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased," Jesus was already moving in the midst of tax collectors and sinners.
John the Baptist was soon thrown into prison for his preaching, and as soon as Jesus began his ministry, his critics grumbled their disapproval ~ "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them." In response, Jesus told a story that tugs at our hearts. It is a story that reaches down into the emotional recesses of personal life and memory. It touches tender edges of family separations and reunions. It is sometimes called the story of the Prodigal son; it is the story of the love of a father for his two sons.
Surely there were women in the Prodigal's family, too-there must have been a mother who grieved with her husband when their boy went off with his inheritance, and squandered it, in a far country. In the Bible the love of God is depicted in masculine and feminine fullness. It is like the love of a mother who cannot forget her nursing child, as surely as it is like the love of at father for his prodigal son. Note, also, that the prodigal was not the first-born son. He would not get his father's blessing (Recall the story of Jacob and Esau). As a younger son, his was a smaller share of the inheritance. The story is consistent with the witness of the Bible to God's interest in the powerless over the powerful, the outcast over the established, the second born over the first born, the least over the greatest.
At any rate, a caring father, and mother, must have struggled with the risk of dividing the inheritance when their younger son requested it. Their prayers must have been full of fear for his future. They surely knew his capacity to lose everything. They were parents who loved their son. And if there were sisters in the family, they, too, must have felt the turmoil of the younger brother's exodus.
We all know the pain of family life-struggles to break free of dominance, to deal with anger, to recapture dignity, to find respect and reciprocity. We remember failures and forgiveness, hurts and persisting resentments. How would you respond if your son requested his inheritance? How would you feel if he packed up all you had given him and took off? What would it be like for you if the only news of your son came through rumors that he had spurned his heritage and squandered his goods? Imagine the range of emotion that tugged at their hearts. Not knowing. Not hearing. Feeling spurned, and aggrieved, and bereft.
What we know for sure, of course, is that one day, in the distance, the Father saw his son coming. What we know is that nothing that the father had heard or imagined could keep him from running to meet his son. That guilt-ridden boy, protesting, all the way "I am not worthy to be called your son," was powerless to squelch the eagerness of the father to celebrate his return. "Get the robe! The ring! The fatted calf! My son who was dead, is alive again." He is home! He is home!
Three things about the father's view of his son:
(1) The father's view was not contingent upon the boy's behavior; it was grounded in steadfast love. When the father saw him coming, the boy's failings were incidental; what mattered was reunion-"This son of mine was dead and is alive again. He was lost, and is found." Here that, you scribes and Pharisees, says Jesus; "I will show God's love to those whom God loves, no matter what you think of them!" The father's view of his son was not conditioned by his son's behavior; it was grounded in steadfast love.
(2) Secondly, the father's view was not based on "mine vs. yours." The older son had been working at home, faithfully, industrially, all those years, and never had a party! And the older brother was the first born. He was entitled to the blessing. He had been a good steward. A faithful worker. And he had not run off. He had good reason to think he deserved more. So, he got mad, and refused to go into the Welcome Home Party. And when his father came out to plead with him, the boy shouted back at his dad:
Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat... But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!
The father answered:
Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.
The celebration expressed the joy of recovery. The wonder of reunion. It had nothing to do with who was older, who was younger, who was good and who was bad. The love of parents for their children was the cause for celebration.
(3) Finally, the father's view of his son was not based upon the memory of old hurts, but upon ongoing commitment. The rupture of family ties, creates hurts that last. Sometimes they are out in the open. Sometimes, underground. The pain of alienation, becomes a springboard for revenge. A cycle of hurt continues on. We harbor the memories, and nag others with the hurt -- "If you hadn't gone off like that ten years ago..." -- continuing the pain. But the father's view of his son was effected by the memory of hurt. It was grounded in a commitment that broke forth in celebration. It was affirmed by a welcome home.
Is this an uncomfortable story? Does the faithfulness of this parent make you restive with yourself by comparison? Perhaps you find yourself wishing the father had said, "Don't come sneaking around here now. We said good-by. You have had your share. And I have had my share of hurt by loving you. Every passing day was a stab in the heart. Go back to your pig pen. Your mom and I can't take any more. When you chose a far country, you took your inheritance; you lost your place here."
And who hasn't felt that way? But the purpose of the parable is not to heighten a sense of failure in the family. If the story makes you uncomfortable, then put yourself in the prodigal's shoes. So, you feel like a prodigal because you are a failure as a father, or a mother, or a daughter, or a son, a sister or a brother, or a friend. A failure in managing resources. A failure in managing life.
Put yourself in the prodigal's shoes-you are the one who feels unworthy, and God comes running to meet you, to embrace you, to celebrate your place in the family.
Great God, in Christ You call our name
And then receive us as Your own
Not through some merit, right, or claim
But by your gracious love alone.
We strain to glimpse your mercy seat
and find you kneeling at our feet
- "Great God, Your Love Has Called Us Here"
Brian Wren , Presbyterian Hymnal, Number 353
No matter how you see yourself, there's another view of you. It is God's view. It is the view from a place from which we all have wandered. That view is not contingent upon your behavior; it is not erased by anything you have done. That view changes everything. Once you're home, and welcomed in spite of your failings, things look different. The embrace! The ring! The fatted calf-effect a change of outlook.
Says the Apostle Paul: "Now we regard no one from a human point of view." The miracle of God's grace, levels the fields of sin. Flattens the shadows of moral comparison and brings us together. Behold, your brother, and your sister, your father and your mother, your neighbor and your enemy, and yourself, through the eyes of Jesus - no longer from a human point of view! And if you forget ~ if, in some dark night of the soul, or in some far country you lose track of the view from home ~ then get out the robe, and wear it! Remember the embrace! Put on the ring, and join the celebration ~ for the self that was lost is found again! The self that was dead is alive again.
Salvation is the gift of God's view. Salvation is knowing where home is and who God's friends and family are. Look at the world through the eyes of the One for whom the whole family in heaven and on earth is named. Prodigals one, and prodigals all: rejoice, and enjoy God forever! Amen.