This passage for the fourth Sunday in Lent is Luke 15: 1-3, 11b-32, which is the uber familiar story of the prodigal son. We hear the start of this parable, and the familiarity comes rushing back. This story feels like an old familiar blanket we wear while watching an old movie on TV on a Saturday night. We think we know the lesson here because we have heard this tale so many times. I would suggest that rather than feel like an old familiar blanket, we might learn more if it felt like a hairshirt.
This is a story that, I think, at a deep level genuinely irritates us. We are angered at the forgiveness God shows to the younger brother. We instinctively identify with the older brother. That is why we are truly comfortable with the story. We get too comfortable with our own sense of righteousness and innocence. We have all been here before. We all have someone in our life that has acted like the younger brother. Perhaps it is a sibling, maybe a co-worker, maybe a spouse. Nonetheless, we have seen people behave irresponsibly and then ask, and expect forgiveness. How dare they! We have been responsible all along. We have taken care of business and done the right things, so why should they get off easy?
First, it may not be so easy. The younger brother in this parable was literally hoping to eat what pigs eat. On top of that, how easy was it for him to swallow his pride, admit his mistake and come home? Having needed another’s forgiveness I can tell you it is one of the hardest things you will ever do.
Second, what is any of this to us? Yes, I get it. The actions of the father in forgiving the prodigal son strikes us as contrary to our ideas of justice. This seems patently unfair. So? God is certainly not bound by our narrow view of justice and mercy. His mercy is immeasurably wider than our own…Thank God!
We Play the Role of Both Brothers
The reality of God’s immense mercy is at the heart of this lesson. We at various times have played the role of both brothers. It should not take much introspection for any of us (me certainly) to recognize that we have played the part of the younger brother and wallowed in a pile of filth of our own making.
I am sure there are times when we can legitimately say we have been the responsible one and can identify realistically with the older brother. The point is that God offers his love, mercy, and forgiveness to all of us. He offered it to both brothers as indicated in verse 31 “Son, you are always with me, and all I have is yours”. The celebration is not complete without the older brother’s presence. He is as welcomed and loved by God as his ne’er do well brother.
What we are to remember in this passage is that we are not all one thing or another. We like the rest of humanity are mixed bags. Sometimes we are irresponsible, sometimes we get done what we need to get done. Sometimes we get judgmental like the older brother, and we need to remember that our heavenly father loves us and always will.
Can We Play the Role of the Father?
The real question we need to grapple with, the question that should feel very much like wearing a hairshirt is: can we play the role of the father? We are called to forgive, the way we are forgiven. Jesus offers this parable to show how radical, how wide God’s love and forgiveness extends. It extends to all of us all the time, regardless of which role we play.
Our blind spot is that we all want mercy for ourselves and justice for others. The awful reality is that we are all deserving of God’s harsh justice. The amazingly Good News is that God grants all of us his mercy through his son Jesus the Christ.
Our call then is to respond to that eternal gift of Grace upon Grace by forgiving each other (and when necessary ourselves) the way God forgives us. That’s the message that should feel like an old familiar, eternally comfortable blanket. You know, believe, then obey.
Praise Be to God