Joshua 5: 9-12; Psalm 32; Luke 15: 1-3, 11b-32
Today’s gospel story is about a son who ran away, the father who allowed it to happen, and the other son who was angry at both father and brother. When I hear this story, I often ask myself who I am in it this time.
Some years, I’m the younger son who wants to be free from his family system. So he badgers his father to give him his share of the family fortune now, today, so he can get his unhappy self out of town. It doesn’t matter that he has basically told his dad to drop dead.
Some years, I’m the forgiving father, who just wants his missing son to come home again. He reluctantly gave in and gave the younger son not only what he needed to start a new life, but gave him everything he wanted. Now, his departure has left a hole in his heart, and he looks and longs for him every hour of every day.
Other years, I’m the really ticked off older brother who feels he has been taken for granted his entire life. He has dutifully worked the farm, cared for the herds, maintained and repaired the buildings. He has learned everything he could from his father. But he has not felt the father’s love and care, only the demands to do what he was told.
And still other years, I’m the ticked off mother, who isn’t even in the story, and who is angry at all three guys for letting things get so out of control. If she had had her way, the younger son would have been given only a portion of what was his due, enough to try living apart from the family, but not enough to get so lost. But, as a woman, she has little say in the matter.
The mother at least would have sent him off with a promise that he would be welcome when he came home, with his room ready for him, just as he left it. She, too, watches and waits for the boy to come home; she stands just inside the doorway, watching the road.
This year, I see the father and what he does.
What I notice this year as I read the text is the way the father runs to the son. This would have not been acceptable according to the culture of that time. The father would have stayed in his tent and waited for the son to come in and grovel before him. The son would have been given the “You are dead to me” speech, and the son would have begged and pleaded to be allowed to stay in the bunkhouse with the hired hands. Finally, the father would have relented, and given him just enough to live on.
But, this father does not pay attention to the rules and mores of culture. This father goes running down the road to greet his long-lost son. He is so happy to see the boy, he is almost in tears. He calls to the servants to prepare a feast. There is no demand that a bath be drawn, although after a month or two of slopping hogs, and a long walk home, he surely needs one. A fancy robe and some of the family jewels are given to the boy, replacing some of what he has squandered.
The elder son is coming home and notices the festivities. “What’s going on?” he asks. A servant says, “your little brother has come home and we’re having a party to celebrate.” “I’m not celebrating the return of the brat. And I’m not going to the party, either.”
The father notices the elder son pouting, and goes to have a chat with him. He hears the resentment, and tries to help him see. “But you have never left. All I have is yours and always has been. Don’t you see that? Please come and celebrate with us.”
Who in this story needs to be forgiven? …
The younger son needs forgiveness because he wasted his life and his fortune on things that don’t matter.
The older son needs forgiveness for not looking around and seeing the abundance he already had.
The mother needs forgiveness, for her resentment of all three guys and the way they related to each other.
Perhaps the father needs forgiveness for giving the boy everything he asked for, instead of portioning it out until he could handle it. So, he was too generous.
Whenever we read a parable, we need to determine who, if anyone, is the God-figure in the story. Some people deny that the father in the story is God. Others, like me, insist that the father in the story is God.
The father in the story is generous, giving not just what is needed, but the boy’s heart’s desire. There are times when we wish God would give us a bit more, but most of the time, we have just what we need, and then some.
The father in the story welcomes home the wayward son. The father quickly and clearly offers him a place in the family, as if he had just been gone on a long business trip.
The father readily offers forgiveness. There is no need to grovel; barely is there need to confess. The father changes the subject and needs nothing else from the son.
In Joshua, the Lord says, “Today, I have taken away your disgrace.” The Psalmist says, “Happy are those whose sins are forgiven.”
Do we not need to hear that we are forgiven? Do we not need to know that even when we are wayward children, we are still loved? Do we not need to know that God stands in the road looking and longing for those who have gone astray? Do we not need to know that God throws a party, a feast, every time someone comes back into the fold?
Think about those times when you have strayed, or when a loved one has left God’s fold. Remember the joy you felt when you came back to God, or when your loved one did. Just so, and more so, God feels this great joy.
So, this week, watch for someone who needs to know that God still watches and waits longingly for them to return to the fold, to the family. Tell them that the God we believe in forgives them, and wants them to come home.
Please pray with me. Forgiving God, we turn to you, and return to you often. We give thanks for the times we have been welcomed back home by you. Help us to look for others who are lost, and guide them back home to you. In Jesus’ name, Amen