It is, as I think I mentioned last week, a matter of focus. Last week it was between seeing beyond the reach of our hands, beyond the reach of our imaginations which, unfortunately, do not often reach beyond the ends of our arms anyway. We spoke of our tendency to blame and God’s will to forgive and how the two might well be brought closer together if we wanted to be about the business of building a different world, a more godly place.
Well this week we confront the parable of the Prodigal Son, one of the most recognizable stories in all the western world. We’ve all heard it before, at least once every three years if you come to church on a regular basis, but it is as familiar to us as any of the stories in the Bible.
A son, feeling too limited by the rules of the household asks for his inheritance so that he might go off and forge his own life out on the big, bright world. This son discovers that there is also plenty of darkness out there in the world, that the bright bits are farther between than he thought and that sooner than one might have imagined, his inheritance is gone and he begins to wonder if he made the right decision, repents, you might say.
He travels home, rehearsing his speech, making sure he looks appropriately contrite, making sure he has his story straight. When he arrives, his father, who has missed him as only a father can, rejoices at his return and brushing past his sons prepared speech, commits to throwing a party to celebrate the return of the wandering son.
His brother, meanwhile wonders why, after being quite so disrespectful of his family and his father, this prodigal son should enjoy the benefits of his father’s love, after all, wasn’t he the one who stayed home and picked up the slack around the farm for the missing brother? Where was his party?
Did I cover everything?
We read this story as a part of the yearly cycle of scripture and each year we are reminded that it is about God’s love for us, God’s passionate love for us and God’s will to forgive us. We are told that no matter how far we roam, we cannot go far enough that God will not rejoice at our return, celebrate our repentance because God knows us well enough to know that we will err, and God loves us enough to know that something once lost and now found is a blessing, no matter what.
During last year’s confirmation class I was reminded of something that I had known since seminary, something that should be as obvious as the warmth of the sun on your face on a summer afternoon.
Not all of us hear the story in the same way when we read it. Not all of us get the idea that we are the prodigal son in the story, the ones who have wandered away from the path of righteousness and onto out own way but who will always be welcomed back, always loved.
Some of us do not see ourselves that way.
Jonathan chose the other son in this story to identify with when he was asked to pick a verse to claim as his own. He read the words, “I have never disobeyed your command,” and saw his own life, one of doing what he was told but not always understanding why, not always seeing the reward of his obedience.
I was touched by his self-knowledge and realized as I started writing this sermon, that Jonathan’s focus was different from my own. I was reminded that the lives we lead also change our focus, not just aging and diminishing sight. Our vision is formed in joy and in tragedy and it is hard to shake our focus once it forms, it is hard to see ourselves in any other way once we’ve picked one way and lived with it for a while.
I don’t know about you, but I always aspired to be the father, I know pretentious of me to pick the character who is supposed to be God but if you’re going to try and copy someone, aim high. I understood I was supposed to see myself as the prodigal but what I really wanted was to be that kind of dad to my daughter, loving, firm, always forgiving.
So from all of the different backgrounds in which we were raised, some always had water coming into the house, some had to go and fetch it from the well, from all of the different lives we have led, some with advanced degrees and some with fine lives and careers despite having none of the qualifications we think of as essential, somehow we are all supposed to knit into the Body of Christ, into one body.
Paul is very bold to declare that he is free of this kind of focus. “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view,” he says and the faithful all sigh because we think about what that might mean and we think of all of the blessings and all of the soft-focus pictures we place in our heads about the kingdom of God.
What we seldom think of, I shouldn’t think, is all of the people we cannot stop seeing from a human point of view. We don’t want to think about God forgiving them, about us being asked to forgive them. Our human point of view is potent.
We want the prodigal son to pay back the money. We tell ourselves “It’s only fair” and think of ourselves as virtuous, as wise teachers of important lessons.
After all, how is he ever going to learn?
Our human point of view is persistent.
I’ve read this scripture a thousand times, in class, in church, in my living room and still, every time, I feel a little sympathy for the other son, the dutiful and obedient one who wants to know where his party is. I feel like the father is cheating him somehow despite the fact the fact that I know the story is about something else.
My human point of view wants so badly for the story to be about me, wants the story to be about how good I am and how righteous and how obedient I am. Every good boy wants the praise of his dad and I know who sent this story to me, brought it to my lips and to my ears.
But this story is about God and our human point of view cannot change that.
It is about God and God’s will from the very beginning that we should be saved. Not just you, not just the dutiful son and not just the wandering son but everyone, sons and daughters alike. It is about God’s willingness to set aside feelings of righteous anger and wrath at the disobedience of the prodigal son, mostly us in the scriptures and to welcome all who wander back into the arms of God’s mercy. No matter what.
And that is worthy of a celebration.
I was reading Luther the other day because we are studying Luther in out Tuesday Night Bible Study class and he broke forgiveness down into two parts; the outward and the inward. The obedient son could probably go along with the outward forgiveness, most of us could. We like the words and like to think that they might apply to us.
But inward forgiveness is not just the form, it is the fact. It is the party after the words, it is the release from guilt that comes when forgiveness is sincere, when, as in Joshua, God’s rolls away our disgrace and we are freed from its power.
Our human point of view is all about the outward-ness of forgiveness, about the words and the confession and the contrition and the penance and so that is what we focus on. Does the defendant look contrite to us in the jury? Do we believe that they are truly sorry?
This parable today is about the other side, about God’s point of view.
In it there really is nobody whose confession is pure enough. From God’s point of view we would be god to remember that we are all found a little wanting, all, even the most dutiful and obedient fall short of the glory of God and are in need of God’s grace and mercy.
If we were, as Paul suggests, see no one from a human point of view, we should prepare ourselves for a big disappointment, especially when we look in the mirror.
We’re not really that great, we’re not really that obedient, we jealously guard and covet our little graces and cast aspersions on the graces of others so that we can feel better about ourselves.
We are the obedient son from this morning’s parable. Not in his obedience to be sure, but in his point of view.
We all want to know where our party is, why we aren’t being celebrated for our righteousness. We want to know why others deserve so much of God’s grace and forgiveness when they’ve done such terrible things. We wouldn’t want God’s grace to go to waste, now would be?
The obedient son is the Human point of view. It thinks of itself as hard done by and unrecognized for its accomplishments which it is often inflating. He wonders where his party is and resents the ones who beg for and receive forgiveness.
One of the great things about scriptures is that the stories of God’s people are the stories of us all. We are the obedient son when we manage to be in a position to judge others. We are selfish and self-righteous and entirely too mired in the human point of view.
We are also the prodigal son. In those moments when we remember the burden of our sin, the cost of all of our errors, our selfishness, our self-righteousness, the very same sins of the obedient son are ours as well and we think that we can plot a better path than the one God places in front of us.
We are also, entirely too rarely to be sure, but we are occasionally the father. We know what it is to come home and we throw caution to the wind and welcome back the lost and wandering sheep. It is our vision of how we wish we could be and we are filled with grace and generosity of spirit in that vision.
It doesn’t always work out that well. Sometimes the confession and repentance of the prodigal really is just a scam. Sometimes we grow weary of throwing the party and then being left to clean up the mess afterwards.
What do we do? How do we find a path that is righteous?
We can remember the words of Paul this morning. We can embrace the ministry of reconciliation and seek to forgive the sins of others, not just outwardly but also inwardly, not just saying the words, but actually meaning them. Not just speaking forgiveness but living it as well so that the ones who have wronged us might know what it feels like to receive forgiveness inwardly, having their guilt lifted from their hearts.
It is what the father does in the parable and what the obedient son struggles with this morning.
It is a surrender to the fact that God’s forgiveness is greater than ours and what God has let go of, we probably shouldn’t cling to, it’s just not good for us.
If we don’t offer true forgiveness, how can we expect true reconciliation? If we “reserve judgment” but do not set it aside entirely, how can we know the joy of the father this morning and truly see the prodigal from God’s point of view?
It is hard, broadening our focus so much that we can no longer see ourselves as the center of the universe, but that’s really the human point of view. It’s not good for us. With the grace of God, we can do better.