Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
[shared with the people of Friendship Church, March 21, 2004]
The story that Jesus tells in our Bible lesson for this morning is well-known. A young son, anxious to get his hands on the fortune his father has amassed, demands his inheritance before his father has died. The money burning a hole in his pocket and infantile notions of freedom calling him, the boy takes off for a distant country. He wastes every penny on parties and prostitutes when a famine hits. Penniless, the boy takes a low-paying job with a pig-farmer. Realizing how badly he's wasted everything that he's been given and remembering how well his dad treated the hired help, the boy decides to tell his dad how sorry he is and ask if he could have a job. He wouldn't even claim the privileges of family membership. Jesus says that even before the boy walks up to his father's house, dad charges down the road and locks the boy in a bear hug of forgiveness, acceptance, and love. Grateful for the restoration of this son who was lost and had been found, who was dead and had come back to life, his father threw a tremendous welcome home celebration. Jesus says this is what it's like when anyone turns from the sins that erect walls between God and us, between God and others, and humbly comes home to God. Like the father in Jesus' parable, God gives us freedom. So long as we use it in constructive ways, expressing love for God and love for neighbor, good things come from the freedom God gives to each of us to make decisions about our lives. Through Jesus Christ, God runs to those who, like the son, understand that living alienated from God and others, our lives are messes. When we "come home" to God, God gives us the freedom to become our best selves! For a prodigal sinner like me, a person prone to want to do and say and be things with no concern for God or others, the fact that God loves me like the father in Jesus' story loved his son, comes as very good news. It gives me hope that even I can have a place in God's Kingdom. That's why I love this story so!
But there's also something about this story that is disturbing. Speaker and writer Glenna Salsbury tells another story, a true one, about a tribe in South Africa and of how they deal with wrong-doers in their villages. They apprehend the person who has committed a crime and place him, unshackled at the center of the village. All the villagers form a large circle around the person. Then, one by one, every single villager begins to recount all the good points of the person who has done wrong. They tell stories applauding the person's kindnesses, his positive contributions to community life, and his good character traits. Amid a village-wide party, this festival devoted to complimenting a person we would describe as a criminal and a gross sinner goes on sometimes for two days. At the end of it all, like the prodigal son in Jesus' parable, the wrong-doer is forgiven, restored to the community, and able to resume his life and work.
It is a happy ending and yet, it may bother us a little. In our righteous indignation, it doesn't seem fair that a sinner should get off so easily. This is the very concern that throbs in the mind of the other son in Jesus' parable of the prodigal son, the older son. He comes upon the noisy party happening in his father's house and asks one of the servants what exactly is going on. The servant tells the older son the happy news. His younger brother has returned. The older son is furious with resentment and envy. It doesn't seem fair! Refusing to even go into his father's house, he calls his dad to come outside. What gives?, he wonders. Here he had already abided by the rules, done everything that his father wanted him to do, and yet, not once, did the old man offer to throw a party for him and his friends. But when "your son"—the older boy won't even refer to his younger sibling as "my brother"—comes back home, having wasted everything on parties and prostitutes, you treat him like the returning hero. The father says, "Son, everything I have is yours. If you'd wanted to have a party, you could have any old time. But your brother is back and we need to celebrate!" The older son though, refused to listen to his father.
Fess up now. Don't you feel a bit of the older son's resentment? If you were him, wouldn't you resent your dad welcoming the rebel home when you yourself had never once rebelled? The father in Jesus' story of course, is a figure of God the Father, always willing to welcome His rebel children home. And sometimes, God's willingness to forgive people bothers us! We love God's forgiveness when it comes to us. We love being the prodigals welcomed into the Father's loving arms. But we're not always so keen on how forgiving God is toward others.
This is a dangerous attitude for us to even flirt with. An old saying tells us, "What's good for the goose is good for the gander." If forgiveness is good for us, it must certainly be good for all the other sinners of the world who need God. Jesus tells us that we block God's forgiveness from our lives when we are unwilling to forgive others. In his model for prayer, called the Lord's Prayer or the Our Father, Jesus teaches us to pray, "Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us."
Jesus teaches us this, I think, for an important reason. Steve Goodier is a Methodist pastor and writer who serves a church in Utah. Recently, I read his account of a lesson he learned from his father. Writes Goodier:
"His own father was a mining engineer and his family lived in the Philippines prior to World War II. They were captured by the Japanese and incarcerated there during World War II. He, his mother and sisters were sent to a prison camp at the University of Santo Tomas in Manila where they remained until the Philippine Islands were freed at the end of the war. His father, an enlisted man, was separated from the family and imprisoned with captured military personnel.
"My dad was a teenager at the time. He, like other prisoners, struggled to survive. To keep from starving, he learned to eat his small, daily rations of rice without first removing the carcasses of worms in the bowl. But he ate better than most prisoners - he worked as an orderly in the prison hospital and, on occasion, was able to finish leftover food from patients. Though almost six feet tall, when he was finally freed he weighed only 95 pounds.
"Life was difficult there by any standards. Numerous prisoners became ill and many died. Anger and bitterness toward their captors abounded. For years, even decades, after their eventual release from the prison camp, the men and women of Santo Tomas (like other prisoners of war)
felt a smoldering bitterness toward the people who incarcerated them. My father lost almost everything. His family lost their home. They lost their possessions. And harder still, they lost their freedom. But he also lost his father. My grandfather did not survive his captivity. Yet I never heard my dad express any anger or resentment toward the Japanese soldiers or the Japanese people. Just the opposite. He taught me to regard ALL people with respect. He taught me to honor people of
all races, nationalities and religions. He knew that bitterness only kept his wounds open and infected. Like a disease, his festering resentments could even infect others. And they could kill."
When we fail to forgive others as God has forgiven us through Jesus Christ, we prevent not only God's forgiveness, but also all the other blessings God wants to give to us, from entering our lives. The older son in Jesus' parable refused to join the big forgiveness party his dad threw for his younger brother, even when his father begged him to come inside.
And that's how I end this message this morning. Jesus Christ died on a cross and rose from the dead so that the walls that our sin and selfishness builds between God and us, as well as between us and others, can be brought crashing down. God wants to throw a forgiveness party for each of us and live with us every day in order to free us become our God-designed selves. He wants us to help others experience His freeing, forgiving love, too.
And I'm begging you: If you haven't ever let God welcome you home to His Kingdom, let Him do it now. Like the prodigal, turn from the sin and selfishness that prevent you from experiencing life with God and come back to your Father.
I beg you: If there are people against whom you've been holding grudges, don't let that failure to forgive poison your life and destroy your relationship with God any longer.
And I beg you: If there are folks who you know are in need of God in their lives, invite them to experience the warm embrace God extends to all through Jesus Christ—maybe you could even invite them to be in worship with us on Easter Sunday morning.
The Father is patient and loving. He wants to free all of us from sin and death to become our God-designed selves. God wants to welcome everyone of us home right here, right now, and always!
[The story of the tribe in South Africa appears on Glenna Salsbury's CD, Something to Think About.
[Steve Goodier told the story in his emailed inspiration, called Life Support. To receive this from Steve, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.]