The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
The Prodigal Son Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
The people expected Jesus to be a righteous man. After all, he was a rabbi, even if an unofficial one. He had a following; he preached. He was rumored to have the gift of healing. And so they presumed that he would maintain an excellent report card in the subjects of morality and religious law. They thought he would surround himself with other upright, pious men, and demand that his disciples live up to his own high standards. What a disappointment.
Instead, Jesus attracted known sinners and lowlifes. But the worst of it is, he didn’t even scold them! He encouraged them with love and affection. This is not how it is supposed to work!
The way it works is that good, pious people tell those who are behaving badly just how low they have sunk. They puff up their chests, look down their noses and say with contempt “I am so disappointed in you, and God is so angry with you.” The sinners feel terribly guilty, and they break down and cry. They beg for forgiveness, and ask the upright ones to help them to be better people. That’s how it is supposed to work.
And so one day, as Jesus was surrounded with these losers and misfits, a group of Pharisees - pious, upstanding men, all of them - stood at a near distance, watched, and gossiped. You know how when we’re scornful, we avoid speaking directly to someone we don’t like, but say it loudly enough for them to overhear us? The Pharisees grumbled “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them. What kind of rabbi is he? He should be lecturing them instead. That’s how it is supposed to work.”
Jesus heard them, and stopped what he was doing. He then told a story on them. In this story, the Pharisees were represented by the older brother. They had been good boys all their life, working like a slave for God. Jesus, the father in the story, had never rewarded them; he didn’t give out any gold stars for good behavior.
But when the dregs of society flocked to Jesus like the prodigal son, he welcomed them joyfully, with open arms. Like the father, Jesus didn’t scold them; he didn’t require them to show a sufficient amount of sorrow and repentance, he didn’t demand that first they make a firm resolve to be a better person, and then they would merit love and forgiveness.
Instead, he ate and drank with them. He killed the fatted calf and had a feast. For they were lost, and now they had come home. That’s all that mattered.
What Jesus did was to completely upend a very common assumption about sin and forgiveness, repentance and grace. It is an assumption that most of us share. For we, too, think that there is a proper sequence to how we are reconciled to other people, and how we are reconciled to God. Like the Pharisees, we assume that we – or those who have sinned against us – are supposed to realize how bad we’ve been, feel an appropriate amount of guilt, express our sorrow, and then make a firm resolve to be better person. We expect this of ourselves in order to get right with God; we expect it of others in order for them to get right with us.
In the story Jesus told, this is also the sequence that both the sons had in mind. But the father surprised them both. All he cared about was that the son had come to himself, as the story puts it, and had returned home. He came home, and that’s all that mattered.
The Pharisees, the two sons, and we often think of sin and reconciliation as a matter of debt and repayment. This is how the system of justice works. We have done harm, or others have done harm to us. There is a debt. The score has to get evened out. It’s really a transaction, for the sinner must pay for their wrong-doing. The payment comes in the form of remorse, apologies, and resolutions. After the sinner pays up, God – or we – hand over forgiveness. The deal is wrapped up.
This is the traditional theology of the cross and atonement, which was brought to perfection in the Middle Ages. It isn’t the only explanation of what happened on the cross, but it became the dominant one, because it fits how most people think. Human beings sinned terribly against God, racking up a debt they couldn’t possibly pay. God’s Son took on the debt, paid it with his life on the cross, and from then on, anyone who believes that all this is so is rewarded with eternal life in heaven.
What Jesus offers to us in this radical story is a completely different model. Instead of looking at sin and reconciliation as a debt transaction, he looks at it as a matter of exile and return. According to this story, when we sin, we are not incurring debt to an angry father; we are exiled from our true selves. We have left home and are wandering in a distant country that is unnatural to us. If we stay there long enough, we will squander our natural inheritance; we will end up hungry, empty, and alone. That’s the natural consequence of spiritual exile.
But if we come to ourselves, we can go home, where we belong. We can rediscover our natural, God-given ability to love others, to love ourselves, and to embrace the beauty of this life. We can then truly be ourselves, as we were made to be. The experience of returning to this place of original grounding is like being welcomed home with a feast set before us.
What about others? If we drop the model of debt and repayment, how can we be reconciled to them?
Well, instead of seeing them as needing to pay us back for the debt of harm they have done to us, perhaps we can see them with the eyes of the father in this story, with the eyes that Jesus had for the sinners that surrounded him. Perhaps we can see them with understanding, knowing that they are somehow lost, exiled from their true self. We can hope and pray – and talk with them, if that is possible – about “coming to themselves” and returning home.
Perhaps the most extreme form of harm that I felt had ever been done to me – and at the time, this was public, so it is no secret – was some years ago, in relationship with a former bishop. I struggled with the debt and repayment model for years, wishing that he would conform to my expectation of feeling badly about himself, apologizing, and showing some sign of repayment. He owed me big time.
But eventually I got to a point where I just realized that perhaps he was lost. Perhaps he was in exile from his true self. It dawned on me that he must have suffered greatly to have ended up like that. It must be hard to be him. At this point, I could simply pray that he come to himself, and return home, so that he wouldn’t have to live this way any longer.
Can you think of someone whom you think owes you an apology? Can you shift from this way of thinking about debt and repayment, and instead, think of them in terms of exile and potential return? And if they were to return, would you stand there angrily, with your hands on your hips, waiting for their remorse? Or would you smile and say “Welcome home, stranger?”
And what about you, with God? Is there some regret you carry, some resolution to be a better person that you just can’t keep? Would it be possible to realize that there is no divine ledger of debt that is being kept on you? Would it be possible to fix your eyes instead on home, your true home, where you are meant to live, where you can be most naturally yourself?
If you can find that place, you can go there. You can just go home, where no apology is necessary. You can go home to the feast that even now awaits your return.