Welcome Home, My Child
Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year C, RCL Joshua 5:9-12, Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
There once was a group of people, who left their country, looking for a better place to live. When they set out on their journey, they soon found that life was harder than expected. Yet because of the harsh conditions that caused them to leave, they never seriously considered returning. Then the people ran out of food. But before any of them starved to death, a regular supply of food was given to them. They went for years depending on this handout. They never offered to repay this generosity, and at times, the Israelites didn’t seem very grateful for the gift. But this is the way God works in our lives. We can turn away from God. Ignore God. And in our desperation, we often return being accepted by God as if we were always faithful. Once the Israelites found stability in their lives, they found jobs, produced fruit, and they didn’t need the handout anymore. This is what we just read.
I imagine that some of us have depended on God; leaned on him as we went through a difficult time. Looking back, we may recognize that we wouldn’t have made it without the help of God. Part of me wonders how we can accept God’s graciousness toward us, and then, when we look at our neighbors struggling to survive, we hesitate to help them or think that they don’t deserve the handouts that they receive? Sometimes we think these struggling people are just lazy and should get a job. Yet, at the same time, we don’t always accept people who have jobs either; especially when those jobs entail menial tasks such as harvesting fruits, vegetables, or tobacco. Those who make beds, clean bathrooms, or pick up our trash. And just because they have jobs doesn’t mean they can make ends meet. For most of us, the flip side is also true. We have a hard time accepting graciousness from others and recognizing that God has a hand in this generosity as well.
Today, the Pharisees grumble at Jesus because “all the tax collectors and sinners” were coming to listen to him. And Jesus has the audacity to eat with them as well. Jesus hears the grumblings and shares the parable of the Prodigal Son. Yet, it doesn’t seem apparent as to why he tells this story to the Pharisees. What does a wayward son have to do with these kibitzing Pharisees?
Every time Jesus tells us a parable, we are indirectly asked to ask ourselves who we are or who should we be in this story. If we look at today’s story we will likely conclude that the father represents God – the Father. A God who is full of love, forgiveness, and second chances. Then we have the two brothers that we need to pair up with the sinners and the Pharisees. It’s no secret that the wayward brother lines up with the sinners and tax collectors. After all, this is what the Pharisees are complaining about. So by default, the Pharisees are the older brother.
Traditional Hebrew culture advises that the eldest son would receive an extra share of the inheritance upon his father’s death. This extra share is to help cover the cost of taking care of the estate, to support their mother and any unmarried sisters. In today’s story, since there are two sons, the elder son would receive 2/3 of the estate and the younger one would receive 1/3. When we look at this parable in this light, we find that the Pharisees (the faithful brother) have been given a double share of the inheritance. They have worked hard to keep the commands, be faithful to God, and try to follow the father’s ways as best as possible. This inheritance isn’t earned but given as a promise based on a birthright.
Now when the wayward, sinful people, who have rebelled, rejected or tried to run away from the Father find their way back home, we find that the Father welcomes them back with open arms. He celebrates with song, dance, and gifts that symbolize their rightful place as children of God. For the hard-working faithful young man, this seems not only unfair but un-just. For years the older son has been toeing the line, being conservative with his family’s resources, and working as hard if not harder than any of the hired hands.
He says I have been here all this time and never had a celebration. When have you ever shown me your love? This is a question some of us may ask God ourselves. We are faithful, hardworking people following God to the best of our abilities and we may not always feel or see the love that God has for us. This is what Jesus says the Pharisees are experiencing. They are promised everything already. God is with them every day. And God says, even though life is hard and you do not feel my love for you; I do love you more than you can imagine. But this doesn’t prevent me from loving my other child as well. Despite his rebelling, he has returned, and for that, I will celebrate. The Pharisees seem to forget that their ancestors rebelled against God, not only in the Exodus but leading up to the fall of the kingdoms of Judah and Israel.
If we bring this parable home, as in who are we in this story, we are likely a combination of the characters. Like the younger son, we all fall into routines that separate us from God. We can realize what we have done and return to God knowing that God rejoices in our return. Like the older son, I think many of us may become jealous when we see someone receiving something for nothing, especially if we are the ones who have put in the time and energy. And like the father, we are all asked to be as generous as God our Father is to us.
One of the cautions I take away from this parable is that when I find someone whom I think is squandering their life or in need of “undeserved help,” I am acting like the Pharisees by judging them on my values, my desire to be the eldest son; the first among his children. God’s values and judgments are not based on the way the world works. God puts love and compassion ahead of what we usually value.
This is the gift given to each of us, no matter who we think we are, or how we are being treated; no matter how we have acted toward our family, friends, and neighbors. God celebrates our turning toward him, opens his arms, kisses us on our cheek, and says welcome back my child. I love you.