Texts: 2 Cor. 5:16-21 and Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Well, dear friends, I don’t care if you are among the piggish or the priggish, both of whom were meant to hear this amazing parable, but hearing it again surely gives one goose bumps. There is so much here with which to identify, so many meanings that we can pull from this powerful story—one of the most profound that Jesus ever surely told.
A word about those terms I just used: the piggish and the priggish. Note the people to whom Jesus, that first century Jewish sage, was speaking: there are two groups of people present—the tut-tutting Pharisees complaining about the company that Jesus was keeping. They are the priggish ones here, and one might even think that the embittered older brother of this story is meant to be their mirror image, reflecting back to them, with a little smile from the face of Jesus, their objections to the scope of the father’s generous love. And the others are the piggish ones who, through one sort or another of problems stemming from feelings of never being loved, or perhaps of decadent living, have found themselves down in the pig slop of life.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve been priggish more times than I like to admit, and truth be told, I’ve found myself down in the slimy bogs of spiritual impoverishment and misery, because of things that have happened or stupid things I’ve done. This story speaks to us all.
Ironically, all the characters in this story are prodigal, if we mean by that word that they are overly indulgent, expansive, even wasteful. The most prodigal of all, of course, is the father in the story, whose love is so wasteful that it endures the shame to the family honor and the cost—half of his estate—that the younger son has wasted. The elder brother is prodigal in his self-righteousness which wastes love itself because he somehow thinks it has to be deserved and earned. And the younger brother, the one named the prodigal, is self-serving, self-indulgent, and even manipulative.
On one level the story does tell us about the miraculous power of repentance to restore people to wholeness, but, in fact, the story isn’t about repentance, it is about reunion, about being embraced in a love that transcends all that has gone wrong, all that attempts to manipulate the other.
One commentator notes that the younger son never really repents in the story. He just collapses into self-pity while living down with the pigs (those unclean sorts that the Pharisees are accusing Jesus of spending too much time with—there is lots of hidden humor in this parable), and heads home figuring that at least if he works as a slave on his father’s estate he will have a roof over his head and something better than swine slop to eat. But I don’t think so. I think he has truly “come to himself,” as the text says. If you believe in a divine score-keeper God, maybe that’s all you can count on, that you will get a just penalty for your misdeeds, but no party will be thrown in your honor. In a peculiar way, that is what the doctrine of purgatory, in the Roman Catholic tradition, more or less represents psychologically– that unless you were a saint, after death your soul has to dwell not in paradise with God but do its penance in purgatory until at last one can be restored to the full presence of God.
The older brother clearly thinks love can only be earned by racking up the goody-two-shoes points and that means he deserves a whole heck of a lot more than that narcissistic little brother gets. The whole thing shatters his understanding of right and wrong. The father’s action is just plain WRONG, as far as big brother’s concerned.
But note that the father doesn’t really care who deserves what. The father wants a reunion—not just with the son whom he lost to that strange attempt to find himself, but with the loyal older son, and he wants not justice—but reconciliation to mend all the brokenness in his family.
And I don’t know about you, but I’ve learned the hard way too many times in my own life that what mends broken hearts and wounded spirits is not so much the act of forgiveness which can be supercilious at worst and may be condescending, but it is love—undeserved, unmerited, unconditional that heals and redeems and transforms. That kind of love, of course, includes forgiveness, but most of all, it lets the past become the past. You know it when you feel it.
Jesus concludes his parable—speaking to both the piggish (those sinners with whom he has been hanging out, who know their lives are a mess) and to the priggish (those good church-going religious sorts whom Jesus actually likes and appreciates, except that he knows they have got it wrong about a score-keeping religion) by saying: “Look here, family members, we have arrived at a point where the present is different and the future can be far more than anything the past has led us to expect. We don’t have to repeat over and over all those old patterns of harm, nor do we have to endure them. The past is over and gone. We have a new beginning, a new family. That’s the reason to hold a party.” The whole Easter story, of course, is testament to a God who runs down the road to meet us, even when we think everything is over for us.
We have a God of unconditional love whose desire is for a relationship with us, and between us all, in life, and Easter tells us, also in death.
Jesus told this story to share with us something of the heart of God—not the mind of God, for that is unknowable.
St. Paul says that in Christ, God was reconciling—note especially the words: not believers, not the righteous, not the prosperous, not the religious, not the heterosexual, not the socially prominent and intellectually able—but God was reconciling the WORLD to God’s self…that’s everybody, it seems to me, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to US the message of reconciliation…that what God wants most is our heart, our love, and then our lives will follow the path that God always intended for us.
Christ is our norm, our model—this is how he saves—not in some sacrificial way—but in showing us that the old has passed away, and that who follow him will find in him a way to know the God who loves us all—the piggish and the priggish.
You, Paul tells those quarrelling folk at Corinth, and we, are to be ambassadors of reconciliation—not proponents of division, of casting judgment. The Gospel lesson for this morning makes it clear: it was love that made Jesus draw to himself those whom the world abandoned, those who either through their own fault or that of some external cause had been broken and separated out from communities of love and hope. We who live in his name can do no less, for we—however faintly, however clearly—have been made new by the reconciling, restorative love of God. If that isn’t resurrection, I don’t know what is.