2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
There was a man who had two sons. Two sons. I’ve always assumed the story is about the son we call the prodigal, but it’s not. That’s a title added by tradition, and most perniciously, by the formatters of Bibles, who like to insert headlines to explain or highlight portions of scripture with titles, like “The Parable of the Prodigal Son.” It is about a son that left and returned, but it’s not just about him. This is the story about a father who had two sons—alike in prospects, in fair Galilee where Jesus lays his scene. There was a man who had two sons—and it’s a story with two sections, one about the youngest son, and one about the oldest, equal time spent on the stories of both. There was a man with two sons—if this story weren’t so familiar, if the title “The Prodigal Son” weren’t such a part of our idiom and our cultural currency, we may very well not call it that. We might just call it “The Parable of a Man with Two Sons,” or even, “The Parable of the Unforgiving Brother.” But I think the best way to think of this parable is to remember that Jesus is telling us a family story, and that means Jesus is telling us a love story.
It’s interesting to think of the father as the only one who didn’t know he had a prodigal son. The faithful son sure knew. He’s like Emilio Estevez—he does all the good work while his brother, Charlie Sheen, gets all the press. So of course, he’s angry when his brother comes back—angry that they are celebrating with the killing of the fatted calf. It’s funny—the story begins with the younger son asking for his share of the inheritance, half of everything the father owns. But the younger son says that the father has never even given him so much as a goat. One wonders—did he ask? Or does he drive home his complaint, that the father is indulgent and far too ready to forgive? It’s telling, I believe, that the Father says, “All that I have is yours,” because it means there is no more inheritance for the scoundrel son. But nevertheless, the scoundrel son was dead but now lives, lost but now is found—love made this happen. The scoundrel son remembered the love of his father, and perhaps the honorable son might, too. Don’t give up on him. The father is not giving up on a happy party of the whole family celebrating together—don’t give up on him, or on love. Love is the power that makes friends out of enemies, that dreams dreams more beautiful than anything reason or hatred can conjure. We must never give up on love; if this story is the story of God the Father loving both the righteous and the sinner, then we can see that God never stops loving us.
But I wonder what happens to us when we become like the unforgiving son and replace love with righteousness. The unforgiving son is good, and right, and just. But he has despaired of his brother. Kierkegaard says, “…loving does not apply to me when I have given up love for “this man”—alas, even though I perhaps imagined that he was the one who was lost. It is the same with despairing over another person; it is oneself who is in despair….To despair over another person is unfortunately so easy and so quick—and presumably one is so sure of himself, so full of hope for oneself…[but] to despair over another man is to be in despair oneself.” In other words, when we stop loving and replace love with righteousness, we have lost. We cannot bear, endure, hope, believe. Possibility, miracle, surprise have vanished, and we are left only with judgment and consequence.
There is nothing like 21st-Century America, poisoned as we are by our media outrage machine and social media outrage machine, with clickbait and advertising vehicles—there is nothing like us for judgment. We are so quick to judge one another—it’s one of the most horrible symptoms of a polarized society. This is a complicated moment, because we are polarized, more and more every day. And it is also true that one side believes in truth and justice, and the other believes in lies and power. But I have yet to hear in the past two years anyone say that they believe in love.
This is a dangerous moment—it is true that one side has descended into racism, xenophobia, science denial, and fear. That side does not play the rules we put together in the latter half of the twentieth century, rules that were much less than perfect but much better than any we had in our nation’s history. It uses the faults of the other side to shout ‘Hypocrisy!’, but only because it knows that hypocrisy is a tool like anything else, and to be a hypocrite only matters if you are concerned with truth, which they do not seem to be. If our nation was a father, and it had two sons, it would be this side, the side of the fossil fuel industry and the defunding of the Special Olympics, the side of the Muslim ban and the wall, that would be the prodigal, squandering the Enlightenment heritage of the rule of law, the hard-won civil rights and voting rights advances of the Reconstruction and Civil Rights era. They are prostituting themselves with corporate greed, fossil fuel interests and vulture capitalists, feeding in the trough with pigs like Alex Jones and crisis actor conspiracists. Yet the Father, our Heavenly Father, loves them. We cannot give up, because the only way out of this polarization is through, and the only way through is love, not the sentimental kind that gives us boxes of chocolates and affirmations, but the sacrificial kind that changes hearts and minds and lives. We must not despair, we must not give up. God’s love never ends, never recedes, never subsides—it’s a presupposition of Creation and a bulwark of the universe.
Do not despair—fight despair with love. “Therefore never in unlovingness give up a person or give up hope for him, for it is possible that even the most prodigal son can still be saved, that the most embittered enemy, alas, he who was your friend, it is still possible that he can become your friend; it is possible that that he who has sunk the deepest, alas, because he has stood so high, it is still possible that he can be raised up again; it is still possible that the love which has turned cold can burn again—therefore never give up on any man, not even at the last moment. Do not despair. No, hope all things!”
That’s Kierkegaard again. The righteous, the right side, still has the entire inheritance, the pleasure of being in the right, the benevolent gaze of being on the right side of history. The prodigal son can give up his senseless ways, and come home, turn from perdition. But if the righteous cannot forgive, they have lost everything. Never despair. Believe in the love of God. God’s love works through grace, and God’s grace works miracles, I tell you. Presuppose that in God’s grace the possibilities of love never cease, but compound in beauty.
If you don’t believe me take the testimony of the hymn we’re about to sing, “Amazing Grace.” The first four verses were written by John Newton, an English slave trader who later became an English abolitionist, working with the great Wilberforce to abolish slavery in Britain. The fifth verse was written by slaves. Only love could bring these two together. Only love can bridge this gap. Don’t ever give up on God, because God will never give up on you, no matter how far you feel you’ve strayed.
The Reverend John Zachary Flack