Old Testament: Joshua (5:9-12)
The Lord said to Joshua, “Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.” And so that place is called Gilgal to this day. While the Israelites were camped in Gilgal they kept the passover in the evening on the fourteenth day of the month in the plains of Jericho. On the day after the passover, on that very day, they ate the produce of the land, unleavened cakes and parched grain. The manna ceased on the day they ate the produce of the land, and the Israelites no longer had manna; they ate the crops of the land of Canaan that year.
The Response: Psalm 32
1 Happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven, *
and whose sin is put away!
2 Happy are they to whom the Lord imputes no guilt, *
and in whose spirit there is no guile!
3 While I held my tongue, my bones withered away, *
because of my groaning all day long.
4 For your hand was heavy upon me day and night; *
my moisture was dried up as in the heat of summer.
5 Then I acknowledged my sin to you, *
and did not conceal my guilt.
6 I said,” I will confess my transgressions to the Lord.” *
Then you forgave me the guilt of my sin.
7 Therefore all the faithful will make their prayers to you in time of trouble; *
when the great waters overflow, they shall not reach them.
8 You are my hiding-place;
you preserve me from trouble; *
you surround me with shouts of deliverance.
9 “I will instruct you and teach you in the way that you should go; *
I will guide you with my eye.
10 Do not be like horse or mule, which have no understanding; *
who must be fitted with bit and bridle,
or else they will not stay near you.”
11 Great are the tribulations of the wicked; *
but mercy embraces those who trust in the Lord.
12 Be glad, you righteous, and rejoice in the Lord; *
shout for joy, all who are true of heart.
The Epistle: Corinthians (5:16-21)
From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
The Gospel: Luke (15:1-3, 11b-32)
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable: “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
One commentator on today’s gospel reading tells of an adult Sunday School class that he leads. It seems that after he shared with them the reading that we just heard, he asked them what parable this was. Everybody seemed to realize that it is known as “The Parable of the Prodigal Son.” But then, on a whim, he asked what the word “prodigal” means. The room suddenly became quiet. Some of the folks thought that it had to do with repentance. Only a few knew that it actually means “recklessly extravagant.” Sermons that they had heard over the years had distorted their understanding of the term; but maybe they had distorted also their understanding of the story itself.
Interpreters and people in general like to simplify stories like this: sometimes simplistically assigning to them one particular, very limited meaning. But parables in general do not lend themselves to such a simplification or to a one-to-one correspondence between their characters and the people whom they supposedly symbolize.
New Testament scholar Klyne Snodgrass (Stories with Intent, page 8) describes parables as: “stories with intent, analogies through which one is enabled to see truth… The immediate aim of a parable is to be compellingly interesting, and in being interesting it diverts attention and disarms. A parable’s ultimate aim is to awaken insight, stimulate the conscience, and move to action.” Effective parables can be seen from multiple points-of-view and can tease our imaginations into viewing them and our world from multiple perspectives. And the parable that we heard today is undoubtedly an effective parable with three complex characters.
First, there is the younger son, the one on whom attention is often focused. Seen from a common perspective, his could be seen as a story of sin and repentance. But the account never actually says that he repented. Luke says only “he came to himself.” It could be that he, who had taken advantage of his father’s unfailing love and unchallenging generosity all his life, realized that he could probably pull it off again. And so he rehearsed a speech, planning his return. He would say something about becoming like a hired hand since he was no longer worthy to be considered a son; but the first word out of his mouth would be “Father,” thereby playing on his father’s sympathy and reasserting his position as a son. His manipulative approach just might work for him one more time.
Then there is the elder son. He is often portrayed as jealous and hard-hearted; and maybe he is. But is he really being so unreasonable – or so unlike us at times? Listen to his objections, and then listen to some of our own political and social discourse. “I’ve done my duty. I’ve worked hard all my life. I’ve played by the rules. Why should I be put on an equal footing with those other people who have been lazy and self-centered and who have wasted the opportunities that they have had? Why should I be forced to share what I have with them?” His attitude sounds uncomfortably familiar.
Finally, there is the father. He is often portrayed in glowing terms, as loving and caring; but maybe he shouldn’t have pampered his younger son so much in the first place; and maybe he should have refused to give him an early inheritance, thereby enabling his self-centered and prodigal behavior. Not only that, but the father is apparently oblivious: he thinks that his younger son, the one who went away, was the one who was lost; but it seems that, along the line, he had actually lost the elder son as well.
All three characters in Jesus’ masterful story are complex; but then, aren’t all the characters in our life’s story complex as well? Yet, like certain interpreters of the parable, we sometimes try to make things clear-cut and simplistic and absolute in our lives, categorizing people, assigning them unambiguous roles: some of them clearly good; others, clearly bad. We do a similar thing with ideas or opinions with which we disagree: refusing to see the validity of competing claims. It is clear to see how such narrow-mindedness and intransigence has caused great harm in our political world; but we don’t often recognize the harm that it does in our overall life together in our families, in our community, and in society as a whole.
Maybe that is why psalms, such as the one we prayed together today (32), call us all to recognize and acknowledge our own faults, our own failures, our own sinfulness. Maybe what they are ultimately doing is calling us to recognize our own humanity, as necessarily limited as it is. And maybe they are calling us also to recognize God’s presence in those with whom we disagree and to accept the fact that in all of us, friend and foe alike, there is at least a bit of good and evil, of truth and falsehood.
That recognition can lead us to come to realize what the father in Jesus’ parable was forced to accept: that he had two sons, that he had somehow lost both of them, and that he needed to go out and actively struggle to heal the divisions that separated them from each other and from him, no matter who had caused the separation to begin with.
St. Paul, in today’s second reading, insists (2 Corinthians 5:19-20) that God was at work in Christ reconciling the world to God’s self, and that God has now handed that same task to us as “ambassadors for Christ.” In a world which is divided in so many ways, we have been commissioned by God to be healers of the gaps that separate people from one another, recognizing God’s presence in all people and striving to promote mutual understanding and mutual acceptance among all people.
As the late Fred Craddock insisted in reflecting on this parable Luke, page 188), “God’s love is both/and, not either/or. The embrace of the younger son did not mean the rejection of the elder; the love of tax collectors and sinners does not at all negate the love of Pharisees and scribes.”
Like the father in Jesus’ story, God reaches out the divine arms to welcome and embrace everyone — even us. And God calls us to do the same.