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: 2 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
The fifteenth chapter of the gospel according to Luke is comprised of three of the best-known parables in the gospels. Well, at least we think we know them, even though we tend to get several things wrong, including the titles we give them. They are often called the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Prodigal Son. In reality, they are about a sheep that was found, a coin that was found, and two sons who were found. But we’re certainly not alone in missing what these stories would have meant to Jesus’ original audiences.
St. Luke places this trio in a context in which their message is supposedly about repentance and forgiveness. But that just doesn’t work. Did the one sheep out of one hundred that wandered off actually repent and decide to be found? How about the one coin out of ten: did the coin repent and decide to get itself found? And even the so-called prodigal, or irresponsibly wasteful, son – the story never says that he actually repented. All that the gospel says is that “he came to himself.” Maybe this young man, who seems to have been spoiled all his life, found himself starving and desperate; and it suddenly dawned on him that, if he played his cards right, he could manipulate his dear old dad to take him back and bail him out, just as he always had done.
But if Luke’s use of these three stories would not have been heard by their original hearers as being about repentance and forgiveness, what would have been the message that would have come across to Jesus’ first audiences and the gospel’s first audiences? Focusing just on the parable that we heard today, we can easily identify the key figure right in its opening words: “There was a man who had two sons.” The central figure is the man, the father. He has two sons; and, in different ways, he loses both of them. By the end of the story, he is trying to reconcile with both of them and trying, as best he can, to reconcile them with each other. We never find out how well he succeeds.
Interpreters through the ages have tried to take this and other parables and turn them into analogies: “this character represents God; this one, a repentant sinner,” and so on. But parables are not analogies. They intentionally resist easy, clear-cut interpretations and applications. They tease our imaginations. In the case of this particular story, we can identify in different ways with each of the three characters, imagining ourselves in their situations.
Like the younger son, we sometimes make a real mess of our lives and, in doing so, make a mess of other people’s lives as well. Like the elder son, we sometimes look at ourselves as having worked hard and followed the rules; and, at least at times, tend to look down on those who haven’t and who are suffering the consequences; and we really don’t like it very much when somebody decides to give them a break. Like the father, we sometimes think we have identified the problem – we have lost the irresponsible, younger son – only to be oblivious of the fact that, in a different way, we have lost the elder son as well. Clearly, this family is deeply affected by division and alienation.
So who suffered loss in this story? Whose fault is the division within the family? Who is in need of forgiveness? Who is in need of forgiving the others? We can all speculate on what happened next; but, speculation is all it is. By the end of the parable, none of the three has expressed sorrow at hurting the others, and none of the three has expressed forgiveness. Maybe that will come later. Maybe it won’t.
But that doesn’t mean that we are at an impasse, that there cannot be some healing and reconciliation here. Like the man in the story of the found sheep and like the woman in the story of the found coin, the father in this narrative calls everyone to rejoice and celebrate. Full healing and reconciliation will probably take a long time, if it ever comes; but that doesn’t mean that we should not be celebrating now the beginning of that work: the return of the son who had gone away.
In one way or another, all three characters are at fault for the division. And all three characters need to do their parts in beginning the healing process.
What about us? What divisions do we recognize within our families, within our churches, within our society? And, like the father who failed to notice that he had lost his elder son, which divisions have we failed to notice? And what can we do to begin to heal those divisions?
There are obviously serious divisions within our society. And, just as obviously, we can’t fix them all. But like the father in Jesus’ parable, we can start. We can start by refusing to reinforce stereotypes about people of other races or about people who come as immigrants or refugees from other countries. We can start by not spreading lies and bigoted accusations and generalizations against Muslims and against Jews and against people of other world religions. We can start by recognizing the ways that we contribute to divisions within our society as well as ways that others do so. And when we do, we can then begin the work of reconciliation. We can’t wait for somebody else to do it. That means that we will probably need to take the first steps. And that means that we might well need to go far beyond half-way.
A ninth-century Jewish writing (Peskita Rabbati 184b-185a) tells this story: There was a king who “had a son who had gone astray from his father on a journey of a hundred days. [The son’s] friends said to him, ‘Return to your father.’ He said, ‘I cannot.’ Then his father sent to say, ‘Return as far as you can, and I will come the rest of the way to you.”
That is what God, in Jesus, has done for us: calling us to return to God as far as we are able, as little as that might be. Then God came all the rest of the way to us. As St. Paul puts it in today’s second reading (2 Corinthians 5:16-21), God in Christ came to find us and to reconcile us to God’s self. And then, God entrusted to us that same ministry of reconciliation, expecting us to do the same for others, expecting us to take the first steps, expecting us to go far more than just half-way, expecting us to begin the holy work of reconciliation.