What and to Whom?

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 (Psalm 32, 2 Corinthians 5:16-21)

It is my custom each week, to pour over several academic publications in search of sermon material. Perhaps a thought about particular Greek or Hebrew word. An illustration that resonates. A common misperception that may be debunked. And, in the course of living with – and praying over – the text itself, ideas emerge that can be shared with this community, in this place, at this time. That’s what lies behind the art of preaching. This week, I must confess that I have been captured by the writing of two particular academics, and it’s their concepts that I now share with you in this reflection upon the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32). From Margaret Aymer:

Despite the commonly-held perception of God as the father of the prodigal son, might a deeper reading of the text not reveal the father to be Jesus? After all, it is Jesus who welcomes in the sinners and tax collectors, who forgives the fallen, eats with the despised, heals the broken. It is Jesus who scandalizes the Pharisees and the Scribes; as it is the father who scandalizes the older son, the family and the community by  welcoming back the son who “was dead and has come to life; he was lost and     has been found” (vs. 32).

From Mark Allen Powell:

Powell shared this parable with students in the United States, Russia, and Tanzania. He asked the same question of each: what caused the younger son’s ultimate downfall? In Russia – where they remember the starvation caused by the German invasion in the Second World War, and by Stalin’s polices in the 1930s – the students focused on the famine described in verse 14. Had it not been for that, they reasoned, he’d have gotten through somehow. In Tanzania, where the social fabric of society stressed kin and tribe and village (community), they focused on verse 16, “No one gave him anything.” If someone had only helped him out, he’d have made it through. In the United States, the students quickly opined that the son’s downfall was the result of squandering his inheritance (vs. 13-14) – a cardinal sin in western culture. It is truly amazing how varied are the voices in which Scripture speaks to us. (Scripture is polyphonic.)

It seems to me that these observations beg the following questions… Love, forgiveness and reconciliation can be righteous and scandalous at one and the same time. Righteous, because they are pleasing to God: scandalous, because the world looks upon them through different eyes. As Paul would put it:

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 (2 Corinthians 5:16-20).

Perversely, if our forgiveness scandalizes others (or ourselves!) we may well be on the right track. What are we willing to risk for the sake of reconciliation? The anger of an older son or community? Looking foolish to those whose opinions – and respect – we value? Having our Democratic Party or Republican Party membership revoked? Becoming the target of hostile stares, and whispered insults?   With whom shall we be reconciled? The stranger at the door/gate/border? The one who is so different from us in color or creed? The one who made every mistake it’s possible to make and thereby “did it to themselves” (like the younger son)?

What does this all-too familiar parable say to us here today, at St. Armands Key? The text speaks to us in varied voices: it may not say today what it did yesterday, or the last time it came up in the lectionary. As Luther pointed out, the Bible is a womb which constantly births new life. What new life comes to you through Jesus’’ radical call to reconciliation?