Today we begin the new church year with the season of Advent. Each Sunday School class has a church calendar hanging in their room—a calendar that shows how the church keeps time. There are many ways we keep time—there are school calendars and soccer calendars and rehearsal calendars. With the church calendar we pay attention to the 52 Sundays of the year, with the first Sunday of the year being Advent. Children know that when the arrow gets to the first purple piece of felt at the top of the circle we are getting close.
These are the words the children hear on the first Sunday of Advent: “The Church learned a long time ago that people need a way to get ready to enter or even come close to a mystery like Christmas. The Church set aside four weeks to get ready. This is such a great Mystery that it takes that long to get ready.” So today we begin to get ready by turning to The Parable of the Prodigal Son and his brother.
The children are also told in their Sunday School time, some of the parables of Jesus. Sonja Stewart, the author of The Worship Center and Following Jesus came up with a brilliant way to share the parables with children. The parables are presented to the children in boxes wrapped in gold colored paper. This is to convey to them that the parables are very precious. The box is opened as if one is unwrapping a gift and the items that help tell the story are removed one by one. Through this experience, the children discover that the kingdom of God comes to us as a gift from God. The kingdom cannot be earned or paid for. It is to be simply received.
In that understanding, I invite us to receive this parable of the Prodigal and His Brother as a gift from God, a gift that can help us move into Advent and give to us wisdom and grace.
In many ways this parable captures the essence of the Gospel—the good news that Jesus came to share. Jesus is describing in this parable the inexhaustible, unlimited motherly and fatherly love of his God and how that love reaches to all God’s children. In this story we see the marvelous intersection of divine love and the lostness of two sons. It’s easy, of course, to detect the lostness of the younger son–his arrogance and greed, his rejection of his father’s love and his desire to flee from home. But there is also a “lostness” in the elder son that really captures my attention. What I see in the elder son is something about our human anthropology that I see in myself.
Upon the younger son’s return, we get a very clear picture of the older son’s struggle–his complete inability to participate in the father’s welcome. This is the moment when all the years of resentment and envy burst open in the elder son. As Henri Nouwen explains in The Return of the Prodigal Son “When confronted by his father’s joy at the return of his younger brother, a dark power erupts in him and boils to the surface. Suddenly, there becomes glaringly visible a resentful, proud, unkind, selfish person, one that had remained deeply hidden, even though it had been growing stronger and more powerful over the years.” This is what resentment looks like.
Nouwen continues “the lostness of the resentful older brother is so hard to reach precisely because it is so closely wedded to the desire to be good and virtuous. But with this desire comes a seriousness, a moralistic intensity that made it increasingly difficult for the older son to feel at home in his Father’s house.”
The elder brother’s resentment grew from the seed of rivalry that exists in all of us. And out from this rivalry and resentment comes his complaint that he has never received what he has deserved. He says to his father, “you never offered me so much as a kid calf for me to celebrate with my friends. But for this son of yours when he comes back you kill the calf.” You throw a big party. Do you see the language used? With the words “this son of yours”, the elder brother distances himself from his brother and from his dad. With this now proclaimed resentment, the elder son becomes the foreigner in his own home and his home becomes a place of darkness for love and compassion are no longer shared. Sins cannot be confessed and forgiveness cannot be received. Indeed it is a dark, dark place.
In our middle school confirmation class, we talk about this seed of rivalry that exists in all of us. I share with the youth this concept from The Forgiving Victim offered by James Alison “we are all inducted into a world in which we are typically in rivalry with each, take revenge upon each other, need to despise some people, and conceive of our security and well-being as something which depends on others being excluded from it.” This is part of our anthropology. And we become “lost” when we are led by rivalry and resentment, which leads to our own pain and suffering and to the suffering of others.
Then in class we examine the 10 commandments of the Civil Rights Movement that people were asked to commit to. Most of the commandments have to do with counteracting this propensity toward rivalry, resentment, and revenge seeking by encouraging people to live from the Spirit of Christ where there is no resentment, no rivalry, and no hatred. Three of the commandments are 1) Meditate daily on the life and teachings of Jesus 2) Remember always that the non-violent movement seeks justice and reconciliation, not victory. 3) Refrain from the violence of fist, tongue or heart.
When I asked the youth if they thought they could follow some or most of the 10 commandments of the movement, one person said, “Absolutely not! There is no way I could follow these and deal with the people I have to deal with.” I appreciated that person’s honesty. In that person’s world and in ours, it is very challenging to live from a place of grace and forgiveness. In fact I would say that operating from a place of competition and rivalry is our basic instinct.
This is why I find so much instruction and value in this story of the Prodigal Son. It captures so clearly how we get “lost” in rivalry and resentment which prevents us from lively freely and creatively. But it doesn’t leave us there–the parable also gives us a solution to our problem.
Enter the Father—Emmanuel With Us–and we are offered a way out.
In the story the father goes out to the elder son, just as he did to the younger and urges him to come in, and says, “My son, you are with me always, and all I have is yours.” The affectionate approach by the Father becomes even clearer in the words that follow. Nouwen shares that “The harsh and bitter reproaches of the son are not met with words of judgment. There is no recrimination or accusation. The father does not defend himself or even comment on the elder son’s behavior. The father moves directly beyond all evaluations to stress his intimate relationship with his son when he says, ‘You are with me always…and all I have is yours.” The Father could not be clearer in his unlimited love for his elder son.
Now we have no idea if the elder son found his way back home—into the forgiving and generous love of the father. The incompletion of the story is very intentional—for it communicates loud and clear that the Father’s love is not dependent upon how the elder son responds (Henri Nouwen). The Father’s love is only dependent on himself—this is his true character.
And this, my friends, is the picture of God Jesus is trying to communicate with this parable. What we begin to understand in this parable is that long before we knew it, the divine love has always existed as the pulse of the universe, reaching out to us as gift, reaching out to us as forgiveness and mercy. In addition, this parable challenges us to rethink our idea of Christian morality—how we live as Christians. What the parable is teaching us is that Christian morality—is not so much what we do, but that we perceive what has been given to us—the gift of God’s all forgiving love. This is the center, this is the essence of the nature of God. (James Alison)
I believe that the name Emmanuel, God With Us, can be understood as Forgiveness—With—Us. And when we live in this “Forgiveness—With—Us” place, this sacred home of God, we experience a place where there is no rivalry, no revenge seeking, but a place of non-comparing love that says to us “all that I have is yours”. In this sacred place, we experience healing that leads to a better way of functioning in our relationships and in our world.
In many ancient traditions, people believe that when one person experiences healing, they heal seven generations back and seven generations forward. Hence, healing is never just about the individual, as Mary Earle says in this month’s Academy Podcast, it’s about the whole community, it’s about everybody. (Healing, Death, and Dying in this World)
Could it really be true that when we take a step into the Father and Mother’s arms of forgiveness and grace, we are reoriented away from rivalry and resentment? And could it also be true that when we are healed from the grip of rivalry and resentment through the power of forgiveness, this healing reaches back 7 generations and reaches forward 7 generations? Who can imagine such a thing?
Emmanuel…Forgiveness—With—Us. The gift we are invited to open and receive. Amen.