Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
The Rev. Peter Faass, Rector
Do any of you know people who are perpetually looking for something to be aggrieved about? You know the type: the person who, regardless of how good or joyful something is, will always, always find something is wrong with it, and then be affronted. I call these folks the “champagne-de-bubblers”: people who get a lovely flute of French champagne and commence to take a stir rod and vigorously mix it, removing all the glorious effervescence. Leaving it flat and lifeless.
The older son in this parable of the two sons and the father, is definitely a “champagne-de-bubbler.” He is aggrieved and deeply affronted by how his father welcomes his prodigal son home. He expects dad to punish and even disown his younger son, casting him back into the wilderness of famine and destitution, but instead dad gives him a hoe-down and beef barbeque, welcoming the younger son back with great joy.
Okay, I get it. This parable rubs you the wrong way. It gets your hackles up. It’s up there with that dissonant parable of the workers in the field, who regardless of how many hours they have labored under the hot sun, doing back-breaking work, all get paid the same wage by the field owner. It’s not fair, it’s not just, we think. Merit counts, and the longer we work the more we should be compensated.
I know many of us will hear this parable of the reprobate younger son and think the same thing: Merit counts and of course the older son is aggrieved because he has worked hard, is obedient, and loyal to his father, and then he – in his mind’s eye - gets nothing. Bubkes, as they say in the Yiddish. In the meantime, the greedy, debauched, wasteful, and disloyal younger son, who has frittered away a large portion of the family patrimony, has the chutzpah to come back home, hat-in-hand, looking for food and shelter.
The older son has every right, we think, to be aggrieved and angry with his father. We would feel the very same way, if faced with a similar situation. And we would be just and right to do so.
Except this parable isn’t about what we believe is right and wrong. It is not about our retributive concept of justice.
This parable – as are all the parables of Jesus - is about relationships. It is about how will we treat another person who has behaved badly? Will we forgive as we have been forgiven? Will we love as we have been loved?
Or will we default to the ways of the world and bear grudges, seek vengeance, be aggrieved, shunning or disowning people we see as being in the wrong, and in the process make them an exile, putting them out of the family, out of the community?
All too often in situations where we see someone behaving contrary to what we understand as being right and just, we demand our rights. Because, well, we have rights! And we place those rights, (and their attendant feelings) over and above our relationship with others. We see our rights as being first and foremost.
Yet is this true for God? Let’s look more closely at this story.
The younger son has asked for his relationships to be healed. He knows he has broken his relationships with his father and family by his disgraceful behavior. He has violated all that was sacred in family and community bonds. He knows this, and so does not even ask to be restored to filial privileges, to have his rights as a blood heir recognized. What he says is, "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."
He didn’t ask for forgiveness, because even he believes his actions as being beyond it. He merely confessed. He’s just looking for enough to eat so he doesn’t starve. He’s not seeking grace. Yet to his surprise, he receives it. Abundantly.
And the father? Well, before he even hears the younger son’s confession, he jumps up and runs toward him.
“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.” Dad didn’t even have to hear a word uttered. It is enough to see his son who had broken relationship with him, and all that was valuable to the family, return home. The father’s response is more than the son could ever had dreamed of. Because right relationship is paramount in God’s family.
Now look at the older son. He feels that the relationship between the younger son and the family have be irreparably damaged. That based on his values of right and wrong, the younger son is beyond redemption. He represents all of us who think this way as well. We who live by human precepts of justice and merit, and place our pride, fueled by our rectitude, over and above restoring relationship, healing divisions, and offering grace. The parable shows that those who live by these standards can never know the joy of grace. They can’t hoe-down and party, enjoying great barbeque, when others receive the grace we would deny them.
You know, when you have siblings, you cannot be a daughter or a son, without being a sister or a brother, as well.
Several years ago, my sister chose to become estranged from me. I’m not sure of the exact reasons because she refused to speak with me, despite my imploring her to do so, repeatedly. She was going through her second divorce at the time and I was coming into a good relationship, which may have been a partial reason for her distancing. But I’m not really sure, and all I can do is speculate. I suspect the reasons are complex – at least for her -and therefore difficult to articulate. Our distance has grown over the years. Initially there was some contact, with greeting cards exchanged at holidays and birthdays. And then those just stopped when a birthday card from me to her came back marked as undeliverable. Since then I have learned – thank you, Google – that she lives in Florida. From what I can glean it’s not a great life she is living. Although I am very mindful that’s my subjective older brother viewpoint. It may not be hers.
We are one of two siblings and the only remaining living members of our family. Because of this, the loss of the relationship seems enormous. We have no other family. We are it and we are what we’ve got. And so the broken relationship is not pretty, at least for me. In fact, it’ s often painful. I think about my sister every day. And my emotions about the estrangement run the gamut. I am frequently disappointed and sad. Sometimes I feel aggrieved, as if a great injustice has been visited on me. At other times, especially at holidays and celebrations, I feel lonely. And occasionally the breach induces anger and resentment within me. Look at all we’re missing, I think. Life’s runway is short and getting shorter. How painful would our estrangement be to our deceased mother.
I share this personal experience with you because I know many – maybe all – of us have similar circumstances in our lives; where we are estranged, for whatever reason, from someone who we once held close. Who we had bonds of relationship with. And then circumstances occurred where something was done to betray that relationship. It could be with a sibling, a parent, a formerly beloved friend, whomever.
And the temptation in these situations to respond by being the older brother in the parable - to feel aggrieved and angry and resentful – is powerful. It is a temptation to reciprocate the separation and to tell ourselves, just wait until I have a chance to get even. Just wait until she comes to her senses and calls and comes to visit and I have an opportunity to bring my human understanding of what is right and wrong, my values of what justice is, to bear upon her.
It’s mighty tempting, and of course as a person of faith, I know it’s wrong. Because I have a sister and I need to be her brother, if the opportunity presents itself, to be back in right relationship with her.
So, my prayer is that if she stops ignoring and rejecting me I will be the father in the parable. That I will have the grace to offer grace if she does come home, and that I will not even wait to hear what she has to say to me to give her that grace because love requires no confession or restitution. I pray I be filled with compassion and run out as fast as my legs can carry me to embrace and kiss her. And then I will make a reservation at Fire or L’Albatros and order up champagne and a great feast to celebrate, because at this juncture of my journey I know the relationship is everything.
And I pray that the older brother, always lurking inside of me, will join in the celebration and not stay outside pouting and feeling wronged. Because to do so is to cast myself into the outer darkness.
And I pray the same for you all in your broken relationships, as well. That you find the will within you the desire to offer grace and not be aggrieved if the opportunity presents itself that you can be reconciled. That you be compassionate and not spiteful. That you enter the party and eat and dance your butt off.
When the opportunity presents itself to heal our broken relationships may our response be to emulate the father’s joy, because that is the joy of heaven. It is the joy of the lost come home, and there is nothing sweeter to God, and hopefully to us.
The Reverend Peter Faass
The Reverend Peter Faass was born in Delft, Netherlands. He is a graduate of the General Theological Seminary in New York City and has been at Christ Church since 2006.