In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Some people know a lot about God. But knowing about God is ultimately useless if I don’t KNOW God. Knowing God means knowing the one who loves me more than I can possibly imagine. In the Bible, true knowledge is always mixed up with true love. So Paul can say: “if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am NOTHING,” (1 Corinthians 13.2).
The question is: “Do I really KNOW God?” What is God like, personally? What are his interests? How does he think? What does he think about ME? One of the great paradoxes of really coming to know God, is that we find ourselves really coming to know others for the first time, and really coming to know OURSELVES for the first time – mysteriously, through the true knowledge of God.
In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus shows us God’s reaction to the human condition, and to our own personal conditions, the situation of our lives, the shape of our lives. In this parable lies the answer to the question: What is God’s attitude toward me? What does he really think about me? And therefore, how is he likely to react to the shape I’m in?
If we want to learn anything about God, we will have to learn it from Jesus. Jesus said, “no one knows the Father except the Son and any one to whom the Son chooses to reveal him,” (Matthew 11.27). You will remember when Philip said to Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father, and we shall be satisfied,” and Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and yet you do not know me…? He who has seen me has seen the Father…” (John 14.8-9).
This parable of the Prodigal Son, which you have probably heard many times, gives us an insight into the personality of God the Father.
“There was a man who had two sons; and the younger of them said to his father, `Father, give me the share of property that falls to me.’ And he divided his living between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took his journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in loose living. And when he had spent everything, a great famine arose in that country, and he began to be in want. So he went and joined himself to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would gladly have fed on the pods that the swine ate; and no one gave him anything.”
There is a human tendency to be self-centered. Each of us has done exactly what the younger son did, many times and in many different ways. Each of us has squandered the things and the relationships that God has given us, or we have taken them for granted; we have insisted on doing things our own way.
But another of the paradoxes of human life is that the more self-centered we are, the more miserable we become. By focusing on ourselves, we cut ourselves off from others, and not least from the God who loves us. We wind up isolated, miserable, and alone. In C.S. Lewis’ book “The Great Divorce,” he depicts hell as a city where this self-absorption has free rein, and everyone winds up moving further and further away from each another, until they wind up in total isolation, alone in the dark with their selfish little egos, pacing and muttering and miserable.
In the parable, the younger son finds himself living in a land ravaged by famine, with no property of his own, no money, living with pigs, and wanting to eat their food. It doesn’t even say that he DID eat their food – it says he would “gladly” have fed on the pods that the pigs ate, but that no one gave him anything. His self-centeredness has left him just about as miserable as he can be. That’s what self-centeredness does. It isolates us from one another; it cuts us off not just from wholesome relationships that can lift us and sustain us; but it alienates us from our own humanity; it reduces us to the level of animals.
Fortunately the story does not end there.
“But when [the younger son] came to himself he said, `How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise 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 as one of your hired servants.”‘ And he arose and came to his father. But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.”
God has made us free, because love is only possible within the context of freedom. Microwaves and robots are incapable of love – because they do only what they are programmed to do. We have been created by God with freedom, and God respects that freedom. And so sometimes he will allow us to make choices that lead to our own misery; he will allow us to indulge our pride and greed and lust and avarice. While he never stops loving us, and while he never loves us any less, God will allow us to fall.
The parable says that the younger son “came to himself.” Our job is to be honest about our situation, to admit our misery and the choices that have led us to it. This is hard. It can be one of the hardest things in human life. Because it requires the courage to be honest, and because it requires humility. It means that we have to drop all of our pretenses – stop pretending like we are something we are not.
But note also that there is no point in coming to your senses, humbly admitting that you are living in a pig pen, and then just staying there and wallowing in it. That’s no good either. Once we have come to our senses, once we have had the courage to be honest with ourselves, it is time to get up and go, just as the younger son does. Jesus said, “he arose and came to his father.” And you can imagine what that must have been like. All kinds of things must have gone through his mind about what his father would say and how he would react. He might not have realized the depth of his father’s love for him.
And that too can be true for us. A crucial thing to remember about admitting our sins is that we are admitting them IN ORDER TO BE FORGIVEN, not so that God can say: “Aha! Just as I suspected, you miserable worm. Now you shall be smitten!” No. We are honest with ourselves and with God BECAUSE GOD IS MERCIFUL. He is all mercy, all love, all the time. We cannot begin to imagine the depths of God’s mercy. And he already knows us better than we know ourselves. He knows our condition. He knows our bad decisions. He knows the depths of misery into which we take ourselves. But he respects our freedom, because that is the only way a real relationship of love can become possible. And he is only waiting for us to return to him.
And look what happens: the parable says, “but while [the son] WAS YET AT A DISTANCE, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.” When we have come to our senses and have had the courage to be honest about our situation, THE VERY MOMENT we decide to return to the father’s house, he comes to meet us and to take us back – not just into his home, but into his arms.
“And 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 servants, `Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to make merry.”
Notice that the Father is not even really interested in the son’s unworthiness. All the father knows, as it were, is that he loves his son. He had been waiting for him to return because he loves him. And now here he is: “For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.”
God’s forgiveness is total. From God’s point of view, our sin is forgotten and we are restored to full membership in his family and his household. The father does not entertain for a moment the son’s idea that he be treated as one of the hired servants. The father has not been longing for another servant; he has been longing for the return of his son.
As difficult as it may be for us to believe – and we can imagine the son’s surprise at his father’s reaction – but God REJOICES in our return. The parable says that the whole household “began to make merry.” In another place, Jesus says, “I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents,” (Luke 15.10). The response of heaven to our repentance is JOY.
“Now his elder son was in the field; and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what this meant. And he said to him, `Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has received him safe and sound.’ But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, `Lo, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command; yet you never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your living with harlots, you killed for him the fatted calf!’”
In contrast with the joyful mercy of God, Jesus shows us the standard human reaction to sinners: the “religious” reaction. The elder son is a portrait of what we think of as “good” people. The elder son reacts the way “good people” sometimes react to sinners: with indignation. He refuses to go into the feast; he refuses to forgive; he holds a grudge against his brother, whom he will not even call his “brother.” He calls him, “this son of yours.” And it becomes clear that the elder son’s devotion to his father was motivated at least partly by self-centeredness – the very root cause of the mess his younger brother got himself into! “You never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends!”
One of the things we learn from Jesus – and more than anywhere else, from the PERSON of Jesus – is that God’s ways are not our ways. It may be surprising to hear it put this way, but God has absolutely no interest in what is FAIR – he has no interest in giving us what we deserve, or in respecting our rights. God’s mercy, his love, his JOY, all burst the seams and overflow the boundaries of reciprocity and “fairness” and what we think of as “justice,” of what we deserve. And that is the one thing we can count on: a Father who loves us boundlessly, who longs for us to return to him, and who will hold us joyfully in his arms when we do.
“And [the Father] said to [the elder son], `Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’”
Our Father is waiting for the first sign from us that we want to return, that we want to be fully members of his household and his family. He wants to help us to return to him. He comes to meet us. He wants to remove from us the burden of our mistakes, our bad choices, our misery, our SIN. And he wants us to share in an eternal celebration of joy and peace. In the book of Revelation, St. John the Divine says, “[an] angel said to me, ‘Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.’ And he said to me, ‘These are true words of God,’” (Rev. 19.9).
Every one of us is invited to the marriage supper of the lamb, to the eternal celebration of joy and peace, in the communion of a Father who loves us boundlessly and endlessly and NO MATTER WHAT. All we have to do is to be willing to return to him, to say with the younger son, “I will arise and go to my Father.”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.