Texts: Josh 5.9-12; 2 Cor 5.16-21; Lk 15.1-3, 11-32
When he eventually finds himself broke and starving and alone, he decides to go back to his father’s house. He has no right to go back there; he took all his rights with him on his back when he left. Nor does he have any guarantee that his father and brother will accept him back since he disowned and embarrassed them by flouting his father’s authority and leaving as he did. Knowing this, he prepares a speech. We have no idea if he is actually sorry, or if he is just desperate. What we do know is that when he gets home, he recites his memorized speech word-for-word—but his father doesn’t care.
He doesn’t care that his son wasted the wealth that was rightfully his. He doesn’t care that his son disgraced him in front of his community and insulted everything he values. He doesn’t even care that his son is smeared in pig manure and smells like a barn. He races out to meet him, throws his arms around him, and gives his dirty, smelly son a big, wet, sloppy kiss.
This father does not count his son’s trespasses against him. And why not? Because when his son left, he was heartbroken. Jesus says that he saw him “while he was still far off.” How else could have done that but if he were looking for him? I imagine the old man sitting on the roof every day with a pair of binoculars, waiting and hoping to see his son to coming down the road to the house. I imagine him going into town day after day, inquiring of strangers if they have seen his son, offering them money to keep an eye out for him and send him a message if they hear anything. The lavish joy that the father shows upon seeing his son safely returned gives us just the faintest glimpse of the soul-crushing sorrow he felt when he left.
This is the kind of love that God has for us, the kind of love that will go to any length to find us and bring us back from a foreign country, to even cross the boundary between heaven and earth to become human so that we might know that, broke and starving and alone as we are, we are welcome in God’s home, with a robe, a ring and sandals waiting for us. Christ is God’s message of reconciliation to us. He actively seeks out the broken, the lonely, the lost and eats with them; and when the Pharisees and scribes grumble about Jesus’ lack of dignity in welcoming such filthy, immoral people, Jesus comes to them, too, and invites them to come in and join the party.
When Jesus tells us this story, we might see ourselves more often as the younger son, running away from God only to come crawling back, or we might see ourselves as the older brother, dutiful and self-righteous, grumbling about the grace given to those who do not deserve it. But Jesus is inviting us not only to see that the father is like God, but to see ourselves as the father. Jesus invites us to see ourselves as the one suffering from a broken heart until all his children are safe again under one roof; the one abandoning all semblance of dignity to run out and greet filthy, “immoral” people with a hug and a kiss; the one leaving our own party until the ones who are missing will come back inside with us.
To be engaged in the ministry of reconciliation that Paul describes is to live like the father in Jesus’ story. Living like the father opens us up to be hurt by loving broken, imperfect people. Living like the father means when we welcome home the lost, we also give the self-righteous an excuse to be angry. When one brother comes home, the other leaves—we cannot win; living like the father means enduring the pain of a heart that is broken for all our younger sons who have left or our elder sons who refuse to join the party because of the love we have given to the unworthy.
Jesus invites us into this back-breaking, heart-breaking labor of love because the reward is worth it. The joy of having the entire family of God together is so much greater than the joy we might think we can find in some far-off place, or the smug self-satisfaction of pouting in the field. God’s deep desire is to bring all humanity together so that we will experience God’s love for us. Christ came that we might be reconciled to God, but we cannot be daughters and sons of our Father without being sisters and brothers to one another. This is why God has entrusted this message of reconciliation to us.
Our natural inclination when somebody is being hurtful or divisive is to back away: to write them off and leave them to their fate. When our congregation does something we don’t agree with, we leave. When our family members offend us, we keep silent and avoid them at reunions. When it looks like the other guy will win the presidential election, we threaten to move to Canada. But where does that get us? It doesn’t solve the problem, and we become polarized against one another. The family of God becomes more and more fragmented, and there God sits on the roof with the binoculars, waiting and hoping.
Christ comes to begin the work of reconciling us to God. Christ goes to the cross to prove to us that—whatever it is we might think separates us from God—it is taken care of. For our sake, the sinless one became sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. If we think God requires need a sacrifice, he becomes the ultimate sacrifice. He willingly becomes our scapegoat so that our need for violence might be satisfied. If we fear God’s punishment, he takes all the punishment we could ever fear to face. If it’s death that scares us, he becomes like the Passover Lamb, giving his life to protect ours. Then, after all of this, he rises from the dead to show that God’s love is greater and wider than all these things, and he does all of this, "while we were still sinners,” (Rom 5.8) well before we have any hope of deserving it.
It is hard work, this ministry of reconciliation; it is tiring and sorrowful and long. And yet, fed with the body and blood of the very one who sets this task before us, we are strengthened and nourished to continue. The foretaste we receive at this table whets our appetite for the feast to come, when all of God’s family will gather together around one table and share one cup, one loaf, one eternal life.