There once was a man who had two sons. The father loved his sons dearly, but by the end of this story, you begin to wonder why the father keeps letting his kids get away with such behavior.
In the beginning of the story, the younger son tells his Dad to drop dead and give him his inheritance
The Dad obliges his son, even though what his son asked of him results in extreme shame for him and the family.
The son runs away and spends all the money on…well, whatever it was, it wasn’t anything about which he would write home.
While this son is squandering his wealth, the older son remains at home, obedient to his Dad’s every word and an all around good kid.
The “bad” son finally comes to his senses after almost starving to death, and as he literally turns away to go home, he concocts a plan: If I humble myself and ask only to be a servant, my Dad will let me come home.
This Dad, whose son dishonored him, watches for him day after day, and when he finally sees his son approaching, he dishonors himself again: he runs to greet his filthy, disgraced child, clothes him like a prince instead of a servant, and throws a celebration instead of giving a lecture.
The “good” son, who obediently worked out in the field while this all transpired, finds out that his nasty little brother has returned home…and he throws one righteous hissy fit when he discovers how their Dad greeted the twerp with a party.
You can’t tell me if you were the older son, you wouldn’t be pissed off about this.
And yet, with which son do most people choose to identify?
I personally like to identify with the younger son. I’m a kid with an easily guilted conscience, so I always assumed that when Jesus told stories about people who ran away, I was supposed to identify as that person. For a long time, this image still resonated with me. Sometimes I like to think it especially impacted me because of the scene where the Dad runs to greet his long-lost son, something I envisioned happening between me and my absent Dad, but in a much different context.
Then my professor gave me and my New Testament class this text to read for an assignment, and she told us to read it as if it were the first time. When you’ve grown up in church and heard this story multiple times, the task is much easier said than done. Even though I was supposed to approach the text with new eyes, a part of me still assumed I’d identify with the wayward, younger son, because I figured that was still the whole point of the story.
This time, though, I felt in my gut what my professor hoped we would all eventually feel: the fierce, righteous anger of the older son.
It doesn’t help that the professor assigned this text as I mourned with much of the Christian community when World Vision revoked their earlier revision to employ married same-sex peoples. I mourned because of the impact the culture wars had on my LGBTQ friends and the poor and needy people around the world.
When I read the story of the two sons with these wounds still fresh in the Church, I felt the older son’s anger. If this is a story about how God has grace for every single person, no matter what they’ve done or how badly they’ve screwed up, then this is a story in which God has just as much grace for me as he does for all of those people who threatened to and actually did withdraw support from their sponsored children if World Vision didn’t revoke their revision.
I’m going to be honest here: this grace pisses me off.
In class we talked about how this story was probably written to a community struggling with the full inclusion of “less righteous” Jews in the post-Temple days. This was a big issue for the community, something that built barriers instead of bridges and threatened to destroy the group. In the midst of this tension and conflict, Luke includes this very beautiful, very controversial story. In this story, the Dad keeps heaping shame upon himself to bring his kids to their senses and seat them at the same table. This Dad’s love is greater than any shame that anyone can throw at him.
I don’t get it. I really don’t understand this grace. I don’t know if it’s because I haven’t accepted it for myself and still assume that God only accepts me based on being a “good kid.” I don’t know if it’s because I’m a very judgmental person and assume that anyone who disagrees with me is wrong. I don’t know if it’s because I’m that insecure.
I honestly don’t know how to go forward with this image, because this God is a lot more gracious than I think I’ll ever be.
How do you keep going back to people who have shamed you, who have dishonored your name beyond any possible means of repair, who have broken your heart and stomped on the pieces?
How does God continue to call the feminist and the patriarch, the former slave and the former slave owner, the abuse victim and the abuser, the LGBTQ community and the conservative evangelicals, the oppressed and the oppressor to the same table? How does God continue to love us all and dream of nothing more than gathering her children under her wings?
I don’t know how God does it, but for some reason, he keeps leaving his high seat at the table and walking out to plead with us to join in the celebration. He continues to risk dishonor to remind us to celebrate and rejoice, “because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”
Every day, God calls every single one of us to the Table. This is offensive, controversial, messy, and tension-filled Love, and this is the reality that God dreams for Creation. God came to Earth as Emmanuel, which means “God with us.” He didn’t come to the Earth as “God with just us Christians,” or “with just us Americans,” or “with just those victims,” or “with just those in power and privilege.”
No. God comes to ALL of us. Now how in the world are we supposed to live this?