The Measure of a Father’s Love
2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Friends, may grace and peace be yours in abundance in the knowledge of God and Christ Jesus our Lord.
There a lot of people who have taken advantage of DNA testing. Television commercials show surprised people when they discover a branch of ethnicity they didn’t know existed in their heritage.
Part of unwinding this long double helix defining us includes common strands of DNA with other people. As more and more people have their DNA tested, we’re beginning to see more stories of people connected with lost relatives. They meet the brother they never knew they had. Or DNA leads them to their biological mother.
Their reunions are so touching. They embrace; there are tears of joy. But always there is a story! There’s a story of how the separation occurred in the first place. Something happened to create that separation. Digging it up can create a pain of its own as painful memories are brought to the surface. Or perhaps it uncovers a deep secret from the past.
Today we hear a story of family separation and reunion. The emotions are all over the place – great joy and fuming rage. It’s not a real story, it’s a parable. But the characters are so vivid and relatable that they are like real in our minds.
Jesus told the story to a group of miffed Pharisees. The Pharisees were a movement of lay men who had dedicated their lives to walking a holy pathway. They spurned sin and earnestly resolved to align their thoughts and actions with godly living.
They’d been watching Jesus. Of any group, Jesus’ ministry most closely resembled that of the Pharisaic movement. But when they saw Jesus associating with people like tax collectors, people they clearly saw as living in active sin, they could not hold their peace. They grumbled.
Now, that word in the Greek for their grumbling is an imperfect verb. It implies that they’re not just grumbling. They’re grumbling and grumbling and grumbling. They just can’t let go of it! It’s a continual source of complaint. Every time Jesus’ name comes up, there it is again! “THAT MAN eats with SINNERS!”
Something is grievously out of whack according to their understanding of righteousness. Jesus should spurn these people, not welcome them! Some of their stain will tarnish Jesus. And his fellowship with them gives the impression that they’re okay, and they’re NOT okay.
So Jesus tells them this story. It’s a caring, pastoral response to their ire. He wants to tell them about the true measure of love’s scope. He begins: “There was a man who had two sons.”
He goes on to tell the story so familiar to us. The younger son approaches his father one day. He requests to receive his inheritance now. He doesn’t want to wait until his father dies. It’s really quite rude. It’s like he’s saying, “You’re dead to me, Dad.”
And it’s like watching a train wreck in slow motion. You know this kid is going to blow through the money! “Don’t do it!” we yell at the father. But he does do it. We can imagine that there might need to be some liquidation of the greater estate to come up with the funds for Junior. It would have taken some time. And surely, Dad had people advising him against this end, including his older son.
We can read between the lines of the story. Older son, Chief, is left at home. Now he’s the only son. And he watches his dad’s grief. He witnesses first hand how his father suffers over the loss of this self-absorbed younger son. Chief cringes when people ask his father, “So, how many sons do you have?” How Dad struggles! Does he say “only one,” or does he go into the long, painful explanation, “Well, I used to have two…”
And now Chief now pulls double duty. There’s only one son when there used to be two. All of the responsibility, all of the chores fall on his shoulders. He knows how his father’s heart broke when Junior left. He’s determined not to let his father down. He’s fierce in his loyalty.
When Chief thinks of his younger brother, his heart boils with molten rage. Good riddance! Junior deserves what he’s got coming. His brother is dead to him.
Meanwhile, Junior has blown through all his money. Like a dog who followed his nose and got lost in the next county, Junior is far, far from home. He’s penniless and homeless. Desperate for means, he finds work for a pig farmer. A PIG farmer! This Jewish boy is feeding pigs!
Jesus reaches the turning point of the story. He says that the son “came to himself.” He came to himself. It’s the moment when the bubble burst and at last he could see clearly. In 12-step terms, he hit the bottom. The moment hit him as he was throwing slop to the pigs.
The biblical word for repentance is “metanoia.” It means “to turn around.” It catches that fundamental moment when our perspective changes. We stop going in the direction we were headed. We stop.
Junior turns his head towards home. He returns, knowing things will never be like they were before. He’ll no longer be a son. He died as son. He knows that. But he’ll be content as a servant.
But as Junior crests the hill towards home and walks the familiar pathway, his father espies him from afar. The father knows that gait, that bob of the head. Dad runs to meet his returning son.
This son has blown it. He has squandered everything. In a matter of months, he lost a significant portion of the estate his father had so carefully managed and grown. Even worse, this son had carelessly shrugged aside all allegiance and human caring for his father and family. And now he comes crawling back.
But the father regards him in the only way he knows how, as a father. The lost estate means nothing. The sleepless nights of worry vanished away. He thought his son was dead. But he was alive! There is no judgement. There is no spurning. There is only joy.
Story over? No, this father had two sons. The older son comes home after a day’s labor in the fields. He hears the music. He smells the steaks grilling. What’s going on? He asks a servant what’s up. And the answer he receives causes him to see red. All his resentments and hatred for his brother boil over in a toxic rage.
How could his father do this!! After Junior had treated him with utter disregard! After he’d wasted his father’s estate on wicked living! He wasn’t sure who he was madder at, his brother or his father. Chief refuses to enter the festivities. He stays outside.
There’s more than one way to be lost. The younger son had been lost in selfishness, but the older son was no less lost. He was lost in anger, lost in a self-isolating form of hell. He was lost in bitterness and negativity. He was in over his head, he was drowning in hatred.
Chief didn’t understand the economy of a father’s love. But that same peculiar economy of love now comes to rescue him, too. It comse to be a balm to his wounded soul, to restore him to himself. Junior had come to himself. Could Chief come to himself, too? Could he return from the land of rage and hatred? Could he find his way home into his father’s love?
Jesus tells the Pharisees the story of a man who had two sons. They had grumbled and grumbled for so long it had become a way of life. Their hearts had calcified. As Jesus tells them this story, they likely saw themselves reflected in the resentment of the older brother.
The Pharisees were strong on faith, but weak in love. To quote St. Paul, “If I have faith so as to move mountains but have not love, I am nothing.” They were so caught up in an economy of right and wrong that they had lost sight of the central element of God’s character, love.
In a very caring and pastoral manner, Jesus was trying to tell them about a different economy. It wasn’t their economy founded on keeping score. It didn’t meticulously keep track of each and every wrong. It was an economy based on love. It was the measure of a father’s love, that of our Heavenly Father.
Jesus himself was the measure of that love. Here was divine love, standing right in front of them. The world would come to see the full extent of that love in Jesus’ crucifixion. It’s a love that reestablishes our communion with God. Jesus came to seek out a lost humanity. He forged a new way to our heavenly home. And along that way, he has reconnected us with each other.
In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul invites all of us into a ministry of reconciliation. He lifts up our new reality in Christ. “From now on,” he begins. Something has utterly shifted. There is a before and an after. “From now on we regard no one from a human point of view.” Christ’s reconciling actions have changed us. We have died in Christ and been raised through him into new life. And so has our brother.
So what does this ministry of reconciliation mean? What does it look like? Christ now calls us to join him in being reconciled to one another. Like the loving father in the parable, he has come outside to meet us. He meets us from afar, on the road of our regrets. He comes to us in our isolation, while we stomp and fume in anger. He comes and encourages us to join the great feast. When we bear grudges, he invites us to regard no one from a human point of view. When we are possessed by hatred, he reminds us that in him, everything old has passed away. He calls us to live in that newness.
There’s an old rabbinic tale. Very early one morning, a certain rabbi gathered his students together. The sun was still down, so it was quite dark. Just a hint of grey was emerging in the eastern sky. He asked his pupils a question. “How can you tell when the night has ended and the day has begun?”
One student attempted an answer, “Is it when you see an animal and you can tell if it’s a sheep or a goat?”
“No, that’s not it,” answered the rabbi.
A second student tried, “Is it when you see a tree in the distance and you can tell whether it’s a fig tree or a sycamore?”
Again the rabbi answered: “No, that’s not it, either.”
A few more attempts were made, but no one was able to answer the rabbi’s question. Finally, someone said, “Rabbi, tell us. How do you tell when night has ended?”
The rabbi replied, “It’s when you look at the face of any man or woman and you can recognize them as your brother or sister. If you cannot do this, then, no matter what time it is, it will always be night.”
Jesus Christ is the light of the world. In the light of his new creation, may we recognize our brothers and sisters in those we encounter