This Week's Focus: The Beloved
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them." So he told them this parable: "There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.' So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, 'How many of my father's hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up 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 like one of your hired hands."' So he set off and went to his father. 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. Then 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 slaves, 'Quickly, bring out a robe--the best one--and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!' And they began to celebrate.” Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, 'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.' Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, 'Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!' Then the father said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.'"
Luke 15: 1-3, 11b-32
Long before he was a loser, the Prodigal son was a user. He played cruelly on his father’s affection to bend the rules, to jump the line, to claim a portion of the family fortune and then to promptly blow it on a binge. He starts out in a righteous home and ends up in a pig sty, by way of the flesh pots. Good riddance to bad rubbish. Serves him right. At least that’s the lesson we would expect from a classic morality tale. That’s the way Aesop would have told the story. But not Jesus.
Because whether he was using or losing, only one thing about the Prodigal remained constant. He was The Beloved. He was born and raised in love. He abused it and strayed from it. He squandered it and returned broken and sorrowful; begging at best for some miserable scrap of mercy. But that’s not what he found. He walked right back into unbounded love… not a grudging acceptance or a negotiated pardon, not even tough love with lots of strings attached. His father ran wildly to meet him, to embrace him, to rejoice in him, to love him.
In these few familiar lines in Luke, Jesus explains the nature of God and our relationship to him. God is the wellspring of love. And we are his beloved. He loves each one of us in our falls and our resurrections. He loves us in the brothel or in the pig sty. He rejoices when we turn to him whether in exaltation or in desperation. How many times have we acted out this story in our own lives… if not on this dramatic a scale, then repeatedly in squalid microcosm? How many times in so many petty ways have we turned from God only to come slinking back broken and discouraged? In the tale of the Prodigal, Jesus guarantees us what we can expect from our Father and his: Unconditional love and boundless joy.
In telling the story of the first-born faithful son, Jesus reveals his intimate understanding of human nature. To all appearances, the Prodigal Son and the faithful son are two distinct individuals. But real life is often more complicated than that. At different times in our lives we can find ourselves cast in either role. And how seamlessly we can flip from asking forgiveness for ourselves to denying forgiveness for others. So there is a double lesson from this parable. We are not only loved, but we are meant to love. We are not only forgiven, we are meant to forgive. That is what it means to be The Beloved.
God love you!
Image attribution: Image attribution: Harron, Maurice. Hands Across the Divide, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55419 [retrieved March 6, 2013]. Click here for original source