Forgiveness & Reconciliation

Luke 15:1-3, 11-32 (NRSV)

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:

Then Jesus said, ‘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 travelled 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.”’

            Of all of the stories Jesus ever told, this is one of the most well known. So well known that, upon hearing it this morning, many people in congregations across the country will spend the better part of the sermon thinking about other things because they already presume to know what this one’s all about: a greedy son who doesn’t really love his father asks for his share of the family dough so that he can abandon the family farm, go live it up in the big city, lose all he has, come groveling back to his dad who – just like God, we suppose – forgives his “prodigal” son (a term never used in the Gospel itself), and restores him to his previous position as beloved son. And the older son, represented, we’ve been told, representing all those who don’t understand “grace,” is mad and jealous and pouts in the field while the rest of the clan parties in celebration of the younger son’s return.

            But it’s too bad for them, because they’re going to daydream through the old story, because everyone knows where this one is going anyway, and they’re never going to know that they don’t know the first thing about the story at all.

            There’s a group of folks at OCBC studying an intriguing book by Jewish New Testament Scholar at Vanderbilt University, Amy-Jill Levine. This book is helpful in pealing back the layers of interpretative tradition that have been overlaid onto the parables, curtailing our imagination for what they could mean to us by telling us what they should mean to us. Levine is intent on challenging the anti-Semitic interpretations that crept into the Christian dogma on parable interpretation and in supplying readers with knowledge of the First Century context from which the parables emerge that helps us approach the text again with a fresher perspective on the interpretive possibilities the parables contain for us.

The Gospel writers themselves sometimes allegorize the parables, explaining their presumed meaning for us, trying to give us a “key” for interpreting each character in the parable (Luke is the worst offender here). And for preachers, this is a tempting interpretive move, too – unraveling the story stage-by-stage, giving eager listeners the keys to unlocking the parables mysterious meaning, uncovering the elaborate theological portraits resting just behind the narrative.

But, for Jesus, these were simply stories. Usually, he provided no key for unlocking their meaning, no orthodoxy of interpretation. He probably told them over and over again to a variety of people and he most likely told them a little differently each time, like any good storyteller would.[1]

Some he told to large crowds, like this one, some he spoke only to his disciples. Some were parables intending to reveal something about the kingdom of God, others about the life of discipleship, and others about who knows what.

For a very long time, we’ve interpreted this parable to be one bespeaking something of God’s forgiving nature – welcoming the wayward sinner home.

            But I’m not sure that this is a story about God at all. Maybe so, maybe not.

I’m also unsure that this is a story about forgiveness, either (but the bulletins were already printed by the time I had that insight).

I think that it’s a good possibility that this is a story about reconciliation in some sense.

But the more I read the parable, the more I got caught up in one particular aspect of the narrative… Look at the story again.

Levine argues that to ask for one’s share of an inheritance was not considered a sin, nor was it particularly unusual then, or even now. If it had been wrong for the son even to ask, we could expect that the father, at very least, wouldn’t have honored the request by giving him his share. But he did – seemly gladly.[2]

            After spending all of what he had, a famine came and he was in need and no one gave him anything. He worked for a living slopping pigs but, the text says, when he came to himself he said, “Wouldn’t I be better off going back home and working as one of my dad’s hired hands. So he set off and went to his father.”

And here’s the part that really intrigues me: “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.”

Later in the story, the older brother, still at work in the field and having no idea his younger brother had returned home, heard the music and saw the commotion and could smell something good cooking, so he asked one of the slaves what was going on. “Your brother’s home and they’re having a party,” he told him. But “he became angry and refused to go in.” So, “His father came out and began to plead with him…,” saying, “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.”

Miroslav Volf, is a Croatian theologian from Yale Divinity School, whose theological framework was forged through the experiences of Croatia’s struggle for independence from Yugoslavia. In his book, Exclusion & Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation, Volf explores the themes of otherness and the difficult processes of reconciliation between parties that are separated by histories of oppression and violence. Most intriguing for our exploration of this parable, though, is what Volf describes as the “drama of embrace” – the four movements that must take place for an embrace to be successful. (This is why I encouraged you to embrace during the Greetings of Peace, though Volf says that these same elements are also true of a handshake,[3] for those who don’t like so much intimate contact.)

While he doesn’t speak of this parable specifically, I think his “drama of embrace” is a helpful lens through which to read this story. In summary, Volf says, “The four structural elements in the movement of embrace are opening the arms, waiting, closing the arms, and opening them again. For embrace to happen, all four must be there and they must follow one another on an unbroken timeline.”[4]

Act one in the drama of embrace is opening the arms. Volf says, “open arms suggest the pain of the other’s absence and the joy of the other’s anticipated presence.”[5]

It’s not the father’s emotional reaction to seeing his younger son on the horizon that strikes me. Anyone with a heart can easily imagine a father deeply missing his son who had been away for far too long. Especially if we get rid of the misconception that the younger son was doing anything inherently wrong by asking for his inheritance and striking out on his own, and even so more when we realize that when the father sees his son still far off, he has no idea that the son has lost all his money. All of these details have been filled in for our interpretative imagination by centuries of preaching and none of it is really necessary for the parable to become powerful.

            The text simply says, “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.” The father, seeing his son, is filled with compassion after the long pain of his son’s absence and runs to him while the is still far off, overcome by the joy of his anticipated presence, opening his arms in embrace.

Act two: waiting. Once arms are opened, one must halt at the boundary of the other. “Before [embrace] can proceed,” Volf says, “it must wait for desire to arise in the other and for the arms of the other to open.”[6]

            How different the waiting must have felt between the father’s embrace of the younger son and that of the older son. Hardly a moment of waiting occurs between the outstretched arms and the younger son becoming enfolded in his embrace, covered in kisses. But the older son takes cajoling.

The text says, “His father came out and began to plead with him.” Amy-Jill Levine says that this translation, while accurate enough, misses the nuance of the Greek text. She explains, “The verb here is parakaleo, and it has the sense both of pleading or urging and of comforting…the ‘Paraclete,” usually translated ‘Advocate’ or ‘Comforter’” is the image of the Holy Spirit in John’s Gospel.[7] The father goes to the angry older son, still in the field, refusing to join the party, and he pleads with him, urges him, comforts him. Yet, we’re left to wonder if a desire arose in the older brother and whether his arms opened to his father.

Act three: closing the arms. “It takes two pairs of arms for one embrace,” Volf says.[8] “[W]ith one pair, we will either have merely an invitation to embrace (if the self respects the other) or a taking in one’s clutches (if there is no such respect).”

And importantly, act four: opening the arms again. Volf says, “The other must be let go so that her alterity—her genuine dynamic identity—may be preserved; and the self must take itself back into itself so that its own identity, enriched by the traces that the presence of the other has left, may be preserved.”[9]

Volf notes that genuine embrace always comes with an “underdetermination of the outcome…Given the structural element of waiting, nothing can guarantee that embrace will take place; the only power that can be used to bring it about is the power of embrace’s own allure…And once the embrace has taken place, nothing can guarantee a particular outcome.”[10]

            Embraced by his father, enveloped in his arms, will the younger son, now returned, grow up, perhaps become more responsible? Will he think of the wellbeing of his family and community more than of himself in the future? Is he really even sorry or is he just taking advantage of his father’s generosity and love?

            We don’t know. The story doesn’t say. But his father ran and put his arms around him and kissed him all the same: the drama of embrace with all of the uncertainty of outcome that comes along with it.

Volf also says that embrace is always enacted as a risk. “I open my arms, make a movement of the self toward the other…and do not know whether I will be misunderstood, despised, even violated or whether my action will be appreciated, supported, and reciprocated.”[11]

            The older son, still working in the field, refuses to come in for the party. His father comes out to meet him, just like he did the younger son, pleading with him to come in and join the family feast. Comforting him in his anger and jealousy. Will he reciprocate his father’s gesture of open arms, or stand stiff and unyielding? Will he taste the succulent meat of the fatted calf and dance to the music playing in the house, or stay in the field and let the smell of food and the sound of the party stoke his rage?

We don’t know. The story doesn’t say. But his father begins the drama of embrace all the same with all of the risk of rejection that embrace always entails: “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.”

            And you, after hearing this old story once again, are now invited into the most poignant way that the church has come up with in 2,000 years to dramatize the embrace of the divine: the ritual of communion. Some traditions call this “the Eucharist” which, from the Greek, simply means “thanksgiving”[12] – a celebration. Volf says,

“Eucharist is the ritual time in which we celebrate this divine ‘making-space-for-us-and-inviting-us-in.’…We would most profoundly misunderstand the Eucharist, however, if we thought of it only as a sacrament of God’s embrace of which we are simply the fortunate beneficiaries. Inscribed on the very heart of God’s grace is the rule that we can be its recipients only if we do not resist being made into its agents; what happens to us must be done by us. Having been embraced by God, we must make space for others in ourselves and invite them in—even our enemies. This is what we enact as we celebrate the Eucharist.”[13]

For the Christians of the early Church the Eucharist meal began as a festive occasion characterized by great rejoicing because of the resurrection of Jesus.[14]

The drama of embrace is enacted in the table, inviting us to the celebration to be enriched by the traces that the presence of the Divine has left. And the traces live on in our own call to reenact the drama in our own lives, opening the arms, waiting, closing the arms, and opening the arms again with all of the risk and uncertainty that always attends the drama of embrace.

Amy-Jill Levine says, in her final paragraphs about this parable,

“If we hold in abeyance, at least for the moment, the rush to read repenting and forgiving into the parable, then it does something more profound than repeat well-known messages. It provokes us…Recognize that the one you have lost may be right in your own household. Do whatever it takes to find the lost and then celebrate with others…Don’t wait until you receive an apology…Don’t wait until you can muster the ability to forgive…Don't stew in your sense of being ignored…Instead, go have lunch. Go celebrate, and invite others to join you…Take advantage of resurrection—it is unlikely to happen twice.”[15]

[1] Amy-Jill Levine makes this observation in Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi (New York: HarperOne, 2014), 173

[2] Levine, Short Stories by Jesus, 51.

[3] Miroslav Volf, Exclusion & Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 141.

[4] Volf, Exclusion & Embrace, 141.

[5] Volf, Exclusion & Embrace, 141.

[6] Volf, Exclusion & Embrace, 142.

[7] Levine, Short Stories by Jesus, 68.

[8] Volf, Exclusion & Embrace, 143.

[9] Volf, Exclusion & Embrace, 145.

[10] Volf, Exclusion & Embrace, 147.

[11] Volf, Exclusion & Embrace, 147.

[12] William H. Willimon, Word, Water, Wine and Bread (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1980), 24.

[13] Volf, Exclusion & Embrace, 129.

[14] Oscar Cullmann, Early Christian Worship (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1953), 16. 

[15] Levine, Short Stories by Jesus, 75.
  • The Rev. Cody J. Sanders
  • March 5, 2016