Repentance, Resentment and Reconciliation

While COVID-19 makes our in-person services challenging, Knox is providing podcast services. Not everyone can access these, though, so we are also posting my sermons on our Knox Talks blog. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.

Repentance, Resentment and Reconciliation

Scriptures: Luke 15:1-32

Today’s lesson a very long one consisting of three parables Jesus told in response to one challenge. They are usually read with the first two connected and the parable of the Prodigal and his Brother set aside to stand on its own.

Doing that saves us some reading time but it breaks up what Luke presents together; it deprives us of context, especially for the final parable, because we often forget that it was told to answer a complaint about Jesus eating with sinners.

We all know what social rejection is like: tax collectors and sinners were the target here; they weren’t considered good, religious people; they weren’t considered good enough or righteous enough to be embraced by God.

It was more than just social. The sinners were the people who didn’t

live acceptable lives and may well have been actual criminals. The tax collectors were traitors, working for the hated Romans and often over-charging ordinary people. They were considered corrupt at the very least.

Didn’t Jesus, supposedly a prophet, know what sort of people he was associating with?

Jesus turned things on their head, as usual, telling these three parables, each of which addresses the problem from a different perspective:

  1. The good shepherd leaves the 99 sheep alone and goes to collect the single missing sheep. As usual, the main character represents God and the sheep represent ordinary people. We are forced to look at things from God’s perspective: the shepherd feels responsible for the lives of the sheep; it is good shepherding to leave the flock together and go retrieve the missing one. The kind of shepherd who is prepared to do that is the kind of shepherd who will bring back the whole flock, safe and sound;
  2. The woman and the coin parable is next. This time God is the woman and the theme is not “responsibility.” The lost coin is not going to get eaten by wolves. It’s a question of value: God, the woman, values the coin and is prepared to work hard to find it when it goes missing; the lost coin, which represents sinners and tax collectors, shows us that these lost people have value to God, despite what their social “betters” may think;
  3. Then we come to the story of the family with the father and the two sons. It brings us a picture of the complexity of the relationships between everyone in the family. First, there is the father who, once again, represents God. No mother is mentioned and some scholars have pointed out that Jesus deliberately portrays the father with a mix of traditional masculine and feminine characteristics, both in behaviours and in language used, which fits right in with the two previous parables in which God is a male shepherd and a female homeowner. God is the father, but he is no macho man. He is prepared to let his son make mistakes and runs in a most undignified manner to greet him and shower him with hugs and kisses and make the most absurd fuss over him.

The prodigal himself is pretty clear-cut as the sinful, tax-collector sort. He’s selfish, greedy, wasteful, and immature. He wants to live an easy life with no effort and party, party, party. He’s a real jerk who doesn’t care about his family’s feelings when he makes his unreasonable demands and runs off to squander his future. It’s like the addiction groups say: he had to hit rock bottom before he would admit that he needed to change. And being envious of the pigs he was working to feed is pretty rock-bottom for a good Jewish boy. So, he had his reality check and he decided to go home and beg to become a slave, because he knew his father treated his slaves a lot better than this son was managing by himself.

The big brother represents the people who feel like they know how things work and are comfortable with the system; they define themselves as good people. He presents the standard big brother image: hard- working, responsible, self-righteous, resentful of the way his brat of a brother is indulged, maybe also resentful of the father more widely and thinks he’s too generous with his resources (which are now entirely that son’s future inheritance); he wouldn’t do things the same way as his dad and he certainly wouldn’t welcome that good-for-nothing waste-of-space of a brother after what he did! Hrrmmph! “Father always liked you best, didn’t he?”

The family dynamics are painfully realistic, aren’t they? Jesus knew exactly what he was talking about. We can all relate. We’ve all been one of these characters at some time or another, or we’ve seen them up close and personal.

And a really vital question is left hanging at the end of this third parable: Is there going to be reconciliation? Will the family get back together?

The first two parables had happy endings: the sheep was rescued; the coin was found and the celebration was held, with God as the host in each case.

But in the third one, the happy ending is left incomplete. God is delighted at the rescue of the one lost, and then found, and it is the resentful older brother who is left standing outside the party, welcome to come in but unable, so far, to bring himself to do it.

We see all kinds of versions of this brother’s complaint: “Those people should pull themselves up by their boot straps the way I did”; “Those people should get over things like residential schools and stop complaining — look at all the government money they get out of my taxes. Is that justice?”

I could go on. There are a lot of ways to deny structural bias, racism and historical injustice and every one of them misses the point of this trio of parables: That God loves and values the people that others despise – the lost, the damaged, the hopeless, the foolish, the meek, those who hunger and thirst, those who are persecuted.

In the first two parables, God goes the extra mile to rescue the lost, revealing how much value God puts on those who are outside.

In the final one, God loves both sons enough not to treat them like sheep or coins. God lets them make their own choices, and mistakes.

God makes a special effort for each of them: running like a fool to greet the prodigal half-way, then leaving the celebration to try to reconcile his resentful son. The story is left on a cliff-hanger because it is up to US to decide whether the final reconciliation happens.

Our challenge is to recognize when we are behaving like one or the other of the brothers and learn to stop being so selfish and jerky (adjectives that apply equally to both, by the way).

And through it all is the example that God sets for us to emulate: generous, loving, ready to go the extra mile to find the one who is lost and needs help; ready to try to get past unreasonable behaviour to restore relationships and create reconciliation; not worried about rules, or rigid interpretations of justice; not even worried about his own dignity but motivated by love above all else.

It’s a breath-taking example God sets for us here: Let’s aspire to get beyond being the squabbling siblings and learn to be like the loving parent.


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