In Luke 15, the Pharisees and scribes are seething with suspicion and envy. The problem? Jesus is hanging out with sinners – welcoming them with kindness, dining with them, and curiously getting to know them. The Pharisees feel a conviction that those sinners need to know the truth! How can they stop sinning if we don’t tell them clearly the difference between right and wrong?
Jesus responds by telling them three stories. God the Father seeks out the lost sheep, seeks out the lost coin, and seeks out his lost sons. In each story God’s desire is not to scold or to punish, but to pursue what had been lost, to embrace with delight, to reconcile, and to restore. In each story, God’s deepest desire is to celebrate the heavenly wedding feast with all his scattered children. He wants all of us at the table, where we can celebrate the one-flesh union between his own Son and all those human beings who dare to desire so much delight.
The younger son (the “prodigal”) comes to his senses and begins to tell the fuller truth to himself – not just about the legal rules he has violated, but about how much harm he has caused in his relationships. He has sinned against heaven. He has sinned against his good father. He rises and returns to the house of his father.
As much as the son desires to return, the father’s desire is infinitely greater. He sees his son from afar, rushes out to meet him, and embraces him.
Here is where the Pharisees and scribes have it so wrong. The Father’s embrace comes first. In his eternal love and kindness, he eagerly seeks us out. He embraces us with delight – while we are yet sinners! Full conversion will come in due time – gradually, and always in a way that keeps inviting us to come further up and further into the infinite vastness and intensity of his delight.
If we are not secure in the Father’s embrace, there is no way we will keep choosing our journey of conversion. If we are like the younger son, we will (sooner or later) return to the familiar smallness and squalor of old and familiar behaviors that cause harm to self and others. If we believe ourselves to be unlovable, and to be lacking in dignity, it’s only a matter of time before we start behaving that way!
If we are like the older son (or the Pharisees or the scribes), we will self-righteously cling to “the truth” – which is really just a list of propositions that allow us to feel good enough about ourselves. If we can control and manage our behaviors, we can style ourselves to be “good” and not like those other people who disregard the truth. But what we are calling “the truth” is only a very partial glimpse of the living God. Without the relationship, it becomes a caricature and a distortion.
Yes, morality matters. Yes, moral relativism is a problem and a threat. When each person gets to define for himself or herself what is true, good, or beautiful, then innocent people will indeed suffer!
But the answer is not the answer of the scribes and Pharisees. It is not the answer of the elder son. They are fixating on the rules while ignoring the covenantal relationship that is the foundation for all those rules! Jesus teaches us that every single law hinges upon the two great commandments of loving God and loving neighbor.
This past spring, I was chaplain at a priest retreat at the John Paul II Healing Center. Bob Schuchts asked us to consider what the experience of the younger son would have been like if he returned home and was greeted, not with his father’s embrace, but by his older brother.
What a question! And it’s not an abstract question. In our church families, heartbroken humans emerge, month after month. Desire is awakening in their hearts, even though their lives are a mess. They are trying to find their way back to the house of the Father. And what do they encounter here? The Father’s embrace and an invitation into deeper relationship? Or a checklist of expectations for how they are to behave if they want to belong to our club?
Truth-telling is important, but I find that many of us Christians today (like those Pharisees and scribes) are more interested in comparing, categorizing, and condemning. We want to tell “the truth” about particular moral issues while ignoring the deeper and fuller truth about who God is and who we are as human beings.
God tells the truth with kindness, never with contempt. His pursuit of us and his embrace of us communicate to us the Truth of our dignity and our destiny. He reminds us of what we are capable, and emboldens us in our desire. THEN we begin to grow and mature and bear fruit.
The contempt of the older son is a symptom of his underlying shame. I’ve learned to watch for that connection. Whenever contempt for human poverty shows up – whether it’s the poverty of “those people” or my own poverty – it’s a symptom of shame. It’s a symptom of seeking to earn love by performance rather than receive it as gift. It’s a symptom that we may not truly believe the amazing and foundational Truth of the Gospel – that God makes the first move, that he is always eager to embrace, and that he desires to share everything with us.
We all desperately need to hear that Good News proclaimed to us – usually more than once. We are shattered by sin, and there are many shards of our heart that still don’t know this Truth. The more fully we receive the Gospel, the more we grow and mature and bear fruit.
The saints are those who keep growing into the Father’s embrace. Their deepest suffering is an increasing realization of the infinite gap between themselves and God. The more they grow, the more they realize how far they are – no longer in shame or discouragement, but in a loving longing that aches for union and realizes there will still be a wait before all fullness comes.
As a result, authentic saints exhibit an incredible kindness to sinners – because they feel a kinship. The gap between God and the saint remains infinite. The gap between the saint and the sinner is miniscule. The saint begins to share in God’s desire for every sinner to be embraced, reconciled, restored, and celebrated. The saint begins to share God’s delight in human dignity, treating self and others with honor rather than contempt – especially when human poverty shows up. Here we find the truer and deeper meaning of “Love your neighbor as yourself” – to welcome human poverty in self and others and allow God the Father to embrace with honor and delight.
Will we allow the Father’s embrace to change our own hearts? Will we desire the same embrace for others – even those we dislike or despise? The Father desires them and us to come into the feast! His embrace is all-transforming. But he never pressures or forces. The decision is ours.