Further reflections on the Prodigal Sons: Luke 15:1-2,11-32, Psalm 133, Matthew 18.
I remember when I learned about “cool.” The zenith American standard, we know cool when we see or feel it. For me, I learned cool in the stinky bathroom of Monroe Elementary. I was in the 4th grade. I walked in on several classmates abusing the new kid in school, who, against his better judgement, happened to be black. Instantly I knew who was and was not “cool” according to that particular social geography. There are haves, and have nots. Ins and out. And everyone in every culture knows how to compare and play this game of judgment.
The Pharisees played this same game, we see them “grumbling” about Jesus interaction with sinners and losers in Luke 15:1-2, and see them setting themselves above all others in chapter 14. Jesus challenges the “rankings” of their social geography by telling us the story of the Prodigal Sons in Luke 15:11-32.
Jesus story would likely have been palatable to the comparing Pharisees, until they realized the elder son character was them. Aware that his brothers “dissolute living” awarded him significant social capital, the elder brother wishes his brother was still prodigal, or worse, dead! He like the Pharisees want nothing to do with those not as “cool” as they. Storyteller William Bausch points out that “with such equalization, where is his claim to superiority and virtue? He has a vested interest in his brothers sinfulness. So unhappy is he over his brother’s equality that he cannot even call him brother!”
Apparently, he banked on his own good behavior winning him the respect and attention of his father. His brother’s sinful lifestyle worked in his favor to highlight for all the world how wonderful he was! Had it not been goodness, it could just as easily been efficiency, smarts or good looks, sense of humor, money, or talents. Because we all look for some form of “social capital” that elevates us above someone, anyone. We see this in ourselves each and every day! This is the rankings and compare game we’re so familiar with, it’s that which defines our social geography. Don’t we constantly evaluate our own place in the world based on others? On how they look (if you weren’t born with good looks, just buy some Maybeline!), or their level of income (or lack thereof), or the color of their skin, or that they can dunk a basketball and we can’t? I know that I do! It’s the very foundation of nearly everything I do. Like the comedian Tom Arnold said when asked why he wrote his latest book, “I did it because I want you to like me.”
But there’s a dark side to our desires to be desired! Because, as Bausch continues, “If money makes us lovable, then we must keep others poor. If goodness makes us lovable, then we have a vested interest in others evil.” We can only be judged more cool at the expense of someone being judged less cool. We see this darkness rear its’ ugly head in the reaction of the eldest son, in the Pharisees, and in ourselves. He grumbles and complains and wants nothing to do with his brother-come-home.
But it’s into this broken relationship that the Father steps. The story says the Father “pleads” or urges his son, begging him to reconnect with his long lost brother. Jesus in telling this story reveals something beautiful and complex about God’s love: that God’s love is so large it is concerned not only with our relationship with God, but also our relationship with one another!
We see this throughout Jesus life and teachings. Time and again Jesus moves through offers of salvation into restoration of community. For those ostracized because of sin, brokenness or birth, Jesus builds connections between primary communities and fringe communities. He does this also in his teachings. Matthew 18 is a marvelous example of Jesus desire for reconciliation and relationship. He teaches us how to deal with broken relationships, and invokes the seldom used biblical word “church” to label those groups who actively seek out reconciliation amongst themselves. It is within the context of managing conflict that Jesus says, “Where two or three are gathered, there I am with you.”
God’s love for us overflows into our relationships and social geography. God longs for us to be reconciled and to have healthy deep relationships. Now is the time for you to reconcile with your spouse. Don’t wait another day! Because if you feel conflict, God promises his presence with you as you rebuild that which you care about. Now is the time for you to be reconciled with your kids, or parents, or neighbors, or co-workers. Don’t wait. God is with you, urging you onward. AMEN