I have been gone for so long; how do I know He will still forgive me? I’ve done horrible things; how can I ever expect Him to accept me? There’s no way I can atone for all my sins; why would He ever take me? – Over the course of the past few weeks, mostly as a result of some of the seeds that Norm had sown, I had a number of conversations with those dying and the loved ones of those dying. Over and over, the questions of worthiness came up. As people struggled with their own impending deaths, or as their loved ones struggled with their impending deaths, I was asked various questions like the above. Fortunately for me, even those who do not count themselves as believers are familiar with this week’s Gospel reading from Luke.
The parable is known as the parable of the Prodigal Son; though I must admit different names suit this parable at different times in our relationship with God. God is always the forgiving father in this story. Sometimes, we are begrudging brothers when we see the conversions of others. And sometimes, we are simply the audience to whom this parable is told and who, like the Pharisees and scribes, like to grumble about Jesus and His teaching.
The shocking part of the parable to Jesus’ listeners would have been the fact that the father ran to greet son. Sons would sometimes request their inheritance before their father’s deaths. Given the propensity of youth not to listen to the experience of elders, we can easily imagine that the audience knew families where this story had occurred. Is it so different from those who go off to college and party their way right out that first semester or first year? Is it so different from our youth who, upon their first decent job, waste their hard-earned money on alcohol, drugs, or other useless goods?
Naturally, the son understands he has screwed up. But he is willing to work to feed himself. Granted, the job that he found was an insult both to him and his culture, but we in the midwest might be tempted to applaud him for not turning to a life of begging or crime. Eventually, as Luke tells us, he comes to himself. The son realizes that the slaves at his father’s home eat better than he is currently eating, and he determines to repent and ask his father to treat him as a slave. Certainly, from our perspective and maybe even the audience hearing the parable, the punishment seems reasonable. The son squandered everything; he deserves to be treated like a slave.
But when the father sees him “while he is still far off,” the father violates custom and social convention. Rather than waiting on the son to arrive and pay his respects, as the father is owed in that society, the father runs to the son and embraces him. And when the son repents, the father interrupts the son before the punishment section is repeated, and orders the slaves to bring the “best robe,” a family ring, and to prepare for a huge celebration. A son who was lost is found! A son who was dead is alive!
How can we know that God, like the forgiving father in this parable, is always willing to forgive us, to welcome us back into the family, and to celebrate? The cross of Jesus. Such was God’s love for us, such was His mercy towards us, that He sent His Son to die for us, not when we were righteous, but when we were His enemies and His prodigal sons and daughters. God knew and understood, far better than we ever will, that we cannot atone for our sins. We might try to make restitution at times, but our efforts will always fall short. Only Jesus could make atonement for our sins.
Part of our impetus to invite others to share in His eternal feast should be the discovery of that joy experienced by the Prodigal Son and ourselves. Like the son, we deserve nothing. On our own, we could ask him to make us His slave, but we would do so knowing that He could not accept sinful slaves. But before we can make that offer, before we can suggest appropriate punishment, He interrupts us with the cross of His Son. When we acknowledge that we have sinned against Him, the Father runs to us and embraces us in His loving relationship with the Son and the Holy Spirit, and, against all expectations, makes us His sons and daughters by adoption, His ambassadors, and His royal priesthood! We deserve nothing of the kind, but our Father’s mercy is as limitless as His power and His love!
How can you know that He loves you? How can you know He will accept you if you only repent? The cross. Salvation history, God tells us, pointed to that amazing Good Friday event. God’s love for us is encapsulated in that horrible and blessed day. That He can accomplish what He has promised to you for repenting is testified by the empty tomb! Not even your death or mine can keep Him from keeping His promises to us! And the image with which He describes Himself to us is of a father, forgetting all propriety and all our faults, running to embrace us in His arms of love.