The Forgiving Father

3.31.19:  Luke 15:11-32     I’d like to begin this morning with a brief survey. Just one question. Which son do you most relate to—the younger or the older? It may have nothing to do with your birth order, just the behavior, the attitude, the actions. I am going to ask you to make a choice and to actually stand up this morning. If you more relate to the younger son, please stand. If you more relate to the older son, please stand.
This parable is most often referred to as the parable of the prodigal son. Prodigal means wasteful. The younger of the two sons is described as being rude enough to ask for his inheritance while his dad is still alive, turning his back on his family, his community, his religious background, definitely making poor decisions. Maybe because there is universal disdain toward the younger son we tend to identify this as a story about him. But what about the older of the two? The one who is also selfish, jealous and ungracious, the one who has an anger management problem and has no room for forgiveness, either toward his brother or his father. Maybe his attitudes and his words hit too close to home. His self-righteousness seems deserved and we identify with his anger toward his brother. It doesn’t carry as much weight to have a story called ‘The parable of the angry, self righteous older brother.’ But the story is just as much about the older brother’s response as it is about the younger brother’s actions.
All in all, the parable is mostly about the father. It is the father who is abundantly generous toward two sons, neither of whom seemed to take after their dad. A religion professor at Hastings College, Daniel Deffenbaugh, writes: “This is the overwhelming scandal of grace.” Think about it. This father doesn’t just love the one. He loves both. He waits and watches, hoping for the return of his lost son, recognizing him when he was still afar off, and running toward him to welcome him home. Not the kind of welcome the son expected. Not the kind of welcome anyone in the household would have expected. And definitely not the kind of welcome the older brother would have expected. He takes the time and effort to reach out to the older son when he refuses to come to the party. We might expect him to brush him off, saying, “If that is what you want, go ahead and pout.” But the father doesn’t operate the way other people expect him to. The father operates out of love. Generous, unstoppable, overflowing love. Love which gets defined by forgiveness. For both sons. It is not just the younger one who needs to be forgiven. The attitude of the older one has to be crushing for the father to hear—“you don’t love me as much as you love him!”
Is Jesus using this story to tell us about the kind of love God has for us, no matter which son we identify with? I hope so. It is a good reminder for all of us. Instead of pointing a finger at someone else, we have to remember to point at the one in the mirror. Even that person in the mirror is loved by God. Or is Jesus using this story to show us the kind of love we can show to others, love that is generous, love that becomes visible in forgiveness? I hope so.
When I focus on this forgiving father who waited prayerfully for his son to return, I think about Joan Higbee. She is not here today, but I asked her if it was okay to share her story, and she said yes. She said yes because she has already shared it herself with many of you in the years her son was separated from her. When I first arrived here in 2011, Joan shared with me the pain of having an adult son, Matthew, who left his family, his roots, and his community behind, and was not in communication at all. She was not totally sure where Matthew was, but she was always waiting to hear from him, and she never stopped praying for him. Joan very often asked all of us to join her in prayers for Matthew, and never gave up hoping for his return. The days, months and years were long, but her love for Matthew continued. One day out of the blue, he communicated with her by phone, and all of a sudden, he was back in her life, slowly connecting back to the family, and eventually he began to come to Baltimore for visits and to invite Joan to visit him and his girlfriend in Georgia. I know that the rejoicing, celebration and gratitude for his return was heard on earth and in heaven! I do not believe that Joan wasted any time berating her son for his long absence or for the hurt his silence had caused her. Like the father in the parable, she rejoiced at his return. That was her top priority now.
Yesterday a group of about 50 people met outside of First and Franklin Presbyterian Church to gather up 309 purple ribbons representing each of the lives taken by violence in our city in 2018. We walked together, carrying the ribbons to the central office of the Baltimore Police Department on Fayette St., putting them in the hands of Captain Featherstone as each name was read aloud. The Captain stood, his face stone-like, except when a child approached him with purple ribbons. Then there was a bit of a smile. Perhaps he was trying to be respectful, like the soldiers who guard the tomb of the unknown soldiers in Arlington Cemetery. Despite his stern look, I was grateful for his presence, for his acknowledgement of the pain of the families who will not see their sons or daughters return, families who would give anything for a chance to welcome them home once again. And I was grateful for the voices of the young children in our midst who were playing around the edges of the crowd, just being kids, kids who bring joy to their families and kids whose voices were hopeful sounds in the background of the reading of the long, long list of names…. But I was the most grateful for the presence of the three mothers who had lost sons to unnecessary violence last year, who allowed us to walk with them, who spoke of their pain and the way their lives had been changed in an instant.
After attending the event yesterday afternoon and reflecting on this story of the forgiving father, I realize that Jesus might be lifting up another message. Could it be the message that life is too short to hold grudges, to let anger fester, to allow pride to build walls between us, to keep track of failures or to nag about the poor decisions a loved one makes? No one knows how much time we have with our loved ones. People who live in certain zip codes or bear the weight of certain health problems or work in certain professions are more likely to have their time cut short than others, but when you get right down to it, no one really knows. The forgiving father sets a good example for all of us. He doesn’t waste any time remembering the past. And he refuses to let a bad attitude get in the way of celebration. Life is too short. And he knows it.
This month of April, Hunting Ridge Presbyterian is responsible for the leadership of the community prayers for peace at the bus stop in Edmondson Village. Our leaders will be James Parks, Jeannine Michel, Vivian Smith and myself. If you are able to get away for 10 minutes on a Wednesday afternoon, I encourage you to make a commitment to come to at least one Wednesday this month as part of your Lenten journey. We pray and sing together, committed to being a peaceful presence in our city on Wednesdays at 12:10. It doesn’t bring a loved one back to his family. It doesn’t upend the injustice and inequality of this world we live in. But it does provide a witness for shalom, for peace with compassion, and a reminder to anyone passing by that God cares and we care. And I believe it does change us, those of us who gather there in a public space to speak to God and to anyone who will listen, to the riders on the bus, to the passers-by, to the high school kids on lunch break. Life is too short and too unpredictable to not be forgiving and generous. We have a God who sets a standard of this kind of love for us to follow. One who waits and watches, one who loves over the top, one who forgives the younger son and the older son, one who forgives you and forgives me, running out to meet us in the form of Jesus, the Savior. Thanks be to our generous God. Amen.

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