Growing up, visits with my dad’s elderly cousin, Beulah, were memorable. She lived in a lovely old house in Massillon, Ohio filled with all kinds of fascinating antiques. Her yard burst with the blooms of a dozen different kinds of day lilies; we still have some of her tiger lilies in our yard. Beulah had definite ideas about food. She was devoted to the idea that corn on the cob makes the best breakfast and always preached to us about that. (Not that I object to corn for breakfast.) She also insisted on making lemonade for us with real lemons.
Beulah was full of a lifetime of stories. My dad is a great listener, patient beyond all reason. I remember sitting for hours on Beulah’s living room couch next to my brother, wide-eyed and meek. One particular story she told with bitter fire in her voice. As a young woman, she returned home to the family farm in Iowa to care for her dying mother. Tension brewed during that time between Beulah and her sister-in-law, who also lived there. After her mother died, she said, her brother and sister-in-law threw her out of the house—literally. They pitched Beulah’s possessions out of a second-story window. Every time we visited her, we heard this story rehashed again. It seemed to be a defining narrative of her life. Even as a child, I understood that you don’t just “get over” something like that. But I also came to realize that Beulah’s grudge was a tremendous burden, a trap she could not free herself from.
Jesus begins his parable about a family conflict with what was a well-known formula for storytellers of his time: “A man had two sons.” Typically, this opening was understood to mean that the story would be a moralistic tale, contrasting the good son with the bad son. But one of the most powerful things about Jesus’ story is that he refuses to tell it that way. There is no good son and no bad son, only two children who are both wayward, hurting, and lost. They both experience a spiritual death of sorts: an alienation from their own best selves, from their loved ones, and from God. And, as in all of our families, there is plenty of ambiguity about what “really” happened, who is at fault, and how we can make things right. In the parable Jesus told, the younger brother’s story is dramatic. By contrast, the older brother is kind of boring. He stays home. He works, and works, and works some more. I know this guy has been an after-thought in my sermons until now. But, as an oldest child myself, I think it’s time to remedy that. Who’s with me? Who else resents the attention that is showered on that irresponsible, spoiled, selfish kid brother? Just joking, I love my little brothers!
In any case, the moment the younger son returns home, the older son’s alienation from his family becomes clear. And we realize, likely this dynamic of estrangement is longstanding. The strain between father and son is evident when the older son, hearing music and dancing, after a long, hot day of working in the fields, does not just head into the house for a cold drink and some yummy fatted calf. He stops a servant instead, to find out what is going on before making a decision about whether or not to join this party. When his father comes out to plead with him, the son’s choice of words reveals a terrible bitterness between them. “I have been working like a slave for you.” This son feels that his status in his father’s eyes is even a rung lower than that of the hired hands who are employed by his family. “You have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.” The older son is not interested in feasting with his father; he wishes instead to be with his friends. In fact, he refuses even to address his family as family at all. He never says the word “father,” and he calls his brother “this son of yours.” Finally, this bitter older son embellishes his brother’s sins, imagining that he spent his father’s money on prostitutes, while the storyteller simply remarks that the little brother squandered his property through carelessness.
2 Corinthians declares that God gives us “the ministry of reconciliation.” Reconciliation—putting a broken relationship back together—requires each party to take responsibility for the ways in that we have knowingly or unknowingly hurt the other. Reconciliation means being willing to hear hard truths about the impacts of our words, our actions and inactions. Reconciliation also demands that we seek to repair the damage we’ve done, as best we’re are able. Ultimately, we must understand that however heartfelt, the practices of confession and forgiveness, and the acts of repentance and repair, do not erase the pain or the consequences of our wrongs. We cannot, and should not expect others to “forget” even as they forgive.
Humanly speaking, reconciliation is hard and costly. Sometimes it isn’t even possible. But, in Jesus’ parable, reconciliation is portrayed as a recklessly generous gift, offered without any condition whatsoever. When the younger son returns home, the father runs to meet him—embracing him before he can even finish his rehearsed confession. The father is so glad to see his son that he doesn’t care if running makes him look undignified, and he doesn’t care whether or not his son is actually sorry! And, when the older son angrily refuses to come inside, the father goes out to him and pleads with him, which is, again, something that just wasn’t done in his culture. He doesn’t care about his pride or his honor, only about repairing his relationship with his son.
It’s clear, from the context of Luke’s Gospel that the younger son represents the tax collectors and “sinners” with whom Jesus associated. The term “sinners” included the poor who could not keep the expensive provisions of the law. Tax collectors were a specially hated class of sinners because they not only collaborated with Rome, but they also used their positions to exploit people for their own personal gain. The religious leaders, the scribes and Pharisees, felt that they were the righteous ones, because of their faithful keeping the law. But Jesus argues that they, too, like the sinners they scorn, are in need of reconciliation with themselves, with their loved ones, and with their God. And in fact, it is the sinners, who have opened themselves to God’s reckless, foolish, extravagant grace, who truly know God.
“Son,” the father tells his eldest child, reclaiming their family tie, “you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” Luke Timothy Johnson writes this:
The tragedy of the older son is not only that he failed to recognize his constant position of privilege with his father, that all the time they were together, “they shared goods in common,” but also that he is blind even now to the fact that his father extends to him the same constant care and concern as toward the prodigal.
All of us—older children and younger children, sinners and saints—rule. Followers and rebels alike, need a share of God’s grace. Reconciliation, Paul says, is a gift that those “in Christ” receive from God, and in turn, can offer to the world. God’s free and abundant grace offers us the capacity to free ourselves and our world from the painful burdens and destructive cycles of resentment, by doing the hard and costly work of reconciliation—confession and forgiveness, repentance and repair. For, “in Christ we are a new creation.” May it be so. Amen.
Let us enter into a time of quiet prayer; you are welcome to remain in your seat or to visit one of prayer stations.
 (Sacra Pagina Commentary on Luke, p. 241-42)