Scripture – Luke 15:28 - “The older brother became angry and refused to go in.
Quote – Henri Nouwen -“Resentment and gratitude cannot coexist, since resentment blocks the perception and experience of life as a gift. My resentment tells me that I don't receive what I deserve. It always manifests itself in envy.”
As much as I would have preferred to end the weeks reflections on the high note of joy, this scripture section does offer a challenge. Yes, its very final words focus on celebrating the return of the prodigal. But they are the words of the father challenging his other son to stop alienating and distancing himself from the joyful reconciliation. These parables challenge us to acknowledge the times or ways that we too distance ourselves from the work of the lavishly loving God and interrogate the reasons why.
The older son in the final parable feels unfairly treated. I think we can all understand that. He has remained faithful to his father. He has shouldered his responsibilities and maintained the honor of his family by being dutiful. So he wonders why his younger brothers return should be celebrated. After all, his younger brother acted shamefully and publicly shamed the family. His actions caused the entire family to go through a time of economic instability (land had to be sold to pay the younger brother) and this not only negatively impacted the father and older brother, but others as well (tenant farmers who worked the land). Just the other day one of our bible study groups pondered the old question of deathbed confessions. Why should someone who lives in selfish, uncaring, even cruel ways, be offered the joy of forgiveness and salvation when they repent at the end of life? It’s a fair question. It’s a difficult question to answer.
When we look closely at the section of the prodigal son story where the older brother with his father, we see him distance himself from his family, the family to which he says he has been devoted. He refers to himself as a slave instead of a son, distancing himself from his father. He refers to his brother as 'this son of yours,' instead of a brother. He is alienating himself as he proclaims the righteousness of his faithfulness. He no longer sees his place in the family as a gift even though his father tries to remind him that he is indeed gifted, 'you are always with me and everything I have is yours.' Which is where Henri Nouwen's quote for the day enters. 'Resentment and gratitude cannot coexist' he writes in reflecting on this very parable. And I would for our purposes, resentment and joy cannot coexist. This is a difficult spiritual truth for us to learn and understand. God's love for us, God's acceptance of us, God's delight in us is not something we have earned. It is something that is bestowed upon us. It is a gift. Not a gift to be hoarded or guarded, but a gift to be shared. Jesus, in these parables reveals that when we guard jealously God's love for us, we betray and even reject the very thing we are claiming so selfishly, God's love. We no longer celebrate with joy the love of God. We are grasping at it as it slips through our fingers and alienating ourselves from the God who wants only to be with us.
So these parables highlight a very common and perhaps even natural human spiritual experience, which is to alienate ourselves from one another. God does not desire or even accept alienation. God's desire is intimate connection and wholesome relationship. That is what we are called to be agents of in the world, the God always reaching out, searching, embracing, welcoming home. So shape us by reminding us of our own experience of being lost, inspire us in the joy of finding and being found, experiencing that we are loved and accepted, and then urges us to be energized, by both the memory of being lost and the joy of being found, to overcome alienation in our lives with the joyful reconciliation of God.
Study – Luke 16:19-31
Prayer – There are moments Loving God, when I think myself superior. More enlightened, better educated, just plain smarter, nicer, kinder, and so closer and more pleasing to you. Grant me humility in those moments of weakness for they reveal that I sometimes feel unworthy of love and feel vulnerable and this is my reaction to the pain of that vulnerability. Remind me that your love is a constantly available gift, my ability to please you is a gift, and the gift of your mercy and love is a gift given so that it might be shared with others.