In her book, The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver writes: “I could never work out whether we were to view religion as a life insurance policy or a life sentence. I can understand a wrathful God who'd dangle us from a hook, and I can understand a tender, unprejudiced Jesus, but I could never imagine the two of them in the same house. You wind up walking on eggshells, wondering which one is home at the moment.”
What is God like? Is God a “he,” a “she” or an “it?” What is God like? That's an important question that deserves a good answer. Yet, a good answer is difficult. Perhaps that's the reason for today's Gospel story: to give us a more accurate image of God, since when we talk about God we have to use images. But please remember the reality of God is far beyond our images, far beyond the human mind to comprehend!
Today's Gospel recalls the story of the “prodigal son.” I looked up the word “prodigal” in Webster's New World Dictionary and found “prodigal” has two meanings. One meaning is recklessly wasteful. The second definition is: extremely generous. Amazing, isn't it, that one word has two very different meanings! We often call this story of Jesus the story of the prodigal son, but we could more accurately call it the story of the prodigal father. Each is prodigal in a different way. The story is about this father who has two not very likable sons. The younger son would like his father to die so he can get his hands on his inheritance quickly. But to his misfortune the father is still in good health, so this pushy son demands his inheritance on the spot – a most unusual occurrence among Jewish people. He gets the inheritance money, squanders it with a dissolute life and then, realizing his mistake, comes home, smelling like a pig pen.
So what does the father do? He sees his son coming from afar because he's been watching and waiting for him every day. He runs out to meet him, embraces him and throws him a great welcome home party. Not a single wag of the finger! Not a single “shame on you!” Dad is just happy to have son back, and glad there's still time for him to get his life together. The other son? You know the type: plays by the rules, dots the “i”s, crosses the “t”s, but has little heart, little compassion. When Pig Pen brother comes home, the older brother pouts and refuses to join the family celebration. So what does dad do? Again, no wagging finger, no “shame on you!” Just these few words: “You are always in my heart. Everything I have is yours, dear son!”
Perhaps the father might add, “You spend so much time in the cold and dark of life. Here now, take my hand, let's go in together and enjoy the feast. Your brother was dead, and now he is alive. He was lost and now he's found.”
That's the image of God that Jesus wants us to have. It's what God is like: compassionate, patient, willing to wait for us, never looking back, always ready to embrace, always reaching out to us tired, bedraggled sinners and inviting us to get out of the cold and come in to the warmth of love and forgiveness.
The prodigal son was recklessly wasteful, but had a change of heart. The prodigal father personified extreme generosity! That's who God is, that's what God is like! That's what God asks us to be for each other: a people of prodigal generosity, always reaching out, always ready to forgive, to embrace the lonely, the lost, those left out in the cold. May God help us share this prodigal love for one another! AMEN!