Unconditional Love

ImageWe’re going to do things a little differently this morning. All through Lent, we’re looking at ways that Jesus teaches us about love, and this parable is huge, and deep, and all about love. It’s about love so big and so tenacious that it’s hard to fathom. So, rather than me standing up here and talking to you about how unbelievable this love is, I want us to try to understand it a different way. We’re going to listen to this passage of scripture more than once, and let it seep deep into our bones. Each time we read it, I’m going to invite you to imagine being one of the characters, because I think we can learn, and feel different things about love when we hear this story from different perspectives.

So, this first time through, I invite you to imagine being the younger son. Imagine yourself with all those qualities we find disappointing in young people—self-absorbed, reckless, shallow. Imagine what it feels like to believe you are invincible, and that you are the center of the universe, and imagine how your understanding of yourself might change as the events of this story unfold.

There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them.

 

A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. Image

But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’

 

So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.

We’ll stop there, for now. I wonder what the father’s love felt like to this wayward son? I wonder how his tired, starving body responded to his father’s embrace, and to the warmth of his father’s cloak, and the warmth of his father’s food?

I wonder if any of you have experienced a moment like this—where you went looking for something small—just a little help, or just the chance to apologize to someone you hurt, or just enough money to get by for a few days—and received abundance instead? I wonder what stories we could tell of being lost, and then found?

(silence)

On this next read through, I want us to imagine being the father. Imagine the insult of a son asking for his inheritance while you are still alive. Imagine the worry as you watch a child walk away, with no information about where he is going, or what he plans to do. Imagine listening to news of distant cities, wondering whether your son was swindled by one of the laughing tradesmen who passes through, wondering whether he’s caught up in the loose living you’ve heard rumors about, wondering whether the famine is affecting your lost child.

There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them.

 

A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything.

But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’

 

So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.Image

Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in.

His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’

I wonder how often that father gazed down the road, hoping for glimpse of his lost son, before the day when he really did catch sight of him? I wonder how it felt to hold his son again? I wonder whether there was any part of the father that wanted to be firm—to say, now don’t ever run off again, or I hope you’ve learned your lesson? I wonder why he didn’t say those things?

I wonder what the father felt like when he saw his older son sulking? I wonder how the father felt at the older son’s accusation of favoritism?

I wonder whether any of you have experienced something like this? A chance to reconcile with someone who made a lot of mistakes and hurt a lot of people? A chance to reconnect with someone you thought was lost? I wonder what stories we could tell of the challenge of being a parent, the challenge of loving unconditionally, the challenge of relinquishing control, the challenge of holding a weeping child when their wounds are all their own doing…

(silence)

This last time through, I’ll invite you to imagine yourself as the older brother. Imagine watching your younger brother walk all over your father. Imagine watching him disappear, and go off to live in all the ways you were taught not to live.

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable:

There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them.

 

A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything.

But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’

 

So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.

Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in.

His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’Image

I wonder how the older brother felt when he first saw the party, and didn’t know what it was for? Was he looking forward to it, until he realized it was for his brother? I wonder whether he ever got over his grudge? I wonder whether he ever understood that his father loved him just a deeply and unconditionally?

I wonder if any of you have had this experience. The experience of feeling taken for granted. The feeling that someone undeserving gets all the love, while you are left in the shadows. I wonder what stories we could tell of resentment, of hard feelings, and the challenge of forgiveness.

(silence)

Unconditional love is beautiful, but it is also difficult. It is difficult to offer, it is difficult to see it offered to people we think are unworthy, and, maybe most of all, it is difficult to accept—it is difficult to believe that love is ever offered to us unconditionally. May we have hearts that are open to understanding just a little bit more about unconditional love each day.

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