Forgiveness This Season

Although the parable of the prodigal son is one of Jesus’ most beloved stories, the story isn’t normally linked with the season of Easter.  Yet this year, I realized there is an important connection.

To refresh our memories, the parable of the prodigal son is the story of a father with two sons.  The younger son comes across as rude, asking his father for his share of the inheritance.  That was a little bit like saying, “I don’t want to wait until you die, old man.  Give me my share now.”

The father does as the younger son asks, and the story then shifts to the younger son hitting the road for a far country.  Soon, the younger son runs through the money, and he finds himself destitute.  Things turn out so badly for him that he’s forced to work on a pig farm where even the food given to the pigs looks good to him. 

Waking up to his plight, the younger son realizes that his father’s servants live better than he is living.  He decides to return home, apologize, and beg to live the rest of his life as one of his father’s servants.  

But the father’s reaction to seeing his younger son surprises everyone—the younger son, the older and obedient son who stayed on the farm, as well as the audience that listened to Jesus tell that story.  Instead of shaming the younger son, instead of saying, “I bet you’re sorry now,” the father surprises us.  He embraces the son, asks that a costly robe and ring be given to the son, and orders a great feast to celebrate the son’s return.  As the father says, “We thought you were dead.”  

The older, obedient son reacts very differently.  Coming in from the fields after a tiring day of work, he hears the music and asks a servant what is happening.  When he is told that his brother has returned and his father is throwing a party, he refuses to join in.  His father begs the older son to join in the celebration, but the older son won’t have any of it.  Instead he throws shame on his brother, calling him an immoral loser who deserves to be punished. 

I grant you that the story seems to have little to do with Easter.  I thought so as well until I remembered something that happened over and over again in my childhood and has occasionally happened in my adult life.

As I grew up in the church, I began to notice something.  At Christmas and Easter time, comments were heard about getting ready to see the “C and E Christians,” people who darkened the door of the church on only those two holidays—Christmas and Easter. 

Sure enough, my home church was standing-room-only on the Sundays closest to those two holidays.  I looked around at many faces that I didn’t recognize and could see that many of them seemed ill at ease.  Perhaps they realized that people were giving them odd looks.  

If those usual faces hoped to remain invisible, the game was up when the minister would address them directly.  The message given to them was often the same—“We see you; we wonder why we don’t see you at other times of the year.” Then the knife blade of shame would sink in deeper with these words: “God doesn’t look favorably on people who aren’t serious about their faith.” 

You can probably guess where I’m going with this.  Infrequent attendees to communities of worship this Passover and Easter are like the prodigal son in the parable, shyly and uncertainly showing up for Holy Days.  While it is easy to judge them, maybe we should ask how we regular attenders condemn ourselves by acting like the older son in the parable, the one who was happy to heap guilt and shame on his wayward brother.  

How we religious folk must try God’s patience.  What if we acted on these High Holy Days like the father in the parable—overjoyed to see the family reunited, ready with a fatted calf, a royal robe and ring?  Perhaps that’s all the prodigals of our faith communities are longing for—to be lovingly welcomed, not judged.