So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.
We hear the second half of that statement, the call to be reconciled to God, every Ash Wednesday. It is the heart of the message of Lent: we have a tendency to drift away from God, and God is calling us back. A couple of weeks ago we had that image of Jesus lamenting that he would like to draw the people of God to himself the way a hen draws her chicks close—but they were not willing.
Today’s readings are a bit more encouraging, I think. The first passage of Scripture recounts the moment when Joshua and the Israelites are standing on the edge of the Promised Land, ready to go in, and they are reminded that the Lord has ‘rolled away from [them] the disgrace of Egypt.’
That phrase caught my attention, because of a comment I read about the parable of the Prodigal Son (or, more accurately, the parable of the Lost SonS) regarding the way grace is portrayed in the story (a thread I’ll pick back up in a few minutes). I wondered what was meant by the “disgrace of Egypt.” I did a little digging and found that a better translation is the “reproach of Egypt”—but that didn’t really provide any more clarity. It could be referring to the events of the narrative just before this passage, when every male in the camp was circumcised as a way of restoring or reaffirming the covenant made between their ancestor Abraham and the Lord God. It could be a chastisement, that they had learned some bad habits in Egypt and now were being put on a better path. It could be a word of encouragement, reminding them that they had been set free from slavery in Egypt but were now free to enter the land promised their ancestors. One commentator even suggested that it meant that the Egyptians taunted them and now they were far enough away that they couldn’t hear it anymore. (I’m pretty sure that interpretation is a stretch.)
It’s not really clear, and I’m not sure it needs to be. The point is, they were at the threshold of a new life. They feasted on the produce of the land, and from that day the manna “ceased,” having fulfilled its purpose. They reaffirmed their covenant with God and were therefore ‘reconciled.’ They were making a new start.
Seems very Lenten, if you think about it.
But did you notice that in the passage from Corinthians, it doesn’t say, “Reconcile yourselves to God”? It says, “Be reconciled to God.” Allow it to happen. Allow God to draw you in close.
The younger son in the parable from Luke allowed himself to be reconciled to his father when his father offered it. Notice that while he was languishing in the pigpen, full reconciliation was not in play. As he sat there, envying the pigs the scraps they received, he wasn’t thinking, “Hey, if I go back Dad will say ‘all is forgiven’ and welcome me back with open arms!” He was prepared to return as a slave, a servant, in his own father’s house. Not expecting any acknowledgement or special treatment. He wasn’t going back to be on good terms with his father; he was going back because he was afraid he would die if he didn’t.
The point of the story is not the son’s repentance and return. It is a point of irritation for me that Western Christianity has so made it about the young man’s conversion that we call it the parable of the Prodigal Son and use it to try to browbeat people into ‘being saved.’ It is not about what the son does.
Nor is it really about what the older son does, either. I think it’s important to look carefully at that part of the story, given the context in which Jesus tells it. The religious authorities and Purity Party express scorn toward Jesus for the company he keeps, tax collectors and sinner, and Jesus tells three parables about lost things—the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost sons. The characterization of the older son as petulant, self-righteous and resentful is certainly meant to poke at their attitude. I do think it’s necessary to take a long hard look at ourselves and ask how often we are acting like the older son, unwilling to rejoice that another has been shown mercy. I, for one, find it much easier to own up to my own inner Younger Son, making mistakes and being forgiven, than to acknowledge that I have an inner Older Son who wants to feel superior to others because I have kept the rules my whole life.
But as I say, the sons aren’t really the point.
The real point Jesus is making is about God’s grace.
The crowds who heard Jesus’ story for the first time would have been shocked by the father’s behavior. His younger son demands his inheritance now. He is, in essence, telling his father he wished he—the father—were dead. And rather than be angry, rather than drive this rude young man out of his house and disown him, which anyone listening would have accepted as an appropriate response, he complies. This means dividing the land and selling part of it, something so contrary to Jewish values of the time. The father does all these shocking things and the boy goes off and ‘squanders the property in dissolute living.’
But what does the father do? Does he tear his clothes, declare his son dead to him, and move on with life?
No. He watches, and he waits. He believes and trusts that his son will one day “come to himself” and return. He doesn’t stop loving his son. And when the day comes that he sees him off on the horizon, he breaks all cultural rules and rushes out to this boy. No self-respecting father would rush off to see even a respectable, well-behaved son. The offspring were supposed to approach the father and ask to be allowed access. It was absolutely scandalous to imagine this ill-used father rushing out to welcome his boy!
But the grace of God is scandalous. It breaks the rules, it reaches out and makes room—even for those we don’t think deserve it. It watches and waits for that moment of turning, that moment of repentance, and then races out to meet us there. The grace of God wraps around us like an embrace and says, “You are welcome. You are loved. You are forgiven.”
That is the reconciliation Paul was talking about. Not some transactional balancing of the scales or settling of accounts, but the joy of being drawn close to the Divine. Finding our relationship with God re-established not by something we actively do, but just by accepting that it is being offered because it is what God wants. It is what brings God joy.
When we are able not only to accept this for ourselves but rejoice when we see grace at work in the lives of others, we become ambassadors for Christ. Sharing an alternate vision of the world. Declaring our belief that the kingdom of God, the community of God, is governed by a different sort of logic. The logic of a love that doesn’t resent others when it seems they are getting a little more grace than we are. A love that recognizes that the goal for each of us is wholeness, and celebrates the ways in which there is always enough grace to heal the brokenness in each of us. Grace expands to fill the empty spaces until each of us can be declared a new creation in Christ. Ambassadors for Christ don’t keep tally of how much it took to fill in each person. Ambassadors for Christ don’t resent the guest list; they give thanks and looks for ways to open the door to God’s kingdom wider and wider, trusting that God’s grace will never run out.
Be glad you righteous, and rejoice in the Lord; shout for joy, all who are true of heart.