Best of Daily Reflections: Finding God in All the Wrong Places: In the Midst of Shame
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.”
This parable is one of the most well-known of all the stories Jesus told. It is about a forgiving father and his two wayward sons. The younger son comes to his father to ask for his share of the inheritance before his father has died. Then he goes off to a far country and squanders the money entrusted to him. Having lost most of his dignity, he hires himself out to a pig farmer and soon loses what little dignity he had left. Realizing he has sinned against God and shamed his family, he “comes to himself” and rehearses what he will say when he returns home and sees his father: “I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”
Seeing his wayward son far off in the distance, the elderly father is filled with compassion and runs out of the house, not only to welcome him home, but to hug and kiss him. The father responds to his son’s confession by treating him like royalty: a robe, a ring, sandals for his feet, and a fatted calf for the homecoming celebration. He says, “This son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!”
When we began commissioning artwork for a new building at Duke Divinity School, we found a sculptor who had a rich Scriptural imagination. We wanted the new space to reflect the church’s commitment to forgiveness and reconciliation. So we sat with her and read Luke 15 over and over. How do we portray this Prodigal Son story in one frozen frame—in one Sculpture? First, we realized that the story is incomplete without reference to both of the ungrateful sons. Then we discussed how it is that the father ties the story together. So we decided the sculpture will have all three figures, the frail, crook-backed father in the center with his right arm around the younger son who is penitently kneeling beside him with his left arm around the father’s back, his left hand resting on his father’s heart. The elder son is standing tall on the other side of the Father, arms folded across his chest, leaning back, looking away. But the father’s left hand is reaching out to the elder son, trying to draw him in, and the father is looking at him with a pleading, hopeful look. If you have time, take a moment to enjoy the sculptor’s work.
There you have it. The “is” and the “ought.”
Reconciliation achieved—but also much work left to be done. There is still the aching, still the lingering consequences of sin. The elderly father now is more frail and weary-worn. The younger son knows he has brought his family shame and deeply hurt his father. And there is still the vision of what can be, as the father continues to reach out to the elder son and invite him into the party. We yearn for God’s Kingdom to come in its fullness.
God embraces us like that forgiving father. Wide and deep, his arms expand outward, drawing all in to feast and celebrate, making a place for everyone at God’s table: those who have “come to themselves” like the younger brother who repented after shaming his family, as well as those who stand apart like the elder brother and refuse to come to the party. God invites all of us into the party to “feast on forgiveness.”
QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION: Christian forgiveness is not simply a word of acquittal; nor is it something that merely refers backward. Rather, its aim is the restoration of communion with God and with others. Reconciliation should be the goal of all forgiveness. How does your local church practice “reconciliation”? Paul writes that God calls all of us—laity and clergy alike—to a “ministry of reconciliation.” Where do you need reconciliation in your life—at home, at work, at church, in your local community?
PRAYER: Gracious and Loving God, thank you for the gift of your forgiveness that moves us into a future not bound by the brokenness of the past. Help us feel your on-going grace at work in our lives that frees us from sin and moves us toward renewed communion with others. May we live as forgiven and reconciled people this day and every day. Amen.
P.S. from Mark Roberts: Today, Rev. Susan Pendleton Jones continues a five-day series of Finding God in All the Wrong Places: In the Midst of Fear, Lack, Grief, Shame, and Hopelessness. All of us experience these places of pain and struggle at different times in our lives. Isn’t it wonderful that, as we read the stories of Jesus, we discover anew that God is already there in these hard places? He will not only walk with us through life’s most difficult times but will see us through—in unexpected and unimaginable ways. I'm delighted to welcome her as this week's "guest reflector," and I commend her reflections to you with enthusiasm. In her "day job," Susan is the Associate Dean for United Methodist Initiatives at Duke Divinity School. She and her husband, Greg, are great friends and partners of The High Calling.
Image courtesy of Laity Lodge, one of our sister programs in the Foundations for Laity Renewal.