Lent IV, 27 Mar 22
Reconciliation is a word perhaps we don’t use often but it’s crucial to our existence. In the last few days there’s been much relief as Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe who had been imprisoned in Iran for six years has been reunited with her family. She and Anoosheh Ashoori must be thrilled to be back on friendly soil and with those whom they love. They have been reconciled with their family. There are other instances of reconciliation: we might think of a family member or Church brother or sister or a neighbour with whom we once had an argument which led to us not speaking to them and may be even greater animosity and whom we are now civil with. In other instances in the news we might think of the need for reconciliation in Northern Ireland between Nationalists and Unionists.
One of the most thorough and largest campaigns of reconciliation happened in South Africa following the ending of Apartheid in 1990 and 1991. As you will no doubt know from about 1948 until then there had been legalised segregation between the different ethnic communities and the minority white population assumed superiority and acts of terrible hatred were committed against people of colour. I visited Cape Town a few years ago and the people were very pleased that Apartheid had ended but the divisions that still exist shocked me. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established as a significant part of that process. It was chaired by the Archbishop of Cape Town, Desmond Tutu, who died three months ago.
It did tremendous work with testimony heard during the 1990s from thousands of individuals who endured awful hatred. One of the main criticisms made against the process was the absence of what many called justice. It wanted to hear from both communities but to hear from those who perpetrated the racist acts an amnesty was often given, which often aggrieved those who had been the victims.
I’m oversimplifying an incredibly complex situation but it throws up the same issues as those in the Gospel today, that glorious parable which we usually call that of the Prodigal - meaning ‘lost’ - Son, which is all about reconciliation. In a nut shell, it is all about how the youngest son ends up in a rock bottom situation and has to return to his father acknowledging he has done wrong and they are reconciled. But I think we will see that it is actually more complicated than that.
Let’s start with the obvious point about the youngest son. Notice how caught up in his own priorities he is when he addresses his dad: “Let me have the share of the estate that would come to me.” Maybe we should always be concerned when we use sentences which refer to ourselves twice or more, for example: “I don’t like what you have done to me.” The youngest son ends up in this “distant country” and one of the things we learn about it later on in that no one offers him anything there when he ends up in trouble. Once the money has run out he is alone. This ungenerous place is the place where he has chose not go and spend his money.
The youngest reaches rock bottom. He’s mucking out the pigs and if this doesn’t sound very nice to us, to a first century Jew it was utterly abhorrent because of the assumptions about ritual purity and the views on pigs. The rubbish they’re eating begins to look tantalising. We might think of the Psalm 130, which we’ll look at next week in our Lent Study series: “Out of the depths have I cried to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice.” The prodigal son decides to return home.
One beautiful detail in the story Jesus tells us is that the dad saw his son returning “while he was still a long way off.” In other words, Dad was looking out for him. He hadn’t given up hope. He hadn’t washed his hands and said, “Well, that’s up to him, if he wants to do that he’s nothing to do with me anymore.” He waits patiently. This is a necessary quality if we are to be compassionate. Another characteristic required is generosity. We see this in the fattened calf, the best robe, the ring, the sandals, all these things the dad gives the returning youngest son. The ring indicates a relationship, a faithful and enduring relationship. We are to see in the dad’s response the generosity of God the Father and how we are to be actively in a relationship with Him.
That’s the primary way to see this parable and it could have just ended there, but our Lord makes it longer by then focusing on the eldest son, who, we discover, resents this outpouring of generosity: “Look, all these years I have slaved for you and never once disobeyed your orders.” How awful it is that that awful person be treated well given what he’s done! Reconciliation then is rarely just about two people just deciding to rub along and being able to past difference behind them, there are usually others to bring along too: those who are outraged on behalf of the person who has been wronged, those who perhaps take a different view on these things. When we think about issues like slavery, especially with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge visiting the Caribbean last week, reconciliation also requires new generations to be reconciled to their past and to those who also live in the shadow of the past.
Our second reading draws this out by talking about the world: “God in Christ was reconciling the world to Himself, not holding men’s fault’s against them.” Forgiveness is a necessary step towards reconciliation, which we might define as a re-setting or a putting right of a relationship. You cannot have a relationship with God without reference to me and vice-versa. Christians should have a personal but not an individualised relationship with God. Hence we gather together to worship and to pray. The answers to our prayers will be evident in the lives of others. In the penitential psalms, like psalm 51 which we looked at last week in our study series, the end result is communal worship. This is our expression that we know we are reconciled to God, because we are able to rub along with each other and we will have disagreements with each other along the way but the reconciliation of Christ wrought on the Cross is stronger than anything else.
We might especially think of this on Mothering Sunday. I think it’s useful to use the slightly old fashioned word “mothering” because it recognises it’s not just our biological mothers who support us in this way and nor should it be. Even if we had a pretty strained relationship with our mum, today is a celebration of others who love us and also a reminder that we are all children of God, bound together through a shared baptism. Mary gives birth to the Church, the Body of Christ, when Jesus is born, and again when blood and water flowed from the pierced side of the Lord on the Cross. Through her tears at Calvary she reveals herself to be our mother too as Jesus says to her to take the Beloved Disciple to herself: “Woman, here is your son,” (St John 19:25). We celebrate her motherhood too.
There’s the importance of gift in all this. The youngest son gets off on the wrong foot because he sees the inheritance from his dad as a right, a possession, as his already. He’s forgotten that inheritance is a gift. So also with the oldest son he forgets that the gifts dad wants to give to the Prodigal Son are His to give, and His alone. That gift-giving is not to be restricted or narrowed by the hardness of another. Days like Mothering Sunday can be a danger because it can give us a sense that we are entitled to presents. Gifts stop being gifts and they then become dependent on our sense of self-worth. Now this isn’t to be used as an excuse if you’ve forgotten to buy Mum a present (!) but we should guard ourselves against a sense of entitlement, whatever the day and whoever we are.
Brothers and sisters, let’s then appreciate the importance of reconciliation, the putting right of relationships, with God and with each other. Let’s realise this is a complicated process involving more people than we might initially consider. And in all this rediscover the importance of gift as opposed to entitlement. This blessings bestowed by the father in the Parable are not some future, anticipated entity but are known in the present as is the joy of knowing Christ and being members of His Church. Amen.