Glynn Cardy 27th March 2022
Charles Wesley, he of musical and Methodist fame, once wrote “Jesu thou art all compassion, pure unbounded love thou art”.
I love the word ‘unbounded’. A kind of 18th century way of saying ‘unconditional’. A love with no bounds. A love that doesn’t stop at the fences of convenience, convention, or culture. A love that doesn’t stop when the morality police tell it to. A love that crosses over into prisons, into places of ill-repute, into places where we have been hurt or wronged. A love that goes where it can be wounded. A love that makes difficult choices therefore, and bears the consequences of being wronged.
In our first reading today, from one of Paul’s seven authentic letters in the Christian Scriptures, comes this: “Even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way.” (2 Cor 5:16b).
What on earth does that mean?
I would suggest that this is Paul the mystic speaking, and saying Christ (which means ‘the Anointed’) is now no longer just the historical Jesus, as in just bounded by the restraints of a 1st century male rabbi from Nazareth. The word ‘Christ’ is now, according to Paul, is to be used more broadly. It is like an essence of compassion. A compassion known in Jesus, but now unbounded by the restraints of Jesus’ time – like his culture, his life, his gender, his race. This essence of compassion is the essence of the god Jesus believed in, talked about, and lived out. And this essence, this god, is seen, is known, in how we treat one another.
Paul the mystic goes on though, to say that we, Jesus followers, are ‘in’ this essence, so immersed in it that it not only defines but transforms us. When we are in this essence of compassion, we are a ‘new creation’. Or as he says in his letter to the Galatians, ‘it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.’ The bounds, the bonds, of our old life have been broken, and the essence of compassion is now that which has come to define us, redesign us, continually refine us, and align us with the purposes of god.
Paul the mystic then says the purpose of us being in this essence/anointing of compassion and being transformed by it, is that we are to be ambassadors of reconciliation. Our ambassadorial purpose is to reconcile people to each other – siblings to each other, families to each other, neighbours to each other, communities and countries to each other.
Our purpose is to make with justice and grace, the structures of demeaning and the demeaners themselves, both answerable to and transformed by the demeaned, so that all become like one human family grounded in mutual love and respect. Our purpose, in the name of unbounded love, is to step where unbounded love steps, namely over the fences and barriers of division (like race, gender, class) in order to reconcile and heal and make justice real.
This is that love of which Charles Wesley sings. A love that doesn’t stop at the walls we’ve erected. A love that doesn’t stop when a bible or a law or our pride says to. A love that crosses over. A love that goes where it can be wounded, and is.
To be ambassadors of reconciliation and to live the essence of compassion involves making choices. Sometimes choices that are misunderstood. Sometimes choices that are very costly. Just because we are motivated by love doesn’t mean its going to be easy.
And our second reading today tells us a story about reconciliation and uneasy love.
The parable of the Prodigal Son is not really about the son. That is to say the younger son. Some, of course, make it so. Turning this parable into a morality tale about how it’s never a good idea to fall out with your father, insult him, and leave home. You’ll end up with the pigs or worse, and then have to come crawling back. Then if your father is all loving and kind, he’ll forgive you and your life can return to the way it was.
According to this way of reading the parable, the father is actually God. God is all loving and kind and forgiving. And we sinful humans are like the younger son. Forgiven screw-ups.
However, most of us at times fall out with our fathers. Some more so than others. But we all do it. It’s part of growing up, differentiating. And a wise father knows to sit lightly with slights, sit lightly with money, and all those things we sometimes mistakenly think are important but aren’t. And a wise father knows to sit tightly with just one thing: the flickering flame of relationship – and to guard that flame from all the ill and misguided winds that might seek to extinguish it.
The Prodigal Son parable isn’t really about the older son either. Indeed, some wonder why he gets a mention at all. He seems just an add-on. Couldn’t Jesus just have wrapped the story when the father wrapped the younger son in his arms? Do we need to know about the jealous elder sibling?
Many, on a first or third read, identify with the older son and his anger at the injustice of welcoming the younger home with fattened calf and festivities. It is one thing to welcome the errant spendthrift back through the familial gates, but another to seemingly ignore his transgressions and wheel out the drinks wagon. Some lengthy and visible prayer, fasting, and groveling penance would have been more appropriate the older-brother-in-us thinks. We want our version of justice to accompany any mercy.
As for the father figure, it’s important to know that while readers today praise his forgiveness, magnanimity, and mercy, the first century audience of this parable would have thought him a fool. The younger son’s request for his inheritance was synonymous with wishing his father dead. For that’s when inheritances happened. Wishing your father dead was not behaviour easily forgivable in the patriarchal household of a 1st century shame-honour culture. That request and its shameful implication would have wounded the father in his heart. To ignore the insult would have been considered foolish, dishonourable.
Note here is a wounded father, biting his tongue, responding not with anger but with acquiescence, not exercising his patriarchal right and his power to reprove, but letting it go.
The father’s response, giving the younger the monies he desired, jeopardized the solvency and the viability of the family estate. This estate would have provided for not just the father’s nuclear family, but an extended family, including labourers and servants. This is the same estate that, in time, after the father’s death would go to the new patriarch, the older son. To threaten all this for the momentary wellbeing of the younger son was irresponsible. Wouldn’t it have been better to have sent the younger son on his way with some goodwill, letters of introduction, and food for the journey?
So, the father is seen as a fool. A wounded fool, who allowed his son to insult him without consequences. A wounded fool, who by his frivolous generosity insulted his older son. The same older son, who later in the story, then insults his father when the younger returns. He won’t dine with them to welcome the prodigal home. Children insulting their father seems to be the new norm in this family.
From the onlooker perspective, the perspective of the neighbours, the perspective of Jesus’ audience, this looks therefore like a family unravelling. From the perspective of honour and shame, of fiscal prudence and responsibility, it looks a mess. The great father hugging the younger son scene is not exemplary of filial forgiveness but of fatherly foolishness.
This whole counter-cultural story is about that love unbounded, that love that disregards the rules in order to seek and seed reconciliation. Sometimes children, no matter how good or not their life has been, demand their inheritance and run (unaware that their real inheritance is the relationships that nurtured them). They take and go. Sometimes the harder the parents resist the demands of such children the harder any reconciliation becomes.
And it is not uncommon that other siblings of the one who takes and goes are very critical, not just of that sibling, but of how their parents have handled the situation. Occasionally they judge their parents for being too tough, but in most cases I suspect, they judge them for being too lenient. According to older siblings, their parents are too permissive and soft towards their younger siblings.
Note here though this father isn’t motivated by the desire to have his sons love him, or even honour him. It’s not about him. He’s not the centre around which his children orbit (as some patriarchs and matriarchs wish to be, and some children wish to revolve). His motivation is different. He is motivated by the desire to build a lasting relationship between his sons. He gives so those he loves may gain.
When the younger brother left, the possibility of irreparable damage in the relationship with the older brother was immense. Lots of blame for lots of things over lots of years could have been directed by the older towards the younger. They might never have been reconciled.
When the younger returned it was important that he be restored, made to feel like an insider, not like the outsider he had told himself he was. There were reasons the younger had taken off. Feelings inside himself. Feelings of being restricted, not being his own person. In breaking out of the family compound he’d done a lot of damage, chiefly to himself. His father knew that and wanted to reset the younger son’s self-understanding and self-worth.
When the older brother refused to eat with the father, instead of smarting from the insult and responding with some patriarchal edict, the father goes to him and shames himself by pleading with the elder, saying ‘all that I have is yours’.
In an honour-shame culture the father again, like in giving the younger an inheritance, like in welcoming the younger back with no reprimand, here again in pleading with the older son (rather than reproving) the father chooses the path of shame. In order to bring reconciliation into the family, to restore fraternal love and respect, the father walks the path of shame, bearing the insults in his body and soul and not responding in kind.
Did the father succeed? Is this shame recipe for family harmony one that works? Did the brothers, especially after the father’s death, love each other, or simply get on? The parable doesn’t tell us. There is no resurrection scene.
What the parable does tell us that is while love can be honourable, lauded, and reciprocated, when we seek to be reconcilers, restorers of fractured families and communities, sometimes love can involve walking the path of shame, being misunderstood, being wounded in your soul, and never quite knowing whether you’re been effectual or not. Being ‘all compassion’ is not easy.