Monday, February 17, 2014

February 16, 2014 - Having A Heart Like Jesus: The Importance of Reconciliation

Luke 15:11-32

We have been studying the theme of Having A Heart Like Jesus, and this morning we come to The Importance of Reconciliation.  Our text is one of the most well-known passages of all Scripture – the parable of the prodigal son.

11 Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons.
12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.
13 “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living.
14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need.
15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs.
16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
17 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death!
18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.
19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’
20 So he got up and went to his father.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.
23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate.
24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing.
26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on.
27 ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him.
29 But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
31 “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.
32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”

Before talking about reconciliation, I thought it would be helpful to define the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation.  This passage certainly contains forgiveness and reconciliation, so what is the difference? 

Forgiveness is more of an internal act.  As one writer put it, to forgive is to set a prisoner free, and discover the prisoner was you.  Forgiveness is an act of the will, where we make the decision to let go of a grudge, to let go of a hurt, to set aside the pain of something that someone has done to us.  We can forgive anyone who has hurt us, even someone who is no longer alive.  Forgiveness does not require the participation of anyone but ourselves.  While forgiveness can be solitary, reconciliation requires at least two people.  Reconciliation requires that we deal with another person, as we seek to repair a relationship.

Time does not allow me to answer every question that is raised by the issue of reconciliation.  Our will be a rather cursory view of what it means to be reconciled. 

Have you had the experience of being told by your parents you needed to apologize to someone?  Have you approached someone to apologize to them?  That is, without a doubt, one of the most difficult things we can do.  Have you ever been surprised when someone has approached you to be reconciled?

It’s very easy to speak of the importance of faith, all the while overlooking one of its core principles – reconciliation.

Broken relationships are not only all around us, but they leak a bitterness that poisons families, churches, communities, and our own souls.

The parable of the prodigal son introduces us to a young man who needed reconciliation in several ways. 

First, he needed to be reconciled to himself. 
That may sound a bit strange, but at some point in life we are all in need of self-reconciliation.  Over the years, as I have listened to people talk about their lives, one of the most common themes is the need for reconciliation, and very often it is the need to be reconciled to one’s self – to make peace with something that has happened, making peace with one’s self.

This young man would fall into the category of a phrase some of us have heard before – you were raised better than that.  Have you heard that before?  I sure did.  It’s a way of reminding us where we come from and of the values we’ve been taught.

This young man, at the beginning of the parable, is not very likeable, is he?  He’s arrogant, indifferent to the feelings of others, rude, self-centered, and self-absorbed.  Considering the actions of his father, it’s hard to imagine this young man was raised to act in the way in which he did.  His father certainly demonstrates some beautiful qualities – love, grace, acceptance, generosity, and many others.  Sometimes we say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, but in the case of the younger son, the apple fell from the tree, rolled down the hill, off a cliff, and ended up a long way from the tree and its good roots.

Unfortunately, we can become so separated from the values of the faith taught to us that we are in need of reconciliation with ourselves.  This young man had forsaken all the bedrock, foundational principles taught to him by his father, and his life fell apart because he had.

Second, he needed to be reconciled with others, especially his family.
Take just a cursory glance at our world and what do we see?  The wreckage of human relationships and the damage that comes when people cannot – or will not – be reconciled one to the other.

You don’t have to leave home to be a prodigal.  Some of the most fractured relationships are not ones separated by distance; some of them live under the same roof, or the same steeple.

Words seldom convict people to seek out reconciliation.  It takes something that moves the heart in a very profound way.  This is one of the lessons of the prodigal son.  He came to his senses.  You can’t ever give up on a person.

Reconciliation is very difficult; we cannot kid ourselves that it is anything but difficult.  But it is not impossible.  Reconciliation can take place when we are willing to reach out our hand to another person and to let go of the bitterness that can destroy us.

Reconciliation does not mean that a relationship will be restored.  The father was blessed that his son returned home and their relationship was renewed, but reconciliation does not always guarantee this will happen.  Sometimes, the hurt between people is so deep that a relationship can never again be restored to what it was previously.  But what reconciliation does, even when a relationship is not restored, is to remove the bitterness and anger than can destroy a person.  It is tragic enough when a relationship has been destroyed; it is doubly tragic when the people involved destroy themselves by hanging onto anger, hurt, and bitterness.

Third, he needed to be reconciled to God.
The father sees the younger son as more than a rebel, more than a prodigal, more than a failure – he sees him as a person and, more importantly, as his son.  How often do we allow labels to prevent us from seeing someone for who they truly are?  If God has a label for us, it is child.  It is not failure, rebel, or prodigal.

It is, sometimes, the people who have suffered judgment and rejection who have the greatest sense of the need for reconciliation and the greatest willingness to seek it.

The son in this parable knew he could return home.  He was fortunate to return home to a father who would welcome him, not one who would hold a grudge or be bitter towards him.  The father is the hero in this parable, not the prodigal.  It is the father who continues to watch for his son until the day he sees him while he was still a long way off (verse 20).  The father, undoubtedly, represents God and the importance of reconciliation with him.

When we think about reconciliation, one of our questions is what prompts people to seek reconciliation?  Why do some people seek reconciliation, while others will never, ever seek it?

In the story of the prodigal, it was, evidently, an empty stomach.  After blowing through all of his money, the prodigal finds his friends are gone and he realizes he is in very bad circumstances.  Hunger finally brings him to his senses.  As Frank Schaeffer, in his book Patience With God, writes – the returned Prodigal finds his father’s forgiveness and love heavenly, whereas his stay-at-home “good” brother resents the lavish welcome his father is giving to his wayward, undeserving brother, who has all the wrong and bad ideas and who has screwed up his life.  The older brother’s focus is on himself and his good standing with his father.  The good son finds his father’s non-judgmental forgiveness of his fallen brothers hellish.  The wayward son didn’t even have good motives for coming home!  He was just hungry!  He wasn’t even repenting in some spiritual way!  He just wanted lunch! (Patience With God, Frank Schaeffer, pp. 222-223).

Schaeffer is probably correct in what he writes about the older son – the prodigal came home only because he was hungry.  But so what?  The hunger brought him home, and that is what really matters.  Coming home, where he knew he would find food, also brought about reconciliation with his father.  Though the prodigal didn’t come home with reconciliation on his mind, it’s what he received – along with a hot meal – and someone, after all, has to be the first to reach out and offer reconciliation.  In this case, it was the father.  It is a beautiful image painted by Jesus in verse 20 – so he got up and went to his father.  But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.  It would be easy to say the father, in response to the actions of his son, should have wrapped his arms around the young man’s neck.  But he didn’t.  He was full of compassion, grace, and love.  He wanted to be reconciled with his son.   

The older brother, angry that his father would welcome his brother with open arms – and without anger or judgment – allowed himself to become bitter towards, and distant from, his father.  The father was fortunate that one son returned to him, but he found that the other was just as much of a prodigal, though he never left home.

The parable does not go on to tell us whether or not the older son attended the celebration in honor of his brother’s return.  He may well have remained outside of the celebration, allowing his bitterness to keep him from being grateful that his brother had returned and was once again a part of their family.  If he did not attend, it was his loss.  A lack of attendance would certainly be an effort to express his disapproval, but the celebration would not be canceled.  It is sad to think that the older brother could only look upon the joy of others, refusing to participate in that joy, but that is what happens when a person cannot accept, or offer, reconciliation.

God always offers reconciliation.  Always.

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