Is it necessary to be brought low in order to grasp the love that God is always offering to us? No; it is not necessary that we hit rock bottom in worldly terms, but it is necessary to have grasped the spiritual reality that only with God is life the celebration of joy that was intended for us.
The parable of the two sons suggests that there is more than one way to wander away from God. In one of these ways the shock of God’s absence comes like a revelatory bolt in the midst of suffering and loneliness. In the other the nearness of God is used to shield the distance and separation we have created from God’s will for us. However we recognize the need to return to God, at the heart of our initiation into the church is the recognition that there is nothing we need more than the love of God, who gave his son, and “for our sake...made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.”
There is a false sophistication, manifested as ironic detachment or plain old cynicism, that sees human life as misery and unrelenting pain. But why is suffering more real than the love of God, which Jesus describes in the parable? Paul “implores us” to be “reconciled to Christ,” to be a “new creation.”
This simple description that Paul uses to describe the Christian life, “new creation,” explodes from the page. The way of being in the world changes when new creation emerges, even if the world seems to be the same. Those in love understand Paul’s formulation intimately: When in love, the world changes through the lover’s transformation. When you are in love with Christ, there is a new creation.
It is not perspective alone that changes, however; it is the person who changes in light of God’s love. It is true that one can wander from God’s love, seek one’s own path, see the world from the other side, and the entire time feel that one is still walking at God’s side. This is the conundrum at the heart of Jesus’ parable of the two sons. The one son, the younger, wanders far from the father, determined to assert his independence and do what he chooses with his inheritance. The other, the older son, stays close to his father, though infuriated by his own seeming subservience and, as it turns out, envious of his brother.
The one who wandered far off is brought low by his choices and finds himself humiliated by his circumstances. He vows to return home to serve as a servant in his father’s home. But before he can even see his father, “while he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion.”
The party was soon to begin when the older son, who had stayed home, heard about it. This son “became angry,” and his father pleaded with him to no avail. The older son had already created a scenario in which his brother had “swallowed up your property with prostitutes” and now is being given a celebration.
For the person who is consciously drawing near to God for the first time, there can be a jolt of recognition on hearing this story. God has always been present, waiting for me. New creation is home. For the one who has turned from God, by taking God’s presence and grace for granted, there must be an awakening, an acceptance that new creation is for all, both near and far: “My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours. But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.”
The church calls out to those both near and far on behalf of a God whose compassion knows no bounds, as “ambassadors for Christ, as if God were appealing through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” Come home, for the first time, or the thousandth time, because at the core of human existence is not cynicism but love, which stakes its claim on the son who reached out for all of us from the cross.