Love Is Never Wasted
“Is love ever wasted?” That question was asked in a discussion about this week’s texts on the Pulpit Fiction podcast. It was asked in relation to the parable of the prodigal son, but I think it is an important interpretive idea for all of our readings today. Each passage celebrates the abundance of God’s providence in different ways, and at the core of it all is a celebration of God’s never failing love for us. Of course, when we see ourselves as the recipients of grace and mercy we typically do not think of God’s love as having been wasted. How could we?
Yet when we think about those whom we find hard to love, those who take advantage of others, and those who do not seem to meet our standards of responsibility it gets a little harder not to think of God’s love as wasteful. Or maybe it’s not the love that’s wasteful. Maybe it’s the missed opportunities to be loved and to accept grace and mercy that we lament.
That is, after all, the point of Paul’s words to the church in Corinth. Through his words to them he urges us to be – to live and act as though we are – reconciled to God. He wants us to know that God has taken away the barriers that would keep us from living God centered lives. He wants us to understand that because of Jesus we can begin to see things in a new way, not according to a human point of view but according to God’s point of view.
I can’t read this passage without thinking of “God’s eye” crafts and summer camp. I once spent a whole summer reflecting on this passage from I Corinthians every day in between river runs and hiking trips. I remember looking for all the larva in the river that spend one portion of their life in one form under water and then burst into a new form and a new life outside of the water. Everything that had nurtured them became foreign. Everything that had threatened them became natural and life giving.
At the time, it seemed to me that this level of conversion was the essence of Christian faith. I could look at my own life and see how things had changed over time. Yet I still had a feeling that there was something missing. Eventually, I came to realize that the “something” that was missing was that I was still putting the story into human terms. I was still viewing the story as my story instead of God’s story.
For God created the larva and the insect and every other creeping thing that creeps, and God’s reconciling love goes beyond the stages and phases of our lives. And God’s transforming love is not a one time thing, but it works on us constantly like a sculptor chipping away everything that is not in keeping with the desired image. God’s love is, in fact, the very substance of our being, and God is actively seeking to be reconciled with all of creation.
And we are an integral part of what God is doing. In fact Paul tells us that we are ambassadors for God. So, for goodness sake, be reconciled to God! And just how do we do that? Well, according to Paul, it begins with how we view each other. We must not look at each other from a human perspective. We must see one another as God sees us.
That’s why the parable of the prodigal is so important to this message of reconciliation – it helps us to see as God sees. Often we think of this story as a demonstration of how lavishly God loves us – and there’s no escaping that – but today I’ve asked you to think about who is the most wasteful in this parable and which character do you identify with the most.
The young son is wasteful in his disregard for his family and his home. He is the epitome of self-centeredness. He is the quintessential spoiled brat. The father is wasteful in his lavish welcome, even running out to greet the son and throwing off all sense of dignity and pride. I love the father for this. I love that he doesn’t even answer his son’s confession and immediately calls for his care. The older brother is wasteful in his solitude, shutting himself off from joy and choosing resentment over reunion. But even more so, he has been wasteful of the time that he has had with his father.
Now, it’s important to remember that Jesus told this parable in response to the Pharisees’ complaints that he was eating with tax collectors and sinners. I can’t help but wonder what they thought. Probably it was something like, “Is he just trying to make us mad? That kid did everything wrong that could be wrong. Why did he tell us a story about a terrible father?”
And, if we are honest with ourselves, there is a part of us that may think the same thing. I asked you earlier to think about who you identify with the most, but for most of us it is the elder brother. There may be times when we have squandered our resources. We have become a nation of debtors, and many of us are known as “credit poor”. But no, most of us have never been so far down as to look to the food trough – even though many in our community are food insecure.
Whether we are in the top 1% or the roughly 50% living in the middle, most of us can feel morally justified in saying, “I got mine and you need to work for yours.” Yet, in the economy of the Kingdom of God things often get flipped upside down. The son who has treated his father like he was dead is received as returning from the dead! The father who should disown his son has claimed him and called him “son.” And not only that but he pleads with the older brother to come in and celebrate.
I think the most difficult part about this parable is that the oldest son seems to have a legitimate claim. “How dare this son of yours”, he says, “get away with all of this when I work like a slave for you?”
Oh how easy it is to think of our work, our families, even some of our friendships as burdens that enslave us rather than part of the providence of God. At least that’s what it can look like from a human point of view. Yet God has given us these relationships and responsibilities because they are opportunities to experience grace and mercy and forgiveness.
That’s not so bad when you get to receive it, but it can leave you longing when you’re the one that has to give it. The truth of the matter is that grace and mercy are not really yours or mine to give. It’s more that we pass it on from God.
My daughter and I were talking the other day about how difficult it can be to love when you’re angry, and I told her about a waiter in one of the restaurants I managed in another life. He was a sold out Christian, and the most genuine believer on my staff. He was also really bad at ringing things up on the register. I had to fix at least three checks of his every shift. At one point my frustration must have been obvious because every time he came to me after that he would just say, “You’re going to have to find a new way to love me.”
And so the father says to the eldest son, “This brother of yours is still your brother. He isn’t dead, and now we have a new opportunity to love him.” And more than that, this story lets us know that when we find ourselves looking in from the outside, it’s not just because we are worried that those people are going to get our stuff. It’s because God’s grace to others can call us to question whether or not God’s love is still for us.
At least that’s what Henri Nouwen realized when he sat at the foot of Rembrandt’s painting of the Prodigal son. Nouwen was a spiritual leader who turned from a career in academia to live in a community of people with special needs. He’s probably the last person you would expect to struggle with the idea of God’s love being for him, yet in The Return of The Prodigal he wrote:
”For most of my life I have struggled to find God, to know God, to love God. I have tried hard to follow the guidelines of the spiritual life—pray always, work for others, read the Scriptures—and to avoid the many temptations to dissipate myself. I have failed many times but always tried again, even when I was close to despair.
Now I wonder whether I have sufficiently realized that during all this time God has been trying to find me, to know me, and to love me. The question is not “How am I to find God?” but “How am I to let myself be found by God?” The question is not “How am I to know God?” but “How am I to let myself be known by God?” And, finally, the question is not “How am I to love God?” but “How am I to let myself be loved by God?” God is looking into the distance for me, trying to find me, and longing to bring me home."
And our home is found in God’s embrace, and we celebrate it together around this table today. Just as the Israelites celebrated the passover of God, we celebrate the passover of Christ. For we are both in the midst of the wilderness of Lent and living in response to the resurrection of Christ.
God is longing to bring you home; will you stay outside of the banquet hall or will you name the one in need as your next of kin and celebrate with him or her? Will you accept the one that feels unworthy? Will you love like the father? Will you be reconciled to God so that God’s reconciliation can work through you? It seems like a pretty big risk, I know. But, don’t worry. Love is never wasted. In fact, it’s kind of like energy. It never really gets created or destroyed; it just changes form. May God’s never ending love transform you and me this day that we might become the righteousness of God. And to God be the glory for that. Now and always, Amen!