This Sunday we read—again: we read it during Lent, too—the magnificent story of the Prodigal Son. But the context of the story, at the opening, is the Pharisees and scribes complaining, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
We can think about this in terms of action and passivity. Jesus seems to his critics to be too passive, as if he doesn’t care. His answer is that they don’t understand just how active the Father is.
We start with Moses arguing with God over the Golden Calf. God tells Moses his plan “that my wrath may blaze against them to consume them.” It often seems to us that God is active in punishment, and passive in relenting. Because Jesus is not destroying sinners, he seems to be at odds with this active God of the Old Testament.
That wrath is real. There is punishment. But the surprising thing we learn is that punishment is God’s inactivity. Salvation is his activity.
In our story, God has already acted to save them. But they choose to worship a molten calf—which is dumb. For God to ignore them is to leave them alone in the desert, worshiping a god who cannot save. What we call, and experience as, wrath, is the misery that will happen if God does not save us. Punishment happens when God is not active.
Instead, Moses reminds God of his promises. God has acted to make those promises, and God has promised to act.
We begin three weeks reading First Timothy. Paul begins by talking about God’s mercy toward him, which has rescued him, not from Egyptian slavery or the desert of Sinai, from from blasphemy and arrogance. “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners,” to get us out of this mess.
It seems ironic that Paul ends this touching discussion of God’s mercy and our sin with a benediction that sounds cold: “To the king of ages, incorruptible, invisible, the only God, honor and glory forever.” The link is action. God is not weak, he does not fail, he does not flop. He is the strong God—the God of salvation.
Jesus warms to his theme with two short parables. He takes from Matthew the story of the man looking for his sheep—acting! He adds to Matthew’s version the action of laying the sheep on his shoulders, and then calling together his friends and neighbors to celebrate.
Then the story, unique to Luke, of the woman looking for her coin, who lights a lamp, sweeps, searches carefully—then calls together a celebration.
He is turning inside-out the perception of the Pharisees. They think he allows sinners to come because he is passive. He describes himself as the most active.
And consider the father’s action and the sons’ passivity in the Prodigal Son.
The Prodigal demands—what the Father has earned. And the Prodigal wastes. Action? Of the lowest kind.
A famine comes. From the Prodigal’s perspective, the famine is the non-providence of God, God the Father not taking care of him. But we can see that God was caring for him. Contrast the Prodigal’s behavior, which is busy but accomplishes nothing, with God’s behavior, which is slow and steady, and accomplishes much. Which one is really active?
We can see more about the Prodigal by looking at his Elder Brother. They are opposites in way, to be sure—but also similar.
The Elder stands outside, refuses to enter the house. When the Father comes to him, the Elder says, “not once did I disobey”—a very inactive way to respect his Father. And he says, “You never gave me” (an accusation of inaction) even a young goat to feast on with my friends.”
The Father says, we feasted together. The Elder’s accusation is not that he didn’t eat well. His accusation is that the Father didn’t help him wander off. The Father wanted him close.
So too the Prodigal, who cares for his Father only so far as he can take stuff and leave. When he returns, he is willing to confess, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you,” but only so that he can get bread, like those who are not sons. How richly ironic is statement, “I no longer deserve to be called your son.” He doesn’t care about being a son; doesn’t care about the richness of that relationship; doesn’t care about the intense action, in this parable and in the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin, of celebrating together. He confesses his sin only because he doesn’t mind sacrificing his relationship so that he can sit outside and eat.
But how active is the Father. He gives. And then he watches. “While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him.” Where the sons are limp and stand outside, the Father rushes to embrace.
He calls for a robe, and a ring, and sandals—not necessary things, just celebratory actions. He calls a feast. And then, while the Elder pouts outside, “His father came out and pleaded with him. . . . Now we must celebrate and rejoice.”
They might accuse Jesus of being passive, for letting sinners come to him. No, he says, I am active, like the Father. You, who only want to stand outside and criticize, and demand your rewards, you are the passive ones.
Where is Jesus calling you to the greater action of his love?