First, Paul reminds us what God has done for us. “If anyone is in Christ,” he says, “there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ.”
That is an astonishing claim! In and through Christ, God renews us so completely that it is as if we have become a new creation. Whatever separated us from God, whatever stood in the way of true life and abundant joy, has passed away.
Now, Paul knew as well as anyone that life remains complicated, that Christians continue to struggle with sin, that people suffer and die. Paul himself struggled with sin and suffered greatly.
And yet, in the face of all the tragedy of human life, Paul holds to this vision of new creation. Paul insists that the new creation has already begun, that even now true life is possible in Christ. And Paul himself experienced reconciliation and the new creation when Christ forgave his sin and called him to new life.
And, of course, Paul is quite clear that all this comes to us as a gift from God.
That is Paul’s first point. The second follows directly from it. We who have been made a new creation, we who have received reconciliation, we, Paul says, have been “given… the ministry of reconciliation.” God has entrusted “the message of reconciliation to us.” God has made us “ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal [to others] through us.”
We receive reconciliation from God in and through Christ. And we offer that same reconciliation to others in Christ’s name. Hold that in your head as we turn to our parable.
Mostly people focus on the younger son. He takes his share of his inheritance, travels to a distant country, and squanders it. Having lost everything, having taken a job that Jews of his time would consider degrading, the younger son “came to himself” and decided to return to his father even though he had forfeited the right to be called his father’s son.
When his father saw him, his father ran to him, embraced and kissed him, restored him to his position in the household, and threw a great party.
God’s love is like that.
Not all of us naturally identify with the younger son. But all of us fall away from God. All of us fail to love perfectly. All of us are the prodigal child at least some of the time.
Thankfully, God rushes to us while we are still far off. God embraces us as beloved children. God invites us to a heavenly banquet. In Paul’s language, God reconciles us, restores us, makes us a new creation. And all this is from God. That is the good news. That is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We who were lost have been found by God.
But what about the elder son? He wasn’t prodigal. As he reports it, he deserves to be loved and appreciated and celebrated for his years of faithful service. He hasn’t been, so it galls him to see his father welcome the prodigal son back into his love without any consequences for his irresponsible behavior.
I have some sympathy for the elder brother. Truth be told, I can identify with him. But the more I sit with this parable, the more wrong-headed the older brother seems. And not just because he is self-righteous and mean-spirited, though that is bad enough.
Start with the context. Jesus tells this parable to defend his own practice of welcoming sinners and eating with them. Like the father in the parable, Jesus shares a love feast with those who have forfeited any right to God’s love. Some of the Pharisees and scribes complain about this indiscriminate love, which is exactly what the older brother does. If we identify with the older brother, we are siding with the Pharisees against Jesus. That is not a good place to be!
But there is an even deeper problem that brings us back to the heart of the Christian message and the good news of God’s love for us.
The older brother fundamentally misunderstands his relationship to his father. He thinks his father owes him. After all, at least according to him, he has been working like a slave for many years with no reward.
But I have come to doubt that his service to his father was as good as he claims.
The father deeply loves his children. One has left. That was foolish. That was wrong. And the son who left suffered as a consequence of his poor decision, as the father must have known he would.
If you were the father in those circumstances, what would you want your elder son to do? Stay home and help with the chores? That is not what I would want.
But we don’t have to guess. Look at the father himself. He rushes out to welcome his prodigal son home. Think about Jesus. Jesus wanders around the countryside looking for tax collectors and sinners to welcome into his presence. Surely the father in our parable would want his elder son to do the same. His job was to go after his brother, to help bring his brother home.
That is what Paul says, too. We who have been reconciled have been given the ministry of reconciliation. We who have been made new are ambassadors for Christ. It is through us that God makes his appeal to a lost world.
The fact is, the elder brother has failed the father as badly as his brother has done. He has not been a hard-working, unrewarded slave who has a claim on his father’s love. He has been a self-absorbed failure as an ambassador of reconciliation who compounds his failure with self-righteousness.
So the elder son dramatically over-emphasizes the value of his service to his father. He also fails to appreciate his father’s generosity when he complains that his father has never given him so much as a young goat.
This, too, is wrong. The father reminds his elder son, “all that is mine is yours.” The father has given his son everything. But his son has been too blind to see it.
Like his brother in that far country, the elder son doubts his father’s love. The younger doesn’t believe his father can love him because he doesn’t deserve it. The elder doesn’t believe his father loves him even though he deserves it. For very different reasons, both fail to see just how generous and expansive the father’s love really is.
The elder son’s two-fold mistake is our lesson. We don’t slave away for God hoping for petty reward. We work at Christian mission because God loves us, because we have been made a new creation, because all that the father has is ours, because we have been reconciled to God.
And our work is precisely to be ambassadors for Christ, to practice the ministry of reconciliation, to share God’s love with others who, like us, don’t deserve it but, like us, have it anyway. Because God’s love is like that.
And so my prayer for us is that we can glimpse the depth of God’s love for us and that we can share God’s love with our neighbors and our world, that we can truly be ambassadors for Christ, ambassadors of love. In Jesus’ name. Amen.