“Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lack’d any thing.”
(First stanza of Love by George Herbert)
Stories are so important in shaping our lives. I have lived with a story all of my life that continues to speak to me. The story I am referring to is the story that Jesus told in Luke 15.
We know the story as that of the prodigal son but of course there are two boys in that story. It is the story of two sons. One son, the youngest, almost let guilt and shame keep him from returning home and receiving the father’s gift of grace and forgiveness. The oldest son allowed arrogance and pride to stand in his way of experiencing the embrace of his father.
There are many unforgettable lines in this story. One of those lines is found in the speech that the younger son had memorized to tell his father upon his return-“I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” Another line is his father‘s declaration that there would be a party because this son of his was “dead and is now alive, he was lost and is now found.” That is always the basis for a celebration.
Of course, anyone who knows this story knows that the older brother was the one who had demonstrated responsibility. He had stayed at home and worked the fields. In many ways he fulfilled the older brother role in the family system. When he discovered that there was a party and the party was for his younger brother, he became angry. His words were hot as he pointed to his father and said “for all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!”
Of all the lines in the story, I have come to love the words spoken by the father to his oldest son. This is the part of the story that I have so often misread or overlooked. The father then says to his son, “you are always with me and all that I have is yours.”
I used to think that this familiar phrase from Jesus’s parable was referring to the the father‘s property and the son’s proximity. The longer I live with the story, I have come to see those words as something more. Of all the words that father could have spoken on that day to his oldest son, those were the words most needed. His son had lived with a misguided understanding that somehow it was by keeping the rules and doing his part that would earn him his father‘s love. The truth is, his father was not talking about his property nor was he talking about his son’s proximity. The father was talking from his heart – “son, you are always with me and everything I have is yours.”
What if each one of us could hear these words spoken over our lives? What difference would it make? Maybe we could quit striving to measure up and give up the notion that we need to walk a tight rope simply to be accepted and loved by God. We could let go of the notion that somehow we have to earn God‘s forgiveness. Our Father has already pronounced blessing over all of us – “you are always with me and everything I have is yours.”
Too often we have been taught that we must meet certain requirements in order to earn God‘s forgiveness and love. Occasionally, someone will point to the message of repentance and belief that Jesus preached as though they are requirements that must be met in order for God to show mercy. The truth is, to repent means to turn around and to believe is to accept what is already true. Repentance and belief are actions that allow us to receive the love that is already ours.
We do not know if the older son opened the door and went into the party or if he remained outside in the dark. What we do know is that the father’s embrace was for both of his sons.
George Herbert, the pastor/poet had it right – love does bid us welcome. All of us.
Love has prepared a table.
All things have been made ready.
There is no reason for not joining the banquet – there is no failure or brokenness that Love cannot heal. There is no shame or guilt that can overpower the healing forgiveness of Love.
Love always wins – it already has. All you have to do is believe.
May you know that you are cherished, not in spite of your brokenness or because you think you have earned this love – this love has been offered from the beginning. Our father loves his children not for what they do but for who they are. All we have to do is lean into the embrace and believe him when he says,“You are always with me and everything I have is yours.”