The familiar story of the prodigal son in Luke 15 reminds me of my own sons, now in their mid to late 20’s. The oldest and youngest had not always seen eye to eye. My oldest son was living a fairly ascetic lifestyle on the other side of the country and, not that long ago, was critical of his younger brother for living at home and not seeming to get on with his life. What my older son didn’t acknowledge was that his younger sibling was diligently working toward a meaningful life and career milestone, which he recently achieved. In doing so, the younger one “came to himself” and, though “treat[ed] like one of [your] hired hands” (Luke 15:17, 19), found his calling in the process. Along the way, his older brother evolved from being a skeptic to his champion, expressing confidence that he would be able to meet the challenge. It was extremely gratifying in the end, as a father, to see them recognize, but put aside, their differences, and celebrate the other’s accomplishments together. While Jesus’ parable leaves us hanging as to the relationship of another father’s two sons, we at least are invited to linger in the hope that a similar reconciliation could have occurred there.
As a former banker, I have often been struck by the reference in the Lord’s Prayer, and backdrop to Jesus’ parable, which tells us to “forgive our debtors” (Luke 11:4). This is not exactly something I was trained to do in my secular job. Nevertheless, in many cases, that was the best way out of what might have seemed to be an otherwise untenable situation, even if a borrower had gotten itself into trouble by being profligate and seemingly irresponsible. Occasionally, the company was beyond repair, but more often giving it some breathing room was the best outcome for all involved—its customers, employees, communities and even creditors. To get there almost always required compromise on all sides, and ultimately for former adversaries to work together for the greater good.
In many ways, my experience with such corporate forgiveness was a subconscious practice of the adage, “there, but for the grace of God, go I.” It is God’s grace that allows us to soften our harsh opinions of others, recognize their gifts, and possibly come to believe more in the other than in ourselves. It can entail not just time, but also risking a change in perspective and admitting that we may have been wrong. In forgiving, we realize that we ourselves are also being forgiven. The path to forgiveness requires reflection and reconciliation, and can result in both the resurrection of the person being forgiven and the rebirth of the relationship between that person and his or her forgiver. This path to forgiveness was something the father in Jesus’ story knew very well, and he was inviting the older brother to consider and even to celebrate it. The same is true for us.
The resurrection of old life into new is a kind of metamorphosis, a miracle often not visible to the human eye. In January, my wife and I traveled to the highlands of central Mexico, where the migration of monarch butterflies from North America (a trip these particular butterflies have never made before) ends their annual cycle. Although fully formed, they were still juveniles but already majestic in their beauty, especially given their sheer numbers, which for years had been under pressure due to loss of habitat but have recently rebounded. There were literally hundreds of millions per acre, clustered on the branches of a certain type of fir tree to the point where they appeared to the naked eye to be dark clumps of dead leaves; but, as the sun rose, they fluttered lazily into the light and their orange wings looked like falling autumn leaves against a bright blue sky. With the Lenten season upon us, they make their reverse migration to the north, to begin the cycle of metamorphosis all over again, and reminding us that return trips can and do happen. May we be open to taking such a leap, whether in our own journey of faith or in the embrace of another looking to make their way home, and may each of us be transformed by the prodigal grace of God.