Peace… For The One Who Is Far Off And The One Who Is Near
“No man is an island.” So wrote the English Poet, John Donne, a man who was quite a paradox in his own lifetime. Donne was raised Roman Catholic—so Catholic that he married a relative of Sir Thomas More, who you may remember lost his head because he chose the Pope over his king, Henry the 8th. Yet later in life, John Donne served as the Dean of St. Paul’s Protestant Cathedral in London. He was a man who wrote biting political satire, yet also served as a member of Parliament. He was a scholar who wrote poetry using the rhythm and language of ordinary English-speaking people.
“No man is an island, entire of itself; every one is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” Living in a time of fear and conflict when religious and political talk gave way to violence… living at the end of the Elizabethan Age that would eventually give way to civil war in England… the idea that no one of us can be an island—that each person is part of a whole—was an idea that was desperately needed but was resisted by people on all sides. Our times, I fear, are not so different.
Fred Buechner observed that “there is another truth, a sister of this truth— Yes, no one is an island, but in another way, every person is an island…. Each one of us sits in silence, reluctant to speak for fear that we might sound like a fool. Beneath that fear is the deeper fear, which is really a fear of ourselves rather than a fear of the other; the fear that perhaps we really are foolish.”
The great paradox is that what binds us close as human beings is this truth that we are islands, isolated from each other. To know this isolation is to also know that there is something in each one of us that longs to be known and accepted. That longing is not only part of me, but part of you and part of everyone else the world over. Island calls to island across the silence—and once, in trust, the real words and deeds arrive, a bridge is built and love is done—not sentimental, emotional love, but love that that Buechner calls pontifex—a Latin word that means bridge-builder. This is a love that speaks a holy and healing word: ‘God be with you, stranger who is not a stranger.’ Speak it, demonstrate it, and then those islands that are you and me—those islands become an archipelago, then a continent, and then a kingdom whose name is the Kingdom of God.
As he journeys ever closer to Jerusalem, Jesus pauses to tell a story—a parable—about a family with two islands—two brothers. It is this isolation and enmity that Jesus wants to address. The closer Jesus gets to Jerusalem, the more dangerous it becomes. Warnings are coming to Jesus all along the way: ‘Herod is out to kill you.’ ‘Pilate has just killed Galileans like you, on the grounds of Temple no less.’ And now, the Scribes and Pharisees are criticizing Jesus again, because he welcomes sinners and eats with them. In their view, this practice is not only dishonorable of Jesus, but it brings dishonor on the entire community.
Generous Judaeans would often feed the poor, the outcast, and the sinner. But they would never sit down at table with them. And accidentally finding yourself at table with such people might be overlooked occasionally, but receiving sinners—in other words, inviting sinners to sit down at table where you are the host—this is an afront to all Middle Eastern society. Hearing this criticism, Jesus confronts this conflict through parables about people and things that are lost: sinners, lost causes, hopeless, desperate people. At the heart of this series of stories is the parable we have come to call The Prodigal Son.
“There was a man who had two sons.” This sounds to us like a rather vague, non-descript beginning. It could be any family—every family. But it is not. This is Israel’s first family—Isaac and his twin sons, Jacob and Esau. It is Jacob who will be given the name that becomes the name for the nation: Israel—the one who strives with the LORD. Jacob and Esau fought with one another for their entire life. They fought in their mother’s womb, and they kept on fighting through their adolescence. They were polar opposites. Esau was the rugged outdoorsman with hairy arms. Jacob had smooth skin and preferred to stay inside. Esau was his father’s favorite; Jacob was his mother’s. And just like in Jesus’ story, it is Jacob who approaches his father and says, “Father, give me the share of property that falls to me.” Having taken the inheritance and blessing, like the prodigal, Jacob flees to a far country.
Like the older brother—and Esau is the first born of the twins—Esau stays home with the father. Esau and Isaac are convinced that there are not enough resources for all. When Esau learns that his brother has deceived his father and departed with birthright and blessing, Esau—the man’s man—breaks down and cries: “Have you only one blessing, father? Bless me, father; bless me too.” Though not explicit in Genesis, Jesus’ story makes it clear that the older brother who has stayed home has grown sullen and resentful. When Jacob turns to return home with his family and his things, Jacob fears for his life as he approaches reunion with his brother Esau. Though Jacob and Esau are able to make an uneasy peace between them, Esau always and forever remains the outsider in the eyes of Israel. The breech is never entirely mended.
We know the story Jesus tells. The youngest son takes the money and runs. He wastes his money in a far country; then the land dries up, his friends dry up and he is reduced to working on a pig farm. As humiliating as the work is, the pay is so poor that he envies the pigs for their feed. Then Jesus says a curious thing: “And no one would give him anything.” The father gave him everything; now no one gives him a thing.
Recognizing his need, our youngest son comes to himself. It is not repentance on his mind. Instead, he figures that by returning home, he can go to work for his father. He can become a hired hand—a servant. He can justify himself in his father’s eyes and make some form of repayment. The younger son—like Jacob—thinks he might just be able to make a return home on his own terms. The youngest son will come home defeated, humiliated, a source of shame for his father and family. He might even expect to be shunned by the community for the way he treated his father and squandered his resources. When he arrives back in the village, he will have to walk the gauntlet of shame and defeat.
But the father sees his son from a distance, and the father runs the gauntlet for the son. In ancient Middle Eastern culture, no self-respecting man would deign to be seen running in public. The slower a man walks, the greater his wealth and wisdom. But this father runs to meet his son, makes a spectacle of himself—his robes flapping in the wind—for all to see. Instead of remaining aloof, waiting for his son to beg for forgiveness, the father holds nothing back. He embraces and kisses his son. The younger son was not prepared for the grace that greets him. He was ready to take the role of a servant, but he is received, welcomed and restored as the son of his father.
Village life is dull and boring. A Middle Eastern proverb says that when something moves in the village, that’s a good day. Well, the father running through the streets sets things in motion. The fatted calf is killed and roasting and the older son, who has stayed home and is dutifully working in the fields knows this from a distance. He can hear and smell and feel the excitement. But he hangs back, stays at work. Over time, he has grown sullen and resentful about being the one left behind. Then, as he turns toward home after a hard day’s work, he learns that his younger brother has returned, and his father is throwing a party. All that built up resentment over the empty blessing boils up inside of his heart and mind. He will not join in the father’s rejoicing when the lost is found. Now it seems clear: both these brothers are lost. One is far from home; the other is lost in his own backyard.
Like a petulant two-year-old, the older son refuses to attend the party in his own home. And once more, the father makes the first move toward his child. Again, it is a costly and embarrassing move. The father humbles himself in order to reach out to his son. The younger brother was estranged and rebellious while absent from the house. The older brother was estranged and rebellious in his heart even while he was in the house. The younger son wants to leave home; the older son refuses to enter the house.
The older son expresses his disgust at the father and his father’s house. This is not his family at all. His idea of joy is to be apart from his family and enjoy a night with his cronies. The recovery of a lost brother—a brother who was as good as dead—is no cause for joy in his mind. When the father speaks to him, the father speaks from the heart. He doesn’t want his oldest son to act like a servant any more than he wanted that from the younger son. The father doesn’t want more servants or slaves. He wants a relationship. He wants heirs, children. He wants life in all its fullness for both of his children.
Isaac has no blessing to offer Esau, but God the Father has grace enough for all His children. This is what Jesus wants his audience to see and hear and understand—tax collectors, sinners, Pharisees, Scribes, disciples, everyone—including you and me. Jesus does not tell us how the story ends, because it does not end until you and I decide what we are going to make of this story and this life.
Reconciliation is more than a mere idea. We must go looking for lost sheep, leaving all else behind. We must diligently search for lost coins even if it takes us all night. We must choose to embrace one another, even at great cost. Peace is what Jesus offers his audience: peace to those who are far off, and peace to those who are near. These are the liturgical words I use almost every time I invite you to the Lord’s Table: “Come to the table—those of you who have much faith, and those of you who struggle with faith… you who have been here often, and you who have not been here for a long time.”
The prodigal returns home from far off. At the edge of the village he is lost, dead, penniless, barefoot, and smelling of pigs. Yet, he still believes he can solve his own problems. But at that point, the father’s love for him becomes incarnate, runs to him, embraces him, overwhelms him. Only then does resurrection and restoration become possible, and when he accepts this grace, the exile that began before he ever left the house is at long last over.
So too, is the one who is near offered grace. The older brother stands at the edge of the village, seething with rage, covered in the sweat of his labor, and smelling of pride. The father pleads with him not to become like Esau and separate himself from his family. The self-righteous are surely as lost as the unrighteous. And exile does not end for anyone until it ends for all.
It is no mere coincidence that Israel’s great king—King David—also has to walk the gauntlet of sin and abandonment. Centuries before Jesus, David is portrayed as a man of sorrows, betrayed, abandoned, and rejected, climbing the Mount of Olives barefoot, as if he were anticipating the very different kind of anointed one—the anointed one that Jesus will turn out to be.
Judaeans would have known one other story told by the rabbis that begins with the phrase, “There was once a man who had two sons.” In this story, a great teacher is asked, “How can we tell when there is enough light that it is no longer night and has now become dawn?” One student answers, “When there is enough light to tell the difference between a horse and a mule.” Another answers, “When there is enough light to tell the difference between an egg and a stone.” But the teacher tells a story: There was a man with two sons, and before he died, he went out in his field and placed a marker, dividing his property between his children. After he died, the two brothers went out in daylight to view their inheritance. That night, each brother wakes in the middle of the night, troubled by what they have learned of their inheritance. One brother wakes and says to himself, ‘My father has judged wrongly. I am wealthy. I have no wife or family and I already have all the wealth I can use. It is my brother with his many mouths to feed—wife, and children, and in-laws—who needs more land.’ At the same time, the other brother awakens and says to himself, ‘I have so much already… a wife and children and family… My poor brother is all alone. He needs more property than I.’
So, in the middle of the night, each brother leaves home and goes out to the field, intending to move the marker that divides the property. As they arrive at the place, the sky begins to lighten, and each one can see the form of the other and realizes that both have the same idea—to move the marker in his brother’s favor. When the light dawns and they recognize each other and what they are doing, they embrace and weep for joy. And at that marker, the brothers together founded the city of Jerusalem—Jeru’ shalom, the abode of peace, the city of peace.
Dawn, it is taught, is when there is enough light to recognize in the form of the other, your brother or your sister—the one with whom you may make peace. Amen.