The Law of L . . . Loyalty?

One of the most challenging moments in a Gospel parable for me is when the oldest son says to his father:

‘Look, all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends. But when your son returns who swallowed up your property with prostitutes, for him you slaughter the fattened calf.’ — Luke 15:29-30

Who among us has not felt this way at some moment–in our families, among our friends, in our job? Loyalty is something we feel strongly. It is something we give to others as trust grows. As super-heroes and TV and movie protagonists put it, “I’ve got your back.”

We know the power of loyalty in our daily lives. When tragedy strikes the family, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, cousins and far-flung relatives come together to “circle the wagons”–to protect, to comfort, to raise up, to pray.

In business and politics, we see this same “herding of cattle” mentality–bringing everyone and everything tightly together to resist any outside attacks or challenges.

Loyalty is a peculiar thing, though. It is by definition devotion or faithfulness to a thing, person, or cause. But what is at the root of loyalty–a common experience, a shared emotion, something more profound?

I’m convinced that one of the most subtle lessons Jesus tried to teach us was about loyalty. It is much easier to stop the parable of the prodigal son after the father rejoices at the return of the younger son, and say, “A-ha. The lesson to be learned is about forgiveness and reconciliation.”

And that is all true. But by the wisdom of those who determined the readings in the Lectionary, it doesn’t end there. And so, we (or, at least, I am) left with this quizzical “hmmm” moment at the end of the Gospel. Because it doesn’t quite fit the easy and obvious lesson of forgiveness and reconciliation. Is there a more profound lesson here? Yes.

The eldest son got the “circling the wagons” kind of loyalty easily. Regardless of what befell the family, he knew his role and what to do in any situation. But there is another “L” in loyalty that has escaped him — Love.

When we are loyal without love or true faithfulness, what we expect of each other can become transactional. “I do this for you. You do this for me.” Instead the father tries to show him how deep and rich the love he has for his older son is, and in that, what true loyalty is. He does not rebuke him for his anger. He accepts it and offers back a gift, everything he has and is.

It is the love of the father for the son–this father, this son; fathers everywhere for their sons; the Father and the Son. This is loyalty.

Prodigal Forgiveness

A photo by Sonja Langford. unsplash.com/photos/eIkbSc3SDtITiming is everything, so they say.

Jumping at the right moment to grab the long, downfield pass into coverage. Striking the 100 mph fastball with the meat of the bat. Knowing the exact moment when to take the souffle out of the oven. Remaining silent until it’s absolutely necessary to speak.

“Father, give me my inheritance.” How long had the younger son been contemplating this request. What had precipitated it? Why now? Why couldn’t he wait?

Imagine if that request had come today, how long it would have taken to liquidate the estate, and give the son what he wanted. And yet he did.

Add to that the months, maybe even years, that it took the prodigal son to spend it all before he realized that his coffers were empty.

And from the time he left, the father probably started and ended each day looking at the horizon, hoping to see him return. Then he did. Without warning. Lavishly embraced by the forgiveness willingly and generously given by the father.

Fifteen years ago, most of us remember where we were, watching the Twin Towers crash to the ground and disappear into ash and dust or the destruction of the Pentagon or the crash of the flight that ended in a Pennsylvania field.

As I listened to the parable of the Prodigal Son Sunday, I wondered if and when we will be able to open our arms bravely, lovingly, and without restraint and forgive those who harmed us as the Father forgives us all.

Timing is everything. Isn’t it time?

By Your Love — The Loser and Finder

sheepA parable about a young and inexperienced teacher and sheep.

In her second year, a young teacher began her class by sharing the few rules that she had to keep the chaos to a minimum and creativity and participation to a maximum.

One of the rules was very simple. Don’t make the teacher mad. It wasn’t easy to make her mad, but it could happen, and the teacher was well aware of this weakness, so she was very diligent about letting students know where the line was.

But one young lady pushed the boundaries, and the teacher did indeed get mad. The young lady was sent to the principal’s office to await who knew what.

It took about 30 seconds before the teacher realized that she had lost something in the altercation. A proverbial sheep who liked to wander even though the territory was dangerous. So she went to find the student.

Her student was upset and crying (not surprisingly). So the teacher sat them both down, and feeling more like the sheep than the shepherd, she apologized.

Frequently in parables, we so often find ourselves in one role or another, but rarely in both. One of the takeaways from the parables of the lost sheep, lost coin, and prodigal son is the searching, searching for boundaries, searching for open fields, searching for freedom, searching for forgiveness. That is the perhaps the thing that the older brother doesn’t understand.

In some strange way, we must be both losers and finders. That is how we come to know the depth of the love of God in and around us, especially through forgiveness.