One of the best-known poems of the Scots poet Robert Burns is one called Tam O’Shanter. You may know it. It tells the story of a man who has spent the evening drinking with his friends, and has a narrow escape from the witches he comes across dancing in the old churchyard on his way home. The poem opens with the men settling down in the pub for the evening, and giving no thought at all to the journey home through the dark countryside which they will have to make at closing-time. Nor do they think about the welcome awaiting them from their wives when they eventually arrive at their homes:
Where sits our sulky, sullen dame,
Gathering her brows like gathering storm,
Nursing her wrath to keep it warm.
Perhaps, like those sulky, sullen dames waiting for their husbands to come home from the pub, we have had the experience of brooding over some injury done to us. Perhaps we have been insulted in some way or another, and naturally we don’t like it. So we go over the incident in our mind, imagining what we will say to the person concerned the next time we meet them. Maybe like the sulky, sullen dames in the poem, we gather our brows and nurse our wrath.
A great many people in this world find it hard to let go of wrongs done to them. Some people go through their whole life harbouring grudges and making themselves and others miserable simply because they cannot or will not let bygones be bygones, and they won’t consign to the past things that happened maybe a lifetime ago and to all intents and purposes are over and done with. Medieval type family feuds and vendettas are still very much alive in the 21st century.
Now, because we can harbour grudges and fuel family feuds, we can imagine that God is like this too. It’s all too easy to picture our personal account book lying open before God, and God is waiting to settle that account with us on the day we die. Because human beings can be so vindictive and cruel, we project this attitude onto God. But is this the kind of God the Scriptures reveal to us today? Of course it isn’t. The Scriptures reveal to us a God who doesn’t hold grudges, or trip us up deliberately to make us fall. The Scriptures reveal a God who doesn’t want to get even with us, but rather a God who wants to be close to us, and wants us to be close to him. The God presented to us in the gospel today is like a father who has lost his child, and can’t rest until his child is safely back in the house.
Now, this is all very well when applied to ourselves. But how do we react when forgiveness is extended to others? Well, the man and the woman in the first two parables call their neighbours in to celebrate with them. The father in the third parable throws such a big party that the noise can be heard out in the fields. Are we prepared to join in those celebrations? Or are we like the sulky, sullen brother who goes into a huff when he realises that the party is being thrown to mark the return of his irresponsible younger brother? Do we find it difficult to accept that God offers the same close relationship to everyone, no matter what their past life? May I suggest that very often we do. But what the gospel tells us today is that we might think like that, but God most certainly does not, and that if we are to be truly Christian, then we have to change our attitudes towards other people, and to see them as God sees them.
We are, after all, supposed to be observing The Year of Mercy. If we, as Christians, can’t or won’t make the first move in putting right some wrong with someone we’re out of sorts with, then there is little hope for the world. Today marks the 15th anniversary of the awful terrorist attacks perpetrated by Islamic fundamentalists in the United States. We are still appalled at what happened 15 years ago today, and most people on our planet continue to live with the consequences of what happened on that day. As Christians, what is our attitude towards people who commit such terrible crimes? Are we prepared to forgive them? Now, I’m not saying that terrorists and criminals should escape justice, they should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. But as individuals, and as a society, for our own peace of mind we must learn to forgive. God knows this, and deep down we do too. We may not be able to forgive all at once, but we can ask for the grace to take one step closer to offering mercy to those who offend us.
Our Lord shared hospitality with those who were on the fringes of society: the tax collectors, prostitutes and other public sinners; and by doing so he showed that God was reaching out to them through him. And, who criticised him for this? It was those who thought they were perfect, those who never stepped out of line: the hypocritical Pharisees, the scribes, the lawyers and the priests. Who refused to go in to join the party? It was the dutiful, responsible son, who always did what was required of him, who never disobeyed his father, and who never asked for any favours.
Now if we are like them, then there is hope for us. If you notice, the story of the Prodigal Son actually doesn’t have a proper ending. We don’t know whether the elder brother goes into the house to join in the celebrations, or whether he stays outside nursing his self-righteousness. There is no ending, because it’s not just a story: rather it’s a challenge. And it’s a challenge to each one of us here today.
And so, how would you end the story? If you were the elder brother would you go inside and join the party, or would you stay outside and sulk?