March 6, 2016 2 Corinthians 5: 16-21 Luke 15: 1-3, 11b-32
Rev. Catherine Purves
“From now on,” Paul writes in his second letter to the Corinthian church, “From now on…we regard no one from a human point of view.” Your point of view matters. In fact, your point of view changes everything. Your point of view is what enables you to make sense of the world and your place in the world. In this crazy primary season when there seem to be political debates among the candidates every other night and huge amounts of money are being spent in both positive and negative advertising, that is the purpose of it all: to change your point of view. If they can change your point of view, then they can win your vote, and if they can win enough votes, then the whole country changes, because then we have a new president whose point of view wields tremendous power.
“From now on,” Paul wrote, “we regard no one from a human point of view.” That is revolutionary talk. That truly does change everything. The literal translation of the Greek phrase is, “according to the flesh” – “we regard no one according to the flesh.” What it means is “from a human point of view,” but the literal translation gives us a hint of the danger involved in only regarding things from a human point of view, or not even realizing that our perspective is narrowly human and tied to our fleshly experience as opposed to the spiritual reality of our lives when we are people of faith.
Being a Christian, knowing Jesus Christ, and living as part of his church radically changes your point of view. “So,” Paul goes on to say, “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” This raises the obvious question. As you live your life, going about your business in the world, having a family, paying your bills, forming opinions and voting, what is your point of view? How do you look at your world – from a fleshly, human point of view, or from a spiritual, Christ-centered point of view?
What Paul is asking us to do is not easy, so don’t answer that question too quickly or too confidently. Our natural inclination is to see things from a human point of view. It’s kind of the way we’re wired. We are all sons and daughters of Adam; we are people of flesh, natural-born sinners, earth-bound people. And that perspective determines what seems reasonable, rational, acceptable, and fair to us. It is hard not to bring that point of view to our political debates and our interpersonal relationships, and even to our life of faith. Nevertheless, we are challenged and commanded to adopt another point of view as Christians, and not just when we are talking about spiritual things. This point of view must determine the way we look at everything and the way we live every day.
Jesus knew that it would be amazingly hard for us to change our point of view. Unlike this current crop of politicians, who are also intent on changing our point of view and winning our votes, Jesus did not argue or debate or try to strong-arm people into changing. He told stories. And his stories often incorporated different points of view, so that when we hear the stories we begin to see that another point of view is possible, and, in fact, preferable. His stories enable us to see ourselves and the world from his point of view, that is, from God’s point of view.
The story that we read this morning is probably so familiar to us that we aren’t even aware that it incorporates several points of view. We think of it as the Parable of the Prodigal Son, and we usually look at this story from the point of view of the younger son who left home and then returned. We identify with the prodigal. “I once was lost, but now I’m found.” Hooray! Lucky me! As sinners, this is a point of view that we can appreciate and celebrate, because it seems to be saying that, no matter what cockeyed, self-centered point of view and way of life we adopt, we can always go back home and be forgiven.
Some scholars have convincingly argued, however, that this story should really be called the Parable of the Father’s Love. The central figure is not the prodigal son; it is the compassionate father, who, of course, represents God. This isn’t, at its heart, a story about a sinner’s sin or a sinner’s need for repentance. It is a story about how much God will do in order to be reconciled with his children. The father in the story runs to embrace his rebellious son; he dresses him in the finest robe, places a ring on his finger, sandals on his feet, orders servants to kill the fatted calf and prepare to celebrate. When we look at the father’s point of view we see a love that defies all reason, a sacrificial, giving and forgiving love that bears the burden of the younger son’s sin. This is a point of view that is difficult for us. It is God’s point of view.
But you might also call this story the Parable of the Older Brother. Now this is a point of view that is more rarely considered. But remember who was in Jesus’ audience that day when he told this story. There were certainly tax collectors and sinners who would readily identify with the prodigal. But there were also Pharisees and scribes who were grumbling about the riffraff that Jesus was associating with. “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them,” they said. “So,” Luke tells us, “he told them this parable. This was a parable for all of the older brothers, the Pharisees and scribes, the good Christians who never miss a Sunday and who are proud of it!
We don’t meet the older brother until the story is almost over, but his appearance marks the climax of the parable, and it is his point of view that Jesus wants to expose. Now, this older brother is a little arrogant, and he is certainly angry, so you might not immediately identify with his point of view, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we don’t see the world and practice our faith from his point of view. The older brother is kind of a law and order guy. He works hard and earns his keep; he has a sense of entitlement and is determined to defend what is his. The older brother is counting on his inheritance, which he feels he deserves, and he has no tolerance for people, like his brother, who are not self-made, law-abiding, and as outwardly righteous, as he is. He really only likes people who are just like him. The older brother is not an attractive character in the story, but what Jesus is trying to do is to expose the poverty and shallowness and, frankly, unchristian nature of his point of view.
So, now we have three points of view in this little story: the point of view of the prodigal, the father, and the older brother. Notice that at the very end of the story the father is reaching out to both his younger and his older son. He is trying to draw both of them in, so that they can view themselves and the world from the father’s perspective. This is the revolutionary point of view that Jesus is inviting us and challenging us to adopt. Whether you are a prodigal who has been welcomed home, or an older brother who never left, God wants you to look at the world through his eyes. In Jesus Christ God was reaching out to the sinners and the self-righteous, the ‘good’ guys and the bad guys, and showing them his point of view. In the story, the Father looked at both brothers with the same sacrificial, self-giving love. Are you ready to look at your world, our world, from God’s point of view?
What would that mean? Turning back to our reading from 2nd Corinthians, we see that this is all about reconciliation. When we are reconciled with God, drawn back into his household through the sacrificial love of Christ, then, as Paul says, we are called to a ministry of reconciliation. When we look at the world from God’s point of view, we discover that we are all brothers, because we are all sons and daughters of the one Father. The father in our parable wanted two things. He wanted to be reconciled with both of his sons, and he wanted his sons to be brothers again, to be reconciled with one another.
When we are reconciled with God, that is, when we are embraced by his unconditional love, as both sons in the parable were, then we will begin to see things from his point of view. Then we will see that we are called to be reconciled with all of God’s children. Not only that, but we are to be reconciling agents in the world. We do that by pointing to God’s supreme act of reconciliation in Jesus Christ, and by truly living as brothers and sisters who have been reconciled with one another and with God. Because from God’s point of view, that is what we are, whether we are black or white, male or female, poor or rich, native-born or a refugee, a Democrat or a Republican, a prodigal or an older brother.
But we can’t be Christ’s ambassadors (Paul’s word) if we insist on looking at the world and other people from a human point of view. We have seen enough of that at our political debates, on the news, and even, sometimes, in the church. We need to adopt another point of view, God’s point of view. So, be forewarned. There are a lot of people out there who will try to sway you to their point of view, a very human perspective that is rooted in and guided by the flesh and not by the Holy Spirit. Resist that influence. As Christians, we have another, better point of view when we see the world and all of our brothers and sisters through God’s eyes.