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Our Sin Does Not Define Us

The Rev. Sara Cosca-Warfield

It was winter 1888 in Arles, France, two days before Christmas. Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin had been painting together for a few months in what was known as the Yellow House. The two artists had a roller coaster relationship, often friendly, usually inspiring, and sometimes destructive. On that particular December night, though, something came to a head. No one really knows what happened. Maybe the two of them fought. Maybe Van Gogh’s depression sank him into a mental break. Whatever happened, the night ended with a severed ear and Van Gogh in a mental institution.

I’m willing to bet that if any of us knew anything about Vincent Van Gogh before this Lenten devotional practice, it was one or both of two things: the painting Starry Night and that he cut off his own ear.

I don’t know if it was the hardest moment of his life, but I can guess that it’s probably on the list. He was a brilliant, prolific artist who created over 900 astonishing paintings over his life, and the one thing the world remembers about him is what happened in one of his darkest moments.

Can you imagine if the world spotlighted one of your darkest moments, one of your worst decisions, and made that the lens through which they see you? That thing you did in a fit of rage. In a drunken stupor. In the haze of wild mania or deep depression. In a moment of fearful greediness. Can you imagine if that event was the one thing that defined you not only for the rest of your life, but for how people remembered you even after you died.

I mean, it’s not so hard to imagine. We do it all the time. We hold grudges against people who have hurt us. We make it so that one mistake is the only thing we can see about them. We walk or drive past unhoused people, some who are living their darkest moment right before our eyes, and we make all sorts of assumptions about what brought them there. They’re frozen in our minds, desperate, dirty, and somehow deserving of their situation.

We do it in an official way, too. In most states, felons who have served their time are stripped of their right to vote. In most states, they have to check the felony box on job applications, limiting their employment opportunities, limiting their future. Even if they served 30 years, even if they’ve changed their lives and done their best to make amends, that one dark moment follows them around forever.

These are the prodigal sons of our world, of our lives.

The prodigal son in our gospel today seems like a real piece of work. He demands his inheritance early, before his dad dies. I mean, that’s ridiculous enough, right? Who does that? But his father gives it to him. We don’t know why. Maybe it’s an act of trust, an act of hope. I don’t think the father is wrong for assuming the best in his son.

But this youngest son lets his father down. He leaves. Goes to the big city, maybe. Lives large for a while until he squanders every last penny. He’s pretty easy to dislike. The kid who’s given everything—more than most of us can dream of and certainly more than he deserves—and he wastes it all on fleeting fun.

It’s easy to focus on that part of the story. It’s easy to draw the simplest picture possible. We love to hate a villain. We love to cherish and protect the certainty we have about a person and how terrible they are.

But humility always complicates the story. The prodigal son finds himself in the midst of a famine. He’s living amongst pigs as a hired hand. That’s as low as he can get in his Jewish culture: a symbol not only of the sheer uncleanliness of his situation, but an indication of how separated he is from his family and his people.

He’s alone. He’s hungry. So he decides to go home. But the thing is, he knows he screwed up. He knows that he owes some accountability. So he practices a speech for when he sees his father: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”

I understand that I should not be treated as your son, he says, but please have mercy on me and let me work for you. The prodigal son humbles himself. He holds himself accountable.

I wonder what would have happened if it was the older brother who met the prodigal son on the road and not the father. I don’t think it would have been quite the same. I think that, at best, there would have been conditions. “We’ll feed you, but we won’t pay you. And you can sleep in the barn with the sheep.” I imagine the eldest brother would have been focused on punishment. Putting the prodigal son in his place.

Because there’s a difference between accountability and punishment. The prodigal son has already stepped into accountability. He was ready to humble himself. But the older brother doesn’t want to see that. Because punishment isn’t about accountability. Punishment is about maintaining the lines between “good” and “bad.”

He’s not interested in loving his brother. He’s not even interested in accountability. He is only interested in being the “good” son over and against the prodigal son who is “bad.”

But luckily it’s the father who sees the prodigal son coming down the road. And the father isn’t interested in punishment. He barely even hears the prodigal son’s speech before he takes him into his arms and praises God that his boy has returned. The father doesn’t see a man defined by his very worst choices, even though those choices directly affected him. No, what he sees is his son who he loves completely, who has been lost for a long time.

In fact, it seems like the father had been keeping vigil for this lost son. Positioning himself every day where he can look down the road to see his son returning from afar. Every day, he waits with hope and longing for his son to come back.

This is a parable, of course. A story meant to tell us something about God. And that idea of keeping vigil has stuck with me.

God doesn’t see us through the lens of our worst moment. However far we roam, God is staring down the road, waiting, keeping vigil for our return.

Oh, and how we roam so far from God’s love. How we wage war with one another. How we hoard our resources to maintain the illusion of safety when our neighbors don’t have enough and are in real danger. How we insist on seeing one another through the lens of our worst moments. We roam and sometimes get so lost.

But this story tells us that God is waiting for us, not to exact punishment, but to run to us, filled with compassion, to gather us in God’s arms. To celebrate. To weep with joy.

For God, our sin does not define us. What defines us is our returning home. Amen.

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