Scripture: But while the son was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion. He ran, threw his arms around his neck and kissed him…the father told his slaves ‘Quick, brink out the best robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Then bring the fattened calf and slaughter it and let’s celebrate with a feast, because this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ ~ Luke 15:20, 22-24
Theological Thought: The parable of the lost sons features a father who welcomes his wayward son home with joy and celebration. It’s an odd response because the son was so far out of line, not only with what the family could reasonably expect of one of their own, but the boy was also far outside of what was perceived to be the will of God. In the parable where the father stands in for God the Father, its reassuring to those of us who think we are more flawed than others, that God not only welcomes us home, but he does so with eagerness and enthusiasm. Lost sons are not only welcome home, but they are desired and valued.
Reflection: I’ve heard people say “be happy, and when you can’t be happy be joyful.” the implication here is that happiness is a result of our circumstances while joy is an attitude. Paul would seem to enforce this when he says “rejoice in the Lord always! Again I say ‘Rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4) or James who says “consider it great joy my brothers when you suffer trials of many kinds.” (James 1:2) In both instances, the writers exhort the reader to choose Joy – as if Joy is a lonely girl at homecoming looking for a dance partner. In my experience, joy is not a choice so much as it is a reaction. For example, I can be happy that I got a raise or I can be joyful, excited, celebratory about it. Similarly I can be miserable I didn’t get a raise, or I can be joyful to have kept my job. Now I can force myself to smile and jump up and down like I’m excited about something when really I’m not and we call that “disingenuous.” I can however, choose to go before God and say “Lord make me joyful.” “For the fruit of the spirit are love, JOY, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” When the angels brought tidings of great joy, it was because God had come to live among people to give them joy. When the father joyfully welcomes his son home it is because he has the spirit of God (cf 15:20) in him to grant him joy. I could be hurting and sad or depressed or maybe I’m just feeling “out of it” and in such an instance there is absolutely nothing I can do to make myself better. I don’t say that out of principle I say that from experience. Dietrich Bonheoffer says it best – “The Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s word to him.. when he becomes uncertain and discouraged for by himself he cannot help himself without belying the truth.” And even then, it is not my Christian brother who helps me to lift my head, but Christ in him, speaking to Christ in me. Then space for a joyful reaction is made and joy can be expressed.
Prayer: Lord, you who are the lifter of my head, lift my eyes to you and lift my heart to you. Fill me with all joy and goodness that I can react joyfully on instinct. I cannot do this apart from you Lord, I can only play act at having a pretty little Christian life. But I don’t want that, I want you to make me joyful.
Practice: Celebration is what happens when we are so full of joy, when we are so overwhelmed by the goodness of God, that our hearts cannot help but provide an outward expression of it. Richard Foster describes it as ”Because of the goodness of God, the heart breaks forth into psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.”