A wise brother in our church asked this incisive question: “Will the church be a place where our gay and lesbian neighbors can come home when they realize their sexual pursuits do not fulfill them?” Of course, his question could be applied to any pursuit that moves away from God as the source of one’s satisfaction. But in our current milieu when some voices in the church give unqualified endorsement and others unmerciful condemnation to homosexual relations, we need to labor well to find the sweet spot of grace and truth.
Jesus’ story of the prodigal son in Luke 15 grants us a paradigm through which we can understand what it means to welcome others home. Indeed, Jesus tells the story for “good church people” like us, elder brothers aghast at our Father’s embrace of repentant sinners. Here are a few thoughts on how this story speaks into our cultural moment.
1. The money will run out
The story begins with a son who asks his father for his portion of the inheritance. This is not a request for $10,000 to go find himself in Tibet but a shocking move tantamount to saying, “I wish you were dead and will go live like it.” Jesus does not minimize the egregious nature of the son’s demand. At the same time, the story makes clear that “reckless living” (Luke 15:13) has an expiration date on it. The money will run out, the friends will disappear, and the good times will no longer roll.
When we think of those who leave the father’s home for homosexual relationships, we must never minimize the grievous declaration of autonomy this represents. God made our bodies and our sexuality, and created a context in which we can celebrate them: marriage between a man and a woman. When anyone veers from this good design, it is a slap in God’s face. However, it also is unsustainable. Like addiction to pornography, adulterous affairs, and heterosexual promiscuity, homosexual relations cannot deliver the satisfaction we crave as human beings. The money will run out.
2. Some prodigals stay home
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, we might assume that all is well with the son who stayed home. The son who played by the rules. The son who married his high school sweetheart, worked for the father’s company, and raised his 2.5 children in the home with the white picket fence.
But all is not well, for the older, more responsible brother is just as much a prodigal son as his rebellious brother. The father has to come to him just as he ran to his lost son. When he does, the elder son’s speech mirrors the sentiments of his younger brother’s–he deemed his father a master to be served, not a father to be enjoyed and his wealth as wages to be earned, not an inheritance to be received. He views his brother’s hard partying with the type of bitter resentment that makes you wonder if jealousy is part of the mix. Either way, he has disowned his brother, referring to him as “this son of yours” (Luke 15:30).
The elder brother represents everything we must not be if we are to welcome our repentant brothers and sisters home. For beginners, we must examine our motives of why we do what we do. Why am I faithful to my spouse, present for my children, and involved in the life of the church? Why do I keep my lawn tidy, tell the truth on my taxes, and avoid certain movies? Is all of this labor for my father for which I expect to be handsomely paid? Is it begrudging rule-keeping? Do I resent the fact that I am not squandering my life and wealth on self-centered indulgence? Do I feel hatred rather than compassion for those who have chosen that life?
3. We must learn our father’s heart
The father’s words confront his elder son’s prodigal heart. They are gospel and grace. “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found” (Luke 15:31–32).
Until we learn to revel in the gracious abundance of our father’s house, we will never be prepared to welcome our prodigal brother–gay or straight–back home. Just as a wage-based mentality will breed bitterness, a grace-based mentality will breed a heart that, with our father, runs toward those who are out of money with open arms of generosity. This never downplays the seriousness of rebellion against the father, sexual or otherwise, but it enhances our eagerness to share the goodness of the father’s house with those who have left it for something they thought was better.
May we be a people who feel deeply the joy of our Father’s presence, ponder the eternal inheritance he promises, and join him in welcoming lost sons and daughters home.