“Once you travel the dark path, forever will it rule your destiny!” Anyone recognize where this comes from? It’s from the Star Wars movies, where master Yoda is teaching Luke how to be a Jedi knight. There is the Force and then there is the Dark Side of the Force, and once you embrace the Dark Side there is no turning back. Or is there? In the last movie, Luke single handedly tries to reach out to his father, Darth Vader, to tell him that he can turn from the Dark Side. The first time you see the movie, it seems a ridiculous idea. Yet when the Emperor is in the process of killing Luke, Darth Vader is able to come back and becomes Anakin Skywalker once again.
There story of the Prodigal Son is a famous one. The culture of the times helps us understand the depth of what is going on here: both sons are in full fledged rebellion against their Father. The younger son asks for his inheritance in such a way that wishes that his father was dead, and his father going ahead and giving it to him would have been unthinkable in that time and place. When asked the question today, older men of Galilee would say that if a son dared to ask his father that question his father would beat him. When the young man left home he would have been whispered about, and his name would not be mentioned: he would have been dead for all intents and purposes. When the young man comes to his senses, he’s still angling for the best deal: he knows that he really can’t go back to the same status he was before, but he’s willing to put up with humiliation in order to eat. What the father does is unthinkable: he runs out to meet him and does everything to indicate that the young man is once again an honored member of the family. He’s spent his inheritance, for certain, but killing the fatted calf means that the party is for the whole village. There is no mistake: this young man is back from the Dark Side.
The older brother is also in rebellion. That’s a little harder to get a handle on: since he stays home and pretty much seems to do as he’s told. But his duties in family conflict in that culture are very clear, and when someone has an argument with the head of the household he is expected to step in and try to avoid family shame. Even if he doesn’t want to do it, he has to go through the motions in order to preserve his honor and something of his family honor. He’s supposed to try to keep his brother from taking the money and running and he doesn’t do anything. Later, when there’s a party going on, he has a certain job to do. He is supposed to make sure that everyone is having a good time, that there’s enough to eat and drink and even if he isn’t happy about what’s going on, that doesn’t matter, he has to go through the motions to preserve family honor. If he has a problem with what’s going on, he is supposed to wait until the party is over to argue with his father. By standing outside the part and refusing to come in, he’s bringing the same kind of shame on the family that his brother did. And the father’s response to the older son is as unbelievable as to the younger: a father in that situation would almost never leave his guests to deal with a family member who is a public embarrassment like that. This son is also trying to get the best deal, killing a kid goat would only feed him and his close friends.
But the father is always holding out hope. He believes that the older son will relent from his rebellion and be at peace; he comes out of the party, tells him that his inheritance is safe, and tells him why he had to do what he did. He lets the older son have a chance to come back, but we don’t know what the elder son did. Did he come into the party or not? Did he stay lost in the Dark Side?
It’s tempting in the best of times to see everything as black or white, good or evil, a Jedi knight or a Sith. It’s easy to say that if someone makes the wrong choice about something that matters to us that they’ve gone over to the Dark Side and are lost forever.
If one could describe Pope Francis’ papacy in one word, that word would be “Mercy.” Jesus shows us that there is always mercy, always hope. Nothing that can keep us from the love of God except ourselves. God is infinite in mercy, and there are no unforgivable sins while we have life in us. This isn’t license to do what we want and repent later: there are always consequences, and we have to live with what we do like the Younger Son did when he spent his inheritance. But nothing can keep us from our place at the table, except our own attitudes. We can pass judgement on others, blame others for crimes done and keep them away from us forever, but at a cost, as the Older Son discovered. The cost of holding on to blame is that we are trapped in the past of pain and can’t enter into the good that’s going on now.
God invites us into a banquet. We can put aside out past and come in, or stay outside. We can hold on to our condemnation of others, say they can never change, and stubbornly stand outside. Which choice do we make?