Let’s talk about sin. When the wayward youth in Jesus’ story of the prodigal son takes the money and runs, he sins in three ways: first against the mores of his village and second against his parents, that is, the relationship that he was commanded by God when He spoke through Moses saying, “Honor you father and your mother.” Regarding these first two sins, Jesus would be the first to grant a deferment to the youth if the reason for his trip was to fulfill his inner calling or to come and be a disciple of the Lord. But alas, the kid only wanted to get away to chase fast women and drink sloe gin. The third sin committed that day is one that Jesus never grants us a deferment from; the calling to be compassionate to my neighbor. Young people grow into an ever widening circle of people for whom they must show love and compassion. First it is their siblings and parents, then their playmates, then the people at school, especially those who are being bullied or ostracized. As we enter into adulthood, our calling to compassion must extend to those who are poor, or subject to abuse. The circle widens out, as it becomes for us sin to exclude those who come to our shores because of famine, persecution, or conflict in another land. Jesus challenges us to love even our enemy. To do less, is sin.
For each of these three sins, the boy receives appropriate punishment. First, the laws of our state and the customs of this youth’s village have been accumulated through the practical experience of the community. The Palestinian village of the prodigal son knew through experience that a windfall of money shouldn’t be given to an immature person. Nor should one travel or enter into business without making plans. We have banking laws and requirements that people obtain visas and vaccinations. Our laws are probably no better than the customs of his village, but they are better than nothing. The boy soon falls prey to the natural punishments that whack the foolish and the unlawful. Psalm 32 says, “Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding, whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle, else it will not stay near you.”
The second form of sin, however, does not relate to the blunt rebuke of the physical world (as in the hangovers one receives from too much gin) or the imperfect laws of society (which often locks up the innocent). It relates to the ought-ness of family relationship. We ought to love our spouse and those in our immediate family, even when they bring pain into our lives. It is hard to make much progress in the rest of life, or spiritually, until we resolve to the best of our ability, the relationships we have with those nearest to us. Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, we each have a Kansas of the heart. Here the prodigal son may have had the most justification to break God’s laws. Here he is most subtly and completely punished. Strangers treat him worse than his family ever did. Yet when he does return, he receives grace upon grace.
The above two sins are, as mentioned before, the ones where our actual experiences on earth vary the most from the perfection that we will know in the world to come. Sometimes people who break all the laws become rich and run for president. Sometimes we find a peace out in the world that eludes us back home. This is why Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.”
About the third sin, earth offers no escape and heaven no place to hide. If we fail to develop ever-widening circles of compassion as we mature, then we will become narrow and bitter people. If we fail to love, we will die alone; and according to my theology, live on beyond death in the torment of regret.