When people we love abandon us, it can be painful. The pain seems magnified when the person is also leaving, or seems to be leaving, their church and their faith. When this happens, it is natural to feel angry and confused. But for the Christian, the call is to move beyond the initial pangs of emotion to something that will reflect the light and love of Christ.
Jesus offers us two visions of how we can react through the parable of the prodigal son: the father and the dutiful eldest son. Their reactions to the lost son’s return can instruct us as we engage with and respond to those who have abandoned the church.
The father, who could have easily become bitter from the hurt his youngest son inflicted, chose to forgive and offered the returning son open arms instead of a closed heart. He didn’t question his son about the sins he had committed. He didn’t ask his son to promise or do anything in order to be welcomed back. The father’s pain did not overpower his capacity for love.
On the other hand, the eldest son’s heart was full of bitterness and a sense of injustice, feeling that his lost brother did not deserve to be welcomed back. How easy it can be to react this way. How easy to ask, “Why does he (or she) deserve my love and rejoicing?”
When the prodigals in our life return to church for a holiday service or a wedding, how will we react? The unconditional love of the father for the lost and returned seems almost impossible for us to emulate…almost. As long as we think of emulating the Father’s unconditional love as our duty, we aren’t very likely to do it, and we run the risk of becoming like the older son. But love is not merely our duty; it’s our destiny as followers of Christ.
The church is the body of the risen Christ in the world. Something new and powerful happened when Jesus rose from the dead. It was the start of God’s Kingdom—His new creation breaking into our fallen world. And one day, when Jesus returns, he will finish that recreation. Until then, God calls us to reflect the reality of His future Kingdom in the present by how we relate to each other today.
When people leave the faith, we can react in a way that reflects old way of the fallen world as pictured by the eldest son, remaining “faithful” but all the while growing resentful and self-righteous in our dutiful obedience; or, we can react like the father, taking the new creational path of love, peace, and reconciliation, longing to pour our love out to those we have lost.