The son had asked for the inheritance from his father and had gone his way. Into the city and to nightclubs he had squandered his father’s wealth and lifetime earnings ending up broke and starving and sharing food alongside pigs at their trough.
Coming to his lowest point and to the end of himself he reasoned that being a servant on his father’s farm would be better than the pig pen where he now was and so he begins the trek home.
We can imagine his uncertainty. What kind of reception would he receive? How might he make this right to his father (he thought being a servant could pay back his debt). What would everyone else say?
Without any further options he turns towards his father’s house and one step at a time enters into an unknown future. Where before he had had plans and dreams, visions and ambitions all he had now was brokenness and loss.
And we are told, “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.” Luke 15:20
What the text does not tell us, but what a study of the culture would, is that the townspeople and the family would have been right to take up arms and avenge this insult to the father by attacking the son before he ever reached home. Culturally speaking the offence of the son was so great that the only right thing would have been punishment and possible death at the hands of the villagers and extended family.
But of course what we see in this passage is the father running to intercept this attack and this justice by getting in the way so to speak in order that any attack would in fact fall on his shoulders and not on his son.
Not only did the father run (something that important people in eastern lands never do), not only did the father lift his skirts in his running (ankles were never revealed as cultural propriety demanded), but the father ran to intercept and receive any justice meted out onto his own self.
Immediately after this we read of the father ordering the fatted calf to be killed and prepared and for a feast to be laid in honour of his son who has come home.
There is an ancient middle eastern tradition that continues to this day called Sulha. Sulha is a traditional practice extending forgiveness and peace and reconciliation to those who have wronged. Literally speaking it is the extending of a meal by a person/s wronged to the person/s who did the wrong as a way of declaring the offence is forgiven and now put behind.
Instead of a wronged person waiting for reconciliation, for repentance, for contrition, for admission of guilt by the other person, Sulha puts into the hand of the person wronged the initiative to go to that person/s and declare peace; Sulha is a recognized tradition and deliberate action that refuses revenge and actively declares forgiveness.
And with this cultural lens in place we see that the Bible is chock-full of Sulha. In fact the gospel is Sulha.
God comes to us and breaks out the fatted calf to eat with us putting our offence behind him. Jesus Christ took the initiative to cover us, to run toward us, to take on the cost of our offence in his own self.
A quick skip through scripture and we see Sulha in the story of Jacob and Laban in Genesis 31:54, “and Jacob offered a sacrifice in the hill country and called his kinsmen to eat bread. They ate bread and spent the night in the hill country.” Sulha
We see Sulha in the story of Joseph when he prepares a meal for his brothers in Egypt. While years before they had sold Joseph into slavery out of jealousy and spite when Joseph sees them he calls for a fine meal to be prepared for them in Genesis 43:16, “Bring the men into the house, and slaughter an animal and make ready, for the men are to dine with me at noon.”
And again in Genesis 43:33-34, “And they sat before him, the firstborn according to his birthright and the youngest according to his youth. And the men looked at one another in amazement. Portions were taken to them from Joseph’s table… And they drank and were merry with him.” Sulha
And in Jesus words to the Samaritan woman in John 4:10, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” Sulha
We see Sulha in the habit Jesus had of eating with those least worthy as noted in Mark 2:15, “And as he reclined at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners were reclining with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many who followed him.” Sulha
And we see Sulha as the Spirit speaks in Revelations 3:20, “Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.” Sulha.
The implications are profound.
Not only do we enter into Sulha but we become agents of Sulha as well. We see this spirit of Sulha in Abraham as he intercedes for Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:22 to Genesis 19:3). We see this spirit of Sulha in Hosea as he receives back unto himself his wayward wife (Hosea 3:1). We see the spirit of Sulha in Daniel as he intercedes and takes upon himself responsibility regarding the sins of the Israelites and their resulting exile (Daniel 9:3).
We were always made for Sulha, able to receive it, able to offer it. But if we skip back to Mark 2 where Jesus is eating with the sinners we find the religious leaders of the day complaining, “And the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (vs.16) The church leaders were indignant as Jesus chose to offer Sulha to those deemed least worthy.
They had lost the spirit of the living Lord.
Today, as the church we must ensure we do not do the same. Sulha, if taken seriously, transforms all of our theology and understandings of God and of his love, the power of his grace, the position of his heart towards us and everyone around us.
The religious leaders of Jesus day were scandalized because they were stuck on law. Having managed to make their lives appear pure they sneered at and rejected those unable to attain the same self-righteousness as they. This is the religion that Christ came to save us from.
Sin was and is taken care of. This is what Sulha does; it covers over, it removes the sting, it makes all things new. This is the power of our God and the work of Christ on the cross and the continuing influence of the Spirit in our lives to this day.
It was religion that needed to be done away with. For self-righteous effort has no need for Sulha and will not accept it nor give it. A life that strives to please God does not need Christ and cannot rest in transformative grace that is given freely to all, akin to the spirit of the brother.
“Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!” Luke 15:25-30
Did you read that? “He was angry and refused to go in” vs.28
God came to decriminalize our lives. We have all been given clean slates. With all things made new (Revelation 21:5) we have no recourse of holding ourselves apart, unless we want to miss out on the party. And we can. In our indignation at the opportunity, the celebration, the restoration, the grace given freely we can miss out on all that God has for us as well.
Lives of religion show up this way. One works hard all ones life to stay on the straight and narrow. Certain things are embraced while other things are renounced all with an eye to being perfect and making ourselves holy and doing things the right way. The heart purposed towards not doing the wrong thing.
And while God in his grace says “Thank-you” he also says, “Hey I have this one for you to meet. They too are at the banqueting table, please make them welcome.” But religious lives perceive that this one has not lived a good life, this one has not been holy, this one has not walked righteously, but this one gets all the very same perks, and the religious life is incensed.
There is no Sulha here.
Here we lose the Spirit of our Living Lord.
We’ve lost the narrow way.
We’ve forgotten that the banquet is for everyone.
God extends Sulha to all who will receive it.
“He brought me to the banqueting house,
and his banner over me was love.” Song of Solomon 2:4
Yet not all receive it. The religious leaders of Jesus day rejected it, missed it completely, so intent were they on right and wrong, good and bad. The evidence of those who have received it is evidenced as those extending it; we can’t give it unless we have first received it ourselves.
[make note that the ones most likely to miss it are the ones who have it most together]
May we all check our hearts ensuring that Sulha marks our lives.
May Sulha change our personal reception of God into and over our own lives.
May we evidence Sulha in our manner towards everyone we come into contact with.
In Sulha we are the peace we want to see in the world.
In Sulha we are the love of God.
Without Sulha we walk in the way of evil.