After returning from Afghanistan and spending a couple of more years serving at Camp Pendleton, our oldest son Andrew got his discharge papers. He started his transition to civilian life in our home.
This house was new to Andrew. He had left for bootcamp from a suburban house in metropolitan St. Louis. We now live in an unincorporated part of Rapides Parish of Louisiana.
The longleaf pines of the Kisatchie National Forest form the southern rim of our neighborhood. Our house sits between two inlets of Kincaid Lake.
Both of his younger siblings lived with us at the time, as well. In the eight years of their brother’s absence, Meredith and Patrick had grown to adulthood.
Andrew’s default setting with his sister had always alternated between benign neglect, playfulness, and fierce protectiveness.
She adored him for it. Just as I had anticipated, they picked up more or less where they had left off.
Meredith had been a high school student when Andrew entered military service, so he had at least glimpsed a more grownup version of her.
By contrast, Patrick had been just a little boy nearly eight years his junior. And Andrew frequently asserted his perceived superior status in the family pecking order.
For instance, Patrick shares this tidbit from time to time. “You know,” he says, “Andrew used to tell me that you and Mom bought me at Kmart on the damaged goods aisle.”
Andrew had seen his younger brother as an annoying kid and had often had fun at his expense. Patrick admired his big brother. But I could tell that Patrick retained lingering doubt that Andrew would see him as any more than damaged goods, as something less.
Before Andrew arrived from Camp Pendleton, Joy and I anxiously wondered about how he and Patrick would get along. Andrew would meet a man who now stands taller then he, who holds down a challenging, full-time job, and who has no patience for being treated like a kid.
They interacted tentatively at first. But an adult friendship soon emerged. They fished together and went shooting together and rolled their eyes together about their father. Andrew sees Patrick as a younger equal, not as an inferior or a subordinate. He doesn’t make any more cracks about damaged goods.
But that phrase “damaged goods” has lingered in my imagination. I realize that we all too frequently see each other as precisely that. As damaged goods. And once we see another person through that lens, we can struggle to see them any other way.
Jesus illustrates this point in what we frequently call the Parable of the Prodigal Son. We have to focus on the older brother in the parable to see what Jesus is getting at. So it may be more helpful to call this the Parable of the Two Brothers in this context.
The older brother sees the younger brother as damaged goods. In his eyes, that’s all the younger brother can be. But I’ve gotten ahead of myself. Let’s recall the parable.
A father had two sons. The younger of the two demanded his inheritance before his father’s death, and the old man consents. The young man moves away. In no time, he’s flat broke, having spent every nickel on wild living.
Slopping hogs for a gentile just to keep a crummy roof over his head, the younger man hits bottom. He can’t live this way anymore, and he can’t live the way that got him there in the first place. So he goes home expecting perpetual second-class treatment.
After all, he sees himself as an utter failure and a complete disgrace. He’s damaged goods.
His father, by contrast, has spent every day looking for his boy to come home. When his boy appears on the horizon, the father sees the boy he loves. A good man damaged by life’s hard knocks and his own reckless, ill-considered choices. A good man damaged. Not damaged goods.
Dad throws a party for the disgraced party boy. He demanded no restitution, no probationary period to test the genuineness of his transformed heart, not even a formal apology.
And the older brother blew a gasket. He couldn’t believe that the old man was going to treat this irresponsible, disreputable kid as if he were his brother’s equal. Everybody knew his reputation. He was damaged goods.
The older brother’s moral rectitude has gotten in the way of his compassion.
Just listen to what he tells his father. “I’ve done everything right. I’ve followed all the rules. I’m the one that deserves a party. I’m the one you owe a celebration!”
That’s the problem with misconstruing the Gospel with a moral code. You see, the Gospel is the Good News that, in Jesus, God now sees each of us as good women and men damaged by life’s rough handling and our own misguided choices.
Embodied in Jesus, God’s abiding, freely-given love heals and restores the good within us from even the most devastating damage. We are free to see ourselves as a damaged good being made whole and new. And we are free to see everyone we meet through the same lens.
Mistaking the Good New for Good Rules tempts us to burden ourselves and each other with the impossible task of measuring up perfectly to a set of infinite standards. We will be tempted to see ourselves as moral successes and assess others as damaged goods.
The irony, of course, is that a lack of compassion ranks among the most egregious sins. That lack is most in need of God’s healing compassion.
Jesus never sees us as damaged goods. He sees us as good and as damaged. And his mission is to restore our good from even the most harrowing damage. Even at great personal cost.