I am being profoundly shaped by Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation. And Miroslav Volf, who studied under Jurgen Moltmann is becoming one of my favorite theologians to read. The sheer amount of material and diversity of scholars that he interacts with is unbelievable.
As I read through Exclusion and Embrace they are so many amazing parts, but there is one section of the book titled “The Open Arms of the Father” where Volf writes on the “prodigal son” in Luke 15:11-32. The story of the “prodigal son” is written about by many people, and one of my favorite reflections on the passage is by Henri Nouwen in the book Return of the Prodigal Son.
But in Volf’s book I am really being impacted by his understanding of “excluding” and “embracing.” And not just impacted, but challenged in ways that I have not previously been challenged in my Christianity.
I can not give you all the background of the book because there is just too much, so the following quote is a long one, and you are just going to have to eventually read the book yourself, since no quote that I post can do the book justice. But here is Volf on the “prodigal son.”
What is so profoundly different about the “new order” of the father is that it is not built around the alternatives as defined by the older brother: either strict adherence to the rules or disorder and disintegration; either you are “in” or you are “out,” depending on whether you have or have not broken a rule. He rejected this alternative because his behavior was governed by the one fundamental “rule”: relationship has priority over all rules. Before any rule can apply, he is a father to his sons and his sons are brothers to one another. The reason for celebration is that “this son of mine” (v.24) and “this brother of yours” (v.32) has been found and has come alive again. Notice the categorical difference between how the father and how the older brother interpret the prodigal’s life in the “distant country.” The older brother employs moral categories and constructs his brother’s departure along the axis of “bad/good” behavior: the brother has “devoured your property with prostitutes” (v.30). The father, though keenly aware of the moral import of his younger son’s behavior, employs relational categories and constructs his son’s departure along the axis of “lost/found” and “alive (to him)/dead (to him).” Relationship is prior to moral rules; moral performances may do something to the relationship, but relationship is not grounded in moral performance. Hence the will to embrace is independent of the quality of behavior, though at the same time “repentance,” “confession,” and the “consequences of one’s actions” all have their own proper place. The profound wisdom about the priority of the relationship, and not some sentimental insanity, explains the father’s kind of “prodigality” to both of his sons.
For the father, the priority of the relationship means not only a refusal to let moral rules be the final authority regulating “exclusion” and “embrace” but also a refusal to construct his own identity in isolation from his sons. He readjusts his identity along with the changing identities of his sons and thereby reconstructs their broken identities and relationships. He suffers being “un-fathered” by both, so that through this suffering he may regain both as his sons (if the older brother was persuaded) and help them rediscover each other as brothers. Refusing the alternatives of “self-constructed” vs. “imposed” identities, difference vs. domestication, he allows himself to be taken on the journey of their shifting identities so that he can continue to be their father and they, each other’s brothers. Why does he not lose himself on the journey? Because he is guided by indestructible love and supported by a flexible order.
Flexible order? Changing identities? The world of fixed rules and stable identities is the world of the older brother. The father destabilizes this world–and draws his older son’s anger upon himself. The father’s most basic commitment is not to rules and given identities but to his sons whose lives are too complex to be regulated by fixed rules and whose identitites are too dynamic to be defined once for all. Yet he does not give up the rules and the order. Guided by the indestructible love which makes space in the self for others in their alterity, which invites the others who have trangressed to return, which creates hospitable conditions for their confession, and rejoices over their presence, the father keeps re-configuring the order without destroying it so as to maintain it as an order of embrace rather than exclusion. (pp.164-165)