It seems a dubious word choice for an even more dubious action: “Reconciliation”–a congressional measure by which one political party gets what they want (mostly) when the opposing party really, really, really doesn’t want that to happen. 

It’s a financial term, this reconciliation, as in reconciling a balance sheet, and it was invented for budget-related bills to help keep spending in line and the deficit under control. When Democrats threaten to use it for big social policy packages (like the health care reform bill), Republicans go ballistic. And vice versa.

The fact that budgetary reconciliation is often called a “maneuver” tells you that it doesn’t have much to do with, well, reconciliation. It’s a way for the party in power to avoid having their bill filibustered (only a simple majority needed for passage). And it’s classic inside-the-beltway politics: compromise carried out with a grudge.

In the midst of all the bipartisan posturing about health care reform and (so-called) reconciliation, CNN re-ran a 2008 report by Christiane Amanpour about the Rwandan genocide–specifically about the reconciliation that has taken place in recent years between many Hutus and Tutsis.

Iphigenia Mukantabana describes without drama or fanfare the slow process of forgiving the man who murdered her husband and five of her children. She regularly prepares and shares meals with this man, Jean-Bosco Bizimana, and she works side by side every day with his wife. Iphigenia quietly credits her Catholic faith with giving her the resources for these extraordinary gestures.

This Sunday, the lectionary readings draw our attention to the hard work (and sometimes palpable joy) of being reconciled to another. In Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32, Jesus tells his most beloved parable–the one about the prodigal son. Because it’s so beloved, so familiar, there’s a tendency, I think, in preaching and teaching it, to domesticate it–literally; to turn it into a heartwarming story of family togetherness (never mind that the elder son never really buys into a cozy scenario of brotherly love).

This approach to the text praises the wayward son’s return to the family fold in repentance and obedience. But there’s a smallness to such a reading, a failure to see that the reconciliation achieved in the story is a grand gift–grand because it is not merely rapprochement between an estranged father and son, and a gift because it’s the prodigality of the father, not the son, that makes genuine reconciliation possible.

It’s true that the son wastes his inheritance, his time, his talent, but it’s also true that the father “spends” his own love for the son in wasteful extravagance, undermining his reputation, his standing in the community, his authority as patriarch, landowner, and overseer. As Barbara Brown Taylor has noted, “This reconciliation will cost [the father] his honor—his greatness in others’ eyes—but that is a price he is willing to pay. The father runs like a girl to greet his son, before anyone can treat him like a hired hand.”

It’s a story that turns justice on its head, that upsets our (and the elder brother’s) sense of basic fairness. But like Iphigenia in Rwanda, the father settles the transgressor’s debt not by exacting revenge or meting out punishment but by setting a table. The forgiveness that is offered and received, the reconciliation that has begun (that will take time to complete), is not a private transaction between two people but a meal for the nourishment and healing of the whole community.

As Iphigenia has said about her journey of forgiveness and reconciliation: “It has not just helped me, it has helped all Rwandans because someone comes and accepts what he did and he asks for forgiveness from the whole community, from all Rwandans.”

Bureaucrats play at “reconciliation” for political gain. The prodigal father embraces the prodigal son and a community celebrates. A Hutu and a Tutsi dare to embrace and a nation learns to forgive.