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Bible readings: http://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=121


 

Lent IV Year C (March 6, 2016)                                      St James', Peace River

I'm wondering what it would look like to revisit the home of the prodigal son, and the forgiving father, and the grumpy elder brother, a few years down the road. Sort of like a “Survivor Reunion” show – what happened after the young guy got voted back on to the island? Did his brother ever forgive him? Did his brother ever forgive their father for forgiving him? Did the prodigal ever forgive himself, and did he ever really understand what was going on in Dad's heart? Best of all, since children are nature's way of bringing it all back – what happened when the boys started raising families of their own?

The story leaves those questions in our imagination, some perhaps looming larger than others. But that's what a parable is supposed to do. It's supposed to leave us wondering. That's how it gets to work on us. You go away thinking, have I ever been one of those people? Have I ever treated someone like they treated one another? Do I wish I had (or hadn't)? What would it take for me to act like that?

But first we have to probe the depths of what's really going on in the story, so let's stay with it for a minute. Sometimes familiarity can blunt the sharp edges of what we're hearing – we think we know the story, but there's more to it than meets the eye. For example, people don't always catch the full force of how offensive the younger son's behaviour is, right at the start.  It isn't just youthful adventurousness. He has no interest left in his family or in their life. “Could you hurry up and die, Dad”, is a pretty close translation of what he says - “because if you can't, just give me my money and I'll go.”

But he is in for a rude awakening, not only about how rough the real world can be, but also curiously about the integrity of the people he left behind. As we say nowadays, “The older I get, the smarter my Dad was.” He knows he has blown any right to be considered a member of the family, but with an odd mix of respect and self-interest he decides to go back to the farm, because at least there they will treat you right, put you to work and feed you. So he rehearses the penitent speech that he hopes will at least get him in the door, and heads down the road towards home.

The reception when he gets there is unbelievable. First of all, his father sees him coming. That in itself says a lot – he has not forgotten his son or put him out of his mind, he recognizes him even though you can bet the boy is pretty gaunt and haggard by this time; and you might even wonder if the old man must have been keeping an eye on the road, willing his son to show up there. Then the father runs to meet him – a completely undignified sight, totally out of keeping with the culture of the time: if you were the head of the household, people came to you, not the other way round. Father doesn't listen and doesn't even need to be persuaded by the rehearsed speech, in fact he cuts it off half way through. It's not time to be penitent and sorry, it's time to celebrate. You're home, like the dead come back to life!

There's a lot more in the tail of the story – I particularly like the exchange where father and son play that word game about what to call the prodigal, “this son of yours.... this brother of yours.” You can see that it is going to be very hard for the older brother to accept that the lousy good-for-nothing can be forgiven, let alone has been. In context, that may be the reason the story was first told, because people were similarly critical of Jesus for offering forgiveness to the most shocking offenders, and welcoming them to his parties. “This fellow welcomes sinners... and eats with them!” We still say that every Sunday, lest we think we're not part of this story: “God welcomes sinners and invites them to his table.” That's what brings us up these steps every week, to join in the bread and the wine.

But for now, I want us to stick with the guest of honour in the story. Because there is a message to him, which would also have been audible to the very people the critics were complaining about. Those sinners at the table, who don't deserve to be there (and I'll leave it to you decide if that includes you or not), they have a choice to make. There are two paths opening up for them to walk along for the rest of their lives, and they need to decide on one or the other. One is to milk the system for all its worth – to thank their lucky stars that anyone would be blind enough to let them in, and to take full advantage of their lack of judgement. That's the cynic's path, and people do choose it. I wonder if the prodigal son in the parable would be tempted to take that route.

But we can imagine another way, for him, for the disciples whose presence around Jesus shocked the respectable people... and for us. The other way revolves around being transformed by the appalling, embarrassing, frightening love that the father shows in the parable, that Jesus showed his disciples, and that God has shown you and me. Is it possible to look someone in the eye who has shown such care for you, for your well-being and your future, who has put you so completely and utterly first in their lives, ahead even of themselves, - is it possible to look them in the eye and not change how you feel about them? The son in the parable believed his father was good enough to take him back as a hired hand, but he really had no idea. Not until he saw what forgiveness really looked like.

There's a verse in Psalm 130 that captures that feeling. In describing God, it says, “There is forgiveness with you, and therefore you shall be feared.” The kind of forgiveness on display in the parable is frightening – it shakes our assumptions of what people will put up with, of what the limits of forgivable behaviour might be (or even whether there are any!), of how far someone might go to repair a relationship. But what's really frightening is to see the story lived out, which is what Jesus went on to do. On his own behalf, and in the name of his Father, he gave even more of himself, to ensure that anyone who ever wants to “come back home” will know that they are not just welcome, but are the fulfilment of God's greatest hope.

It's scary to think we have that kind of standing in God's sight, that we matter so much. If you face that fear and allow it to be true, then nothing can ever be the same any more. Nothing will ever again make sense about what you or anyone else might deserve or not deserve, because what God has in mind for any particular person turns out to be scaled, not to our deserving, but to God's unlimited, embarrassing, generous love. When you truly get that, your perspective on pretty much everything and everyone gets up-ended. When you look around you, and when you look in the mirror, what you see is not people who are graded somewhere on the continuum between sinners and righteous – what you see instead, in each and every case, is someone Jesus loves enough to die for, if that is what it takes to bring them home.

That's the second path, the one we hope the prodigal son might take, the one we hope we might take – accepting God's love so completely in the face of our own failure, that it changes the way we live our lives and the way we look at every person we meet. In the story itself, there is only one person who actually encounters that challenge directly, and it's the older brother. Ironically, he hasn't yet plumbed the depths of his father's love, because he has never rejected it and had to be welcomed back. But he also has to find his way back home, without ever having left – he is dislocated by the return of his brother and their father's incomprehensible reaction. Those events expose the cynicism of his own role as the “good son” - behaving well in order to earn the reward of his father's love and all the material benefits that come with it. The only way home for him now, will be the same path of transformation – being so beggared by his father's act of forgiveness that he too will abandon the categories of deserving and undeserving, and instead see only what it means to love and be loved.

I don't need to tell you what it means for you to live this story. You can figure out for yourself which of these characters you have been, and when. You will know if you have encountered God's unbelievable grace for yourself, and if you have, what it has changed about your perspective. You will know how difficult it is to accept how that grace is offered to others, but also how difficult it is to live in a world where God is ready to welcome your brother and sister, and you're not. All I can tell you is to focus on the one thing that will make sense of any of that, which is the astonishing and undignified portrait of God that we get from this parable and from the way Jesus lived it. Not a God who is high and holy, waiting for us to pay our dues and work off our demerits before we get to hang out with him; but a God who watches every day to see if we're on the road, who runs to meet us, and wants nothing more than to throw the biggest party in the world to celebrate our return to love and to life.