Friday, March 19, 2010

And Who Are We?

The Gospel appointed for the 4th Sunday in Lent is Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32. Also cited in this sermon is Henri Nouwen’s “The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Meditation on Fathers, Brothers, and Sons”, published by Doubleday, 1992.

“Hey, Dad! Drop dead. I want your money.

“No, not all of it. Give me SOME credit… just my share of the farm.

“Acreage? No use for that. Flocks and herds? Who has time for them? Cash is what I’m after. Some habits cost money, you know! Especially the finer things in life. But you wouldn’t know about that, living in this Godforsaken wilderness…

“I want what’s coming to me, right now.”

So opens what may be the best known of Jesus’s parables. What is a parable? Put it simply, a parable is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning. Another definition is offered by C. H. Dodd in his book “The Parables of the Kingdom”: “At its simplest, the parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving
the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into
active thought.”

So come, let’s be teased.

Start with the setting. As in real estate, a parable is affected by its location, its context. St. Luke gives it to us like this: “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ So he told them this parable…”

There were two types of people in that audience. Tax collectors got no respect; they got lots of grief, because they were seen as traitors betraying their people to a greedy Roman empire. If the emperor didn’t do it first, a greedy tax collector would suck the marrow out of your bones. Tax collectors “and sinners”, use your imagination to fill in the blanks of their guilt, get lumped together in this first portion of Jesus’s audience. And they are conscious sinners, aware that they have no right standing, no righteousness, of their own to boast.

The second type in that audience consisted of Pharisees and scribes. The New Testament gives them a bad rap, but scholars tell us that these were educated, progressive, spiritual, influential, powerful community leaders—upright, even if too upright for their own good, trusting in their own righteousness.

If you would be teased by this parable, you must place yourself in one camp or the other. Sinner, or saint? It’s easy to get a bunch of churchfolk admitting that they’re sinners, and of course we’re too modest and honest to call ourselves saints. But come on, who wants to cross the line and sit down with traitors and outcasts, downcast and frowned-upon types, when you could take your proper place among God’s own chosen (if also frozen) people?

Whichever side of the audience you’re in, it’s easy to catch the character of the younger son in this story. One side is likely to give him a more sympathetic hearing than the other, but both will shake their heads at how over-the-top spendthrift he is. That, says my dictionary, is what “prodigal” means: extravagant, wasteful, even lavishly wasteful.

And, as I suggested at the start, it’s this son’s rush to fast-forward to the death of his father that makes his attitude grisly. An inheritance, after all, ought to wait for a death to trigger it. Until then, the farm belongs to Dad. But in this story, Dad chooses not to respond in tough love and tell junior to get a job. Dad decides, not by law but by generosity, to allow junior’s flight to freedom.

Which, we know, is exactly what junior does not find. He spends all that he has. Had there been VISA and MasterCard, he would have kept on spending. He is not unlike many an American before the Great Recession. He lived way beyond his means, and then came the famine. His bad habits and his lack of vision and discipline cost him control of his life. And then came what was even more beyond his power, a bad case of economic collapse.

Sinners in the audience might already have found him a sympathetic figure. I can hear the comments, “Been there… done that…” and “There but for the grace of God…” But are there rumblings of compassion even from the saints? Does this young man’s fall in the recession earn him some mercy? And how about the fact that he does get a job? Are the saints breaking down at all? Ah, they’re a hard bunch…

Maybe it’s when he comes to his senses and realizes how he has traded his birthright for a mess of pottage… Saints love conversion stories. And what a high view of human nature is at work in this story, that this moment of hitting bottom should be described as his coming to himself, as if waking from a long drugged delusional sleep.

But wait… Is he rehearsing a speech to give to his father? Having manipulated his way off the farm, is he now plotting his way back in? O saints, unite and defend this Dad from his ne’er-do-well son!

We find that that’s a lost cause, as we turn to the father and hear in one astonishing sentence, “But while the boy was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.” That little speech gets mumbled into the folds of the father’s embrace, a moment that Rembrandt captures in his haunting gorgeous painting “The Return of the Prodigal Son”. I’ve put a print of this in the display cabinet at the back. Please make that an additional station of the cross to visit today.

How can I describe what Rembrandt sees? The father stands in quiet strength, the son kneels, collapsed in weariness. The father wears rich clothing and a mantle of scarlet, the color of passion and blood, while the boy’s clothes need to be taken and burned. A tattered shoe is on his right foot, but it has no heel; his left foot is bare. The father’s hair and beard are long; the son’s head is shorn, or is it patchy from scabies and bad diet?

But all of that is the outward visible expression. The inward spiritual grace—his yearning for it, his moment of feeling it—we see in just how the boy has laid his face against his father’s chest, or is it even lower, the bowels of compassion mentioned by writers of old.

In one of his books, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams says, “The cry to God as Father in the New Testament is not a calm acknowledgement of a universal truth about God’s abstract ‘fatherhood,’ it is the child’s cry out of nightmare.” Abba! Daddy!

Of Rembrandt’s painting, theologian Henri Nouwen says what we could say about the parable itself: “the painting… contained not only the heart of the story that God wants to tell me, but also the heart of the story that I want to tell to God and God’s people. All of the Gospel is there. All of my life is there… (in) a mysterious window through which I can step into the Kingdom of God… a huge gate that allows me to move to the other side of existence and look from there back into… my daily life.”

And there, on the other side of existence in this story, is the older brother. In the painting, he looms over the scene, but far to the right, in profile so we catch the hard glint off his left eye as he literally looks down on both his brother and their father. His hands are clasped as if he is wringing them. He stands on a platform on a different plane from the reconciliation that is beneath him. In the story he isolates himself from his own flesh and blood, angry, refusing to join them. When his father pleads with him to come in from the cold and celebrate their reunion, the elder brother lets it all rip.

You heard his words. “All these years I haven’t had a life. You pity junior because he wound up a servant—well, I’ve been your slave, never disobeying your command. But when did you give a party for me? This son of yours works his way back into your heart, and you go all out for him. What about me?”

The saints can be hard. Even when his generous father assures him that the whole farm will pass to him, this older brother is still calculating what his young brother has cost him, the net loss from the prodigal’s escapades. Even when his father tries to help him feel this joy of resurrection by turning back his harsh words and turning them around—“this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found,” the story has no more words to say whether he turned the heart of his older boy to his younger brother. As we leave the story, #1 son is stuck, paralyzed, too upright for his own good.

And what do you think of the father? Both sides of the audience think he’s a prodigal too, lavish, extravagant, willing to see his hard work turn to dust as it passes through his younger son’s fingers, all so that the boy will discover what he most values and so find freedom to walk into the embrace of life.

The embrace of God… for doesn’t this story, revolving around this parent, get us thinking about the nature of God? As Jesus tells the story, God is exactly who you want to meet, if you’re a sinner. But those who think they’re righteous may find God difficult to approve.

How have you been teased to active thought by this parable? I invite you to be still with that question, a while.