Monday, March 11, 2013

On the Prodigal Son, Lent 4, Year C

Our works do not exist in opposition to God’s grace; God’s grace is what blesses our works. 

Last Sunday, Corrie raised a question that has probably haunted everyone in this church at least once in your lives: if God is so good, then why do bad things happen? 

Today’s Gospel is full of bad things: a father loses his property to a wayward son, a wayward son crashes and burns, and the righteous son is left, thankless, out in the cold, as a party is given for a wastrel, who, after losing one fortune is now gifted with the family’s best ring, robe and the fatted calf. What gives? If wastrels get parties, what’s the point? Or, to put it as the Pharisees asked, if Jesus is a teacher from God, why does he hang out with those kind of people? What would you think if you saw Jesus at dinner with a bunch of really creepy repo men? 

We usually don’t ask ourselves who we would not be caught dead with, but I think we should, since Jesus is asking us to think in a whole new way about good guys and bad guys and about the God who made the world in which we all live. It’s both liberating and scary. I mean, how would you feel if the Koch brothers lost everything, fell on their knees and said they were sorry, or if Wal-Mart went bankrupt? Might we just not think they got what they deserved?

The Prodigal Son is the story of someone who does a great wrong, comes to his senses, and finds forgiveness.  All of us need that kind of love sometimes. I’ve heard so many people tell how they have encountered God’s love at the lowest moment in their lives. In spite of everything, says this story, God loves me. Even though I’ve been a complete fool and done irrevocable harm, God still oves me. God will make things right. God wants things right. There is hope, even now, says this parable. We can come to our senses.

But then, here’s the other side, should God forgive the bad guys too? 

A great deal has been said and written about the Parable of the Prodigal Son. In fact, just about everything that can be said about this parable has been said. But that does not make the story any less troubling or compelling. The younger son does great harm. The older, righteous son, is unforgiving. The father appears to play favorites.

But this is also Rose Sunday, the fourth Sunday in Lent, the Sunday in which we are asked to relax our penitential breast beating and give thanks for the Grace of God. Our first reading begins: Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt. We have sung “Amazing Grace.” And we read from the letters of Paul, a reprise of that moving sentence that began our journey on Ash Wednesday:

He made him, who knew no sin, to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God, in him. (New American Standard Bible)

I’m using a slightly different translation than the NRSV we heard this morning, because it was this translation that one Lent I listened to in a musical setting every day. The singer phrased it like this:  He made him, (pause) who knew no sin, (pause) to be sin (pause) on our behalf, (pause) that we might become (pause) the righteousness of God, (pause) in him. Sing it enough times and it becomes a prayer, and as a prayer, it asks us, how could God have ever become sin? And how does this lead to righteousness?

When Paul wrote his second letter to the Corinthians, he had been seriously beat up. At the beginning, he confesses: “We do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, of the affliction we experienced in Asia; for we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death so that we would rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.” He doesn’t tell us which of his adventures crushed him; only that he despaired of life itself. (A little like the Prodigal, feeding pigs?) And that God picked him up and gave him the grace to go on. 

The Parable of the Prodigal Son is a story about works and grace. What we do matters. 

The parable of the Prodigal son is about facing the things that hurt; it’s about what we do to one another. All three characters ache in this story: the father who loses his son, the son who loses his dreams, the son who loses his sense of his own goodness.  The older son cannot forgive. We have no assurance that the younger will mend his ways. What will happen to these people? And where is God?

Among the many essays written about this week’s Gospel, perhaps the most striking comes from a GTU graduate, David Henson: 

God seems to appear in this story in the role of the doddering old fool, manipulated by the half-cooked apology of the prodigal son to forget all that has passed. Not only this, but the father ignores the harm done to the other son, the one who stayed home, followed the rules, loved him without vacation.

And the father does harm the other son. The father’s indiscriminate love to the prodigal wounds the brother, as it rightly would us all.

But what if God isn’t the father in this story?

What if God instead is the prodigal who seems so irresponsible?

What if God is the God who comes to us in the disguise of those we despise, those who have hated and killed us, rejected us and abandoned us, those who annoy and frustrate us most, those who are excluded?

Picking up that theme, what if God came to me, the Eco Queen in the person of the president of Exxon Mobil? This is the whole theme of the soul’s shadow, the parts of ourselves we cannot own, so we turn them into monsters. But in fact, we need the creativity and daring of our darker sides; if I want to help the relationship of ecology, I need the relational genius of an entrepreneur.  When I sit around hating the oil companies, I miss their genius. As older son, I become crabbed and limited. All of us have a dark side. We don’t usually encounter it when life is going well. It is when we suffer that we discover the stuff of which we are made. In the depths of his suffering, the Prodigal Son learned the most important thing of all and that was to love.

Parables are a lot like dreams. Like dreams, parables are non-literal stories that ask us to engage  an event from a variety of points of view. Anyone who does dream work knows that since every dream I dream takes place inside of me, every part of the dream must also be an aspect of myself; thus, if the Prodigal Son were my dream, I would be all the characters, the father, the elder brother, the younger brother, the younger brother’s drinking companions, even the pigs he was feeding! God, too, is in all these things, for God is known in relationship. The younger son realized this, while the older one did not.

Most of us Americans are like the older son. New York Columnist David Brooks began his Friday op-ed piece: “Those of us in secular America live in a culture that takes the supremacy of individual autonomy as a given. Life is a journey. You choose your own path. You can live in the city or the suburbs, be a Wiccan or a biker.”

To live in a culture where the individual reigns supreme, however, is also to live in a culture that will eventually become divided into factions: my choice against your choice, my interests against your interests, a culture based neither in the laws of nature nor the grace of God. 

Law, whether the laws of nature or the Jewish Mitzvot, are descriptions of right relationship and societies based upon competition, whether in ancient Rome or modern America, make relationship into winning and losing, not interdependence. Under conditions of oppression or depression, relationships are damaged and living law itself becomes oppressive or depressive. But that is the problem of sin, not of law. 

We need rules to live well in community, rules that help us get along rather than pit us against one another like the brothers in our tale. One of the reason kids love soccer: it builds a tight community around clearly understood rules. They tell me they’ll let their team down if they don’t play. Sportsmanship codes help kids deal with their feelings. They cannot do well if they don’t understand their fellow players’ strengths and weaknesses. It’s why I don’t always mind that my young friends miss church for a soccer game, because many of the lessons are the same. In playing by living rules, kids on the field can find grace, unless the sin of competition, like the righteousness of the older brother, takes them over.

On the Fourth Sunday of Lent, we’re being asked to love one another, with all our weaknesses and growing edges. So I’ll leave you with two quotes. The first is from MLK. The second is from a very old TV show that remains my all time favorite: 

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

There's a dark side to each and every human soul. We wish we were Obi-Wan Kenobi, and for the most part we are, but there's a little Darth Vader in all of us. Thing is, this ain't no either-or proposition. We're talking about dialectics, the good and the bad merging into us. You can run but you can't hide. My experience? Face the darkness. Stare it down. Own it. As brother Nietzsche said, being human is a complicated gig. So give that ol' dark night of the soul a hug. Howl the eternal yes!

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