Monday, March 7, 2016

Lent 4: The Prodigal Son

Joshua 5:9-12
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Psalm 32

Here we are in Lent.  Our liturgy today began with the Penitential Order—reminding us of God’s commandments, and calling us to repent.

Today’s Gospel, the parable of the Prodigal Son, speaks to God’s hope that we will repent and return to the Parent who loves us even though we have wandered far away.  The parable reminds us of God’s radical welcome to all his children—those who are faithful and those who have wandered.  The parable also gives us images of new life through Christ, the feast with dancing and music, the best robe, the ring on his finger and sandals on his feet, a feast on the fatted calf, the most delicious meat, enough for everyone, a joyous celebration. 

These theological truths are powerful.  But this week, I prayed about what the parable might say about us—God’s people.  I found myself thinking this week about the sons’ (both sons) roles and the slaves’ roles in this parable.   When we read the intervening parables (the verses left out of our pericope today) we hear the stories of the lost sheep and the lost coin.  Reading the three parables together, we see clearly that God is celebrating the one who is lost and then found by God.  But this parable of the Prodigal Son, allows us to look not only at the one who was lost (like the sheep or the coin), but also to look at the hired hands who just keeping working in the fields and the faithful son who stays home and rejects the banquet, the ‘new life’ experience that is given to the one who left.

Who are we?  Are we the hired hands, the slaves who consistently do the will of the Father?  Are we the Son who stayed behind?  Or are we the Prodigal Son, who squanders God’s gifts to us and now must repent?

I have a hard time putting myself in the position of the Prodigal Son.  Not because I’m perfect, but because I have always worked hard to be a good person, following God’s commandments.  I have made mistakes and confessed them, I continue to leave things undone, to do the wrong things and to be blind and deaf to God’s call to me.  But as far as I know, I’ve never intentionally squandered God’s gifts.  I’ve never intentionally misused the wealth I’ve been given for my own pleasure instead of devoting myself to God.  I just don’t like to think I’m that  bad.

And when I observe the work that we are doing in our community—I think we are trying very hard to live as disciples, thinking about what God wants us to do and trying in whatever ways we can to follow God’s call.

So I turn to the faithful Son.  Is that who I relate to?  The older Son hears the party going on and is really angry. He refuses to participate.  Even when his Father pleads with him to join in the celebration of his younger brother, he holds onto his anger.  His is outraged at the unfairness of having worked like a slave and never having been given even a young goat so that he might celebrate with his friends.”  He can’t be joyful about the banquet that his brother is having because he is resentful that he didn’t get a party.  If we understand that party as the gift of “new life” that God has given us in Christ Jesus, then the older Son is rejecting the new life because he doesn’t understand it.  He thinks that he should get it because of his good work, his faithful living.  He doesn’t understand that the heavenly banquet, the gift of new life is given without regard to who did the most work, who was the best son.  He has missed the party because he’s holding onto his judgment about his brother.  Instead of seeing with the eyes of God, and knowing the compassion that the Father feels for his child, he is seeing with human eyes and judging himself worthy and his brother, unworthy.  He refuses the father’s invitation to join the banquet. 
Sometimes I have been the older Son.  I am not unhappy about the good fortune of someone who has had hard times and is now doing well.  I want the person who is suffering addiction to get back on her feet.  I want the person who has been convicted of a crime to be rehabilitated and returned to society.   But my generosity has limits.  Maybe I hold onto some judgment.  Maybe I wonder why we put so many public resources into the person who I think has made the wrong choices, instead of putting our resources into the “good” people who are just doing what they are supposed to and having a hard time.  I hear something along these lines when I hear the reports about people dealing with immigrants, particularly refugees.  People want to help, and they are willing to welcome some number of people from other places.   But then they get angry and talk about closing the borders, putting up fences when they think that these outsiders might come here and take jobs, or use public education, or public health services.  We want all people to be safe and have basic human rights in their own country, but we don’t really want to give to have what we judge to be more than is fair.  The parable reminds us that God’s grace is available to all, without a ranking.  God’s economy is different than ours.  Instead of divvying up a limited pie—judging one worthy of the fatted calf and another worthy of a goat and another worthy of bread, God is sharing the fatted calf with all of workers, and both Sons.  There is enough to go around.  When we act as the older Son, the faithful one who holds onto our judgments, we are missing the opportunity that God is offering for new life.  Because we want some special recognition of our faithful service—we want to be recognized as “better” than the others, we are angry with God and miss the invitation to participate in the banquet that is available to everyone.  The Father tries to explain it to him 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”  Everything has always been available to the faithful son, but he has not seen all the grace bestowed upon him.
And this then brings me to the hired hands in the story.  They seem to be the ones who have it best.  The slaves, or servants, or hired hands are there working on the Father’s land.  The younger Son remembers them when he is starving in the foreign land.  He remembers that they worked and had enough bread, “and to spare.”   He longs to be treated as one of the hired hands.  The hired hands are the ones that the Father calls to prepare the banquet.  And when it’s prepared they are invited too.    What’s the difference between the Sons and the hired hands.  Maybe the parable shows us that it’s a matter of intention, or attention.  The Prodigal Son squanders God’s gifts.  The Faithful Son does not recognize the gifts that are always available to him.  And the hired hands, the slaves just work along, doing the Father’s work and always having enough, and to spare.    

I would like to be the hired hand.  I would like to be the faithful worker who is doing what I’m supposed to.  I would like to be satisfied, knowing that I have enough of my daily bread.  I don’t need anything more.  And with that attention to the gifts I am given every day and a thankful heart, I wait for the banquet.  The banquet is the day when everyone, everywhere will share in the fatted calf, the music, the dancing.  I will be part of this Heavenly Kingdom that God promises to all God’s people.  But the day is not yet here.  All of God’s people do not have enough.  We are still bound up in our human economy which favors some and leaves some without any bread at all. 
Jesus’ parable is a teaching for us that is not bound up in linear time.  In the parable, the Sons have worked, squandered, returned and feasted.  For us, the covenant in Jesus is both completed and yet to come.  God has given us the bread we need,  Jesus has reconciled all of us to God, and yet the Heavenly Kingdom, the banquet that is promised is not yet available to all of God’s people because we, the Sons and the hired hands, are still struggling to bring that Kingdom here.  It is our work to get out of the earthly economy we have created and move towards the divine economy in which all God’s creatures will prosper.

This is Paul’s message to the Corinthians.  He is reminding them that they are to be  “ambassadors” of Christ.    He begs them to pay attention, “there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!’  God has given new life without regard to “trespasses”.  It is up to the Corinthians who can see this grace, now to bring that reconciliation to the world. 

Likewise, God reminds the prophet Joshua in the Hebrew bible of the story of the Israelites who wander in the desert eating manna until the day when their disgrace is removed.  They are faithful people for whom God provided enough.  But on the day of reconciliation, they have enough from the land of Canaan.   The Israelites from that day forward will have the bounty that God promised.  They will work the land and there will be enough for everyone. 

In all three passages, we have stories of reconciliation and the result of that reconciliation is that all of God’s people—the sinners, the faithful, those who never left God’s side, those who worked without any expectation of recognition—all share in the same heavenly banquet.

And all three stories show us that this banquet is brought to all by the faithful hired hands—the Israelites who work the land in Canaan, the Corinthians who are called to be ambassadors of Christ, and the hired hands who wil prepare the finest robe, the ring and sandals, kill the fatted calf and make the music and dancing.  We have a role to play in this work of reconciliation.  It is up to us to notice the bounty which is all around us.  WE must be attentive to the outrageous grace, the radical, all encompassing love that we have been given already.  We must notice the bounty of the earth, the bread that sustains us and is more than enough to share.  And in noticing these gifts, we must share them.

Like the hired hands, we must prepare the feast, not judging those who have sinned or wandered from God, but instead offering them the best that there is, sharing God’s love everywhere we go with everyone we meet.  This is how the Kingdom comes to us all.

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