March 15, 2010

Running down the Road

Year C, Lent 4, RCL

March 14, 2010

Today's Gospel lesson is like a great piece of art, or music, or writing. It is often admired, talked about, picked apart, and examined. Many times, we think that enough has been said about it, so we let the piece of art stand on its own. We forget to take a closer look at what the artist drew on the canvass or wrote on the page. We don't think to look at what the artist may have been thinking or feeling or where she or he might have been when they created their masterpiece. Not knowing those details doesn't take away from our appreciation of the piece of art, but knowing them helps us to appreciate them even more.

That same piece of art, or music or writing will likely have different meanings to us at different times in our lives, and may be a piece that we come back to over and over again. Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton is one of my all-time favorite novels. I think I've read it three times in the past 15 years, and each time, it has a new meaning to me.

Jesus' parable of the Prodigal Son, like a great piece of art or music or literature, has been told, re-told, and re-imagined over the centuries. It might be one of the most dissected of Jesus' stories, and certainly the term "prodigal son" or "daughter" has become part of the common vernacular.

One of the things I love most about this particular parable is the way it can have different meanings at different points in your life. The parable has four main characters whose perspective we could look at: The father, the younger or Prodigal Son, the older son, and the servants. (Well, OK, five perspectives if you count the fatted calf. But we may keep that until next time… )

Here is the question I want to run with this morning: What does this story teach us about God?

We can glean a great deal about God's grace from this passage, as well as how deeply God longs for a closer connection with us.

There are a few details from first-century Palestinian culture that will help our 21st Century minds to understand it a little better. These were details that didn't need explaining in Jesus' time, but might help us get a better grip on the magnitude of the story.

First— Jesus' hearers knew and understood that to be the one who was feeding the pigs, especially for a Jew, was to have fallen about as far as you could fall.

Second—And possibly, most important—what the younger son did was an insult to his father, the demand for his inheritance, the returning, etc. It was culturally abhorrent. It just wasn't done. The son was basically saying to his father, "you are dead to me."

Knowing those two bits of information, let's think again: What do we learn about God in this story?
The son who left and squandered his dad's money, we'll call him, Jeff, comes to his senses and is willing to come back to his father and be treated as one of his father's servants, someone with no rights and no way of earning those rights. And if his father had rejected him, it would have been justified in doing so. But as "Jeff" is making his way home, no doubt practicing his groveling speech to his father, his daddy sees him off on the horizon and is so overcome with joy that he runs to Jeff, puts a ring on Jeff's finger, a robe around his body (and not just any robe—"the best one!"), and says, "I don't care how you smell or what you look like! I'm so glad that you are home, we are going to have a huge party!"

Now, raise your hand if you think that Jeff deserved all that.
Of course he didn't "deserve" it, but that's what he got from his father: Unconditional welcome and reception. And more importantly, his dad didn't just wait for him to walk in the door, and Jeff didn't even get to finish his speech. His dad saw him, was maybe even keeping an eye out for him, and his dad went running to meet him.

So what do we learn about God from this parable?

After Jeff had been given more than enough, he spent it on "dissolute living." One translation of the Bible calls it "wild living" and another calls it "loose living." And yet, his father welcomed him back with open arms.
How many times in our lives have we been loose or wild with what we have been given? Maybe we haven't spent it on parties or jewelry or other extravagances, but we all have been guilty of it at one point or another. Maybe it's what we haven't done with what we've been given.
God has given us all a share in the
kingdom of Heaven. Jesus is pretty clear in his other parables that for us to do nothing with that is what breaks God's heart.
But our God is a God of Grace and Mercy, who is willing to forgive, to love and to give us untold number of chances. Just as Jeff's father took him back in and threw a party for him, I am a firm believer that God takes us back and throws a party (with or without the fatted calf) each time we return and re-commit ourselves to doing God's will.
Let us not forget Jeff's brother, Walt. Walt is working the field, hears the sound of a party, sees nothing on his Blackberry about a party and goes to ask one of the servants what is going on. When Walt finds out, he's a little mad. I'm not real sure what he is madder about: that Jeff came home or that daddy is throwing Jeff party. Walt has every right to be angry that his brother gets a party for all his loose living and money squandering when Walt has been faithful and hard working and yet, daddy has not given him even a small goat for a small party. Makes you wonder which brother was really lost. Walt needs to see the big picture, doesn't he? What was lost, dad says to him, has now been found; what was dead is now alive. We don't know if this made much difference to Walt since that is where the story ends, but it leaves us with a good point: Christ came for the lost, not those who were already found.
We don't deserve the spiritual and material gifts that God has lavished upon us, but we get them anyway. We don't deserve God's grace when we mess up. But God showers us with that grace anyway. As Mother Teresa said, "People are illogical, self-centered, and unreasonable. Love them anyway." Some part of me believes she was pleading to God on our behalf when she said that.
So let's look at the question again: What does this parable tell us about God? It tells me that with God, there is always room at the feast for us, and that no matter our transgressions, we are loved so, so much by God. As author Rodney Clapp wrote about this passage, "Every time God's active, stretching, searching, healing love finds someone and calls that person back home, it does not mean there is less for the rest of us. It means there is more. More wine. More feasting. More music. More dancing. It means another, and now bigger, party."

But what this parable tells me the most about God is that God's love is so deep that God is more than willing to come running down the road to meet us, despite the fact that God is God and it is you and I who have gone and squandered the gifts we have been given. The fact that we don't have to grovel and plead for God's forgiveness is one of the most humbling realizations of all. That no matter how far we've fallen, whatever our spiritual or cultural "sleeping with the pigs" may be, when we come to ourselves, God will be running down the road to meet us and welcome us home.