A sermon preached by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock
at St. Philip’s, Easthampton, Massachusetts, on 27 Marcy 2022 [Lent 4]:
Joshua 5:9-12; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
About Parables: There is much truth in the observation that all of us are addicted to our own patterns of thinking. Parables are invitations to begin to see the world around us and other people, in particular, with Christ’s eyes. (1.)
From the gospel witness (that is, from Matthew, Mark, and Luke – but not John), Jesus preferred mode of teaching came through parables. As any child seems intuitively to know, there is something unavoidably compelling about a good story. (Who wouldn’t prefer hearing a good story to reading a financial report?) Parables, Jesus’ parables in particular, are stories with a particular purpose. Jesus’ parables are meant to convey the nature of God and what life with God is like. When we accept its invitation to see ourselves as characters in the parable’s story, we risk seeing what God sees, which means that we risk being changed from what we know to what God knows.
This transformational quality of Jesus’ parables always comes by way of their catch. What I mean is that Jesus’ parables convey a story and situation that is familiar to us, but just when we expect to come to a soft, logical landing at the story’s end, the parable purposefully trips us up. We stumble in surprise over how the parable ends. To those of us who can tolerate such mis-stepping and endure the humiliating fall, this stumbling provides the unexpected opportunity to glimpse more than we expect, more than we know. In fact, in stumbling over the parable’s ending, we have the opportunity – but not the guarantee -- to see with Christ’s eyes – that is, to see what God sees and what God knows.
It is the same sense of unexpected perspective that the Scottish poet, Robert Burns, understood, when he famously penned the refrain: “O what a gift it would be to us, to see ourselves as others see us.” More to the point of Jesus’ parables and taking a “wee” liberty with Burns’ words, “O what a gift it would be to us, to see ourselves as God sees us.” Of course, that holy vision, that way of seeing is not everyone’s cup of tea, especially when we catch sight of ourselves in such an unfiltered, direct way.
Of all the eye-opening experiences that the pandemic has provided for me, among the most unsettling ones has been seeing myself on zoom. I can’t help but notice my digitized reflection. There I am, warts and all – without make-up – perhaps even without coffee! Is that how I really look? The camera can be so unabashedly brutal in what it sees. Frankly, I am startled by how much older I look – much more than I expect and at times want to see. Yikes! I can be startled to see myself; and it doesn’t help one bit to hear my mother’s voice, echoing in the deep recesses of my brain, warning me not to be vain! Ok, Mom! but who is that guy I see?
Am I the only one who is startled to see myself on a zoom screen or in a mirror, or reflected in a pane of glass – or in God’s eyes? O what a gift it would be to us, to see ourselves as others – as God – sees us. Really?
Clearly, Jesus’ parables are meant to function as ways to see ourselves; but mostly the parables reflect who and what God is. And if I had to choose one parable or one story that captures the nature of God and what life on God’s terms is most profoundly like, I would choose the story in this morning’s gospel – what we too casually and misleadingly refer to as the “Parable of the Prodigal Son”. In terms of this sermon, the point I want to make regarding what this amazing parable reflects is this: That the life and love of God is always about relationship. If our faith experience is cast in terms of keeping “rules”, then we miss what matters most and what all of us need: namely, connection – with God, with our neighbor, and with ourselves. Put more succinctly, the will of God is Communion. Everything else is detail, including the rules.
So it is that the casual reference to this story as the “Parable of the Prodigal Son” points to the problem. We have a hard time moving beyond the morality that we see in this story -- the sense of “right” and “wrong”. Consequently, we tend to pursue the meaning of this Jesus-story in terms of asking which son we are. Are you the “prodigal”, the wasteful son or daughter? Or are you the embittered first-born? While there is helpful and even necessary insight to be gleaned from measuring these two characters, the real focus of Jesus’ parable is the father, who stands as an unwavering presence of God. So, what does this parable say about what God and the God-life are about? What do we see in its telling about what it means to be connected to God?
Out of habit perhaps, I will begin my response to these questions by looking at the father’s two sons because it is the father’s response to each son that exposes the true nature of God and what it means to have life in Communion with the Maker of heaven and earth.
Most notoriously, the younger son grabs most of our immediate attention. He is, in fact, a punk and a brat, and one wonders how this wasteful ingrate became so self-centered. What kind of parenting did he receive – or ignore? But Jesus’ story does not address this issue. The narrative relates the facts: That the younger son demands his inheritance before his father dies, in doing so basically saying to his dad: “You’re keeping me back, old man. I wish you were dead!” What teenage son – or daughter -- has not at least had this thought in mind?
Well, the rest of the story is well-known, even by the least biblically aware among us. Breaking all rules of good parenting – the ones that set limits and provide direction, the father gives the younger son his inheritance, and the boy goes off to do what unrestrained boys will do. Now, let’s pause here to note two telling items. First, instead of packing his son off to Paris Island for an intimate rendezvous with a friendly Marine drill sergeant, the father lets him go to do what the young boy wants. Are we surprised that he spent his inheritance on sex, drugs, and rock’n’ roll? Yet, what needs to be considered is how the younger son’s behavior affected the father. Beyond the obvious emotional heartbreak, what lies behind the scenes is that the father took a huge financial and social hit. Financially, the father had to liquidate half his holdings in order to give his younger son his portion of the inheritance. The question is: What was liquidated? Most likely, the land. So, if the father had to sell half the land in order to fund his offspring’s quest, then a stranger would own what had been kept in and for the family: a great social insult to an already deep emotional and financial injury.
The wasteling’s story climaxes when, after enduring the personal pain and humiliation of hitting bottom, the young lad sobered up and came to his senses, realizing that working for his dad was so much superior to anything he could pull off for himself. Yet, even at this seeming resolution to the family tension, it is the father’s role that overshadows everything else. Jesus tells us that the father has done nothing during this agonizing period of time but wait, looking at the horizon should his young son suddenly appear. Without a hint of a “I told you so!” or a “Go to your room!”, when the prodigal did appear to offer his well-rehearsed confession, the father unceremoniously ran to meet him and to greet him with a suffocating embrace and a flood of joyful tears.
In this scene we in our American culture miss a revealing aspect of the father. It is that Hebrew men of standing (such as the parable’s father), not to mention the Roman pater familias --men of such social stature would never run. It was below their station. As a former Dean of Canterbury Cathedral once teased me by saying, “I do not walk. I stroll.” By eschewing all dignity, the parable’s father is not only present to his returning son; he hikes up his skirts (publicly exposing himself) and races ahead like some common courier to welcome his son, who was lost but now is found.
What is the nature of our God? Foolish? Soft? Enabling? Indulgent? Embarrassing? Yes, by worldly standards. Yet, when we realize how much we need what the father provides (namely, his mercy, his “forgiveness, his restoration, and his strengthening” (to use the three salient words from our “Confession of Sin”: forgive; restore; strengthen) – when we are in need of this “foolish” and life-giving love, we, too, would be stunned and ultimately grateful for this unexpected life-after-death gift.
As they used to say in the old Saturday afternoon movies: “Meanwhile, back at the ranch…” – the eldest son catches wind of his younger brother’s return and restoration. And when the father throws a huge party for the prodigal’s homecoming, the oldest son throws a tantrum and refuses to have anything to do with such unfairness. The oldest brother had always done what was expected of him, never disobeying the father or his rules; but there was one essential lesson this son failed to recognize. He never appreciated that his behavior brought him closeness with his father. Needing what he already had but was unable to appreciate (namely, the father’s presence), the oldest son fell into the “fairness” trap. It wasn’t fair that the wasteful son got a party, and the obedient son never did, no matter how many report cards with straight “A’s” he brought home. “It’s not fair!”
And he was right. It was not fair; but it was just. And the God-life is all about justice, and God’s justice is another word for “love” in action. You see, “justice” is not about “fairness” because “justice” means “reunion”. “Fairness” speaks about equal treatment. The difference between the two terms is important – for this life and the next. It works out like this.
What it might take for me, in my thick-headedness and pridefulness, to be reunited after I have broken relationship (with the law or my neighbor or God) – what it might take to reunite me requires much more than it might take to reunite you. I can pout that the difference between your small payment and my larger payment is “unfair” – is unequal; and I would be right about that – but only if I ignore the fact that “justice’” true purpose is “reunion”: that is, the re-establishment of what once was unified and now needs to be repaired because that connection has been broken.
“Justice” often involves punishment: the loss of one’s freedom, for instance; but if “justice” is truly the goal, then punishment, retribution, revenge must have a very short life. But it needs also to be said that the one who is given “justice” must be willing and able to receive it. In this vein, “justice” also entails transformation.
There are many, many themes and insights to be drawn from this great parable of the two sons and the father. We see ourselves in the boys – or at least we should; but we also need to see the nature of the father: namely, that God, the Maker of heaven and earth, suffers over us because that is what love entails. The parable’s father pays the cost of relationship, of being present in love and Communion – no matter what. With this parable as a reminding reflection of the God-life, the point I want to make clear is to see the cross of Christ more seriously. In other words, the cross is a demonstration, not a payment demonstrates – a demonstration to us and to the world just how far our heavenly Father goes to welcome us back home – no matter what.
And that is – surprisingly – Good News. Amen.
1. Br. Robert L’Esperance, SSJE: “Parable”.