God, Your Boss at Applebee’s, and Larry

God, Your Boss at Applebee’s, and Larry February 27, 2024

An alternative title for this essay might be “A Comedian Interprets the Parable of the Prodigal Son.” In the most recent “Faith for Normal People” podcast, “the other God-ordained podcast on the Internet” (Bible for Normal People is the first one), comedian Pete Holmes is the guest. I confess I had never heard of the guy and I’m not sure I’m headed to YouTube to find some of his standup. But he’s one of the few comedians I am aware of who unabashedly talks about faith and religion in his routines, so that’s a plus.

Pete Holmes on Faith for Normal People

About halfway through the podcast, hosts Pete Enns and Jared Byas talk with Holmes about Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, a story that Holmes calls Jesus’ “closer” in which “all of Christ, all of Christianity, and all of the gospel” is included, noting further that “historians agree that the most authentic teaching of Jesus like, not added by a scribe, not mucked with in any way.” Holmes ges on to say that he tried a version of this parable on stage one time, along these lines:

This young guy asks his wealtht father for his inheritance early, gets it, leaves home and union with his father, then squanders his inheritance in riotous living—sex, drugs, alcohol, you name it. He ends up working with the pigs, which for a Jewish audience means that he can’t sink any lower. He thinks it’s all over. He thinks he’s going to die.

But then this guy Jesus comes along, finds the guy among the pigs, and says “Look, I’ll walk you back to your father. Now, I know your father. He’s judgmental, he’s powerful, he holds a grudge, and he’s going to need someone to be tortured and murdered for this nonsense that you did. We all know that your dad’s an unreasonable tyrant. Someone’s going to have to pay for what you did; heads are going to roll.

But I’ll go in with you, I’ll plead your case to your father. I’ll say “I know you want to kill your son for what he did, but kill me instead.” And he does. He tortures and murders Jesus and then the prodigal son is safe to come home.

Any person familiar with the story, of course, will say “That’s not how the story goes!” But the father in Pete Holmes’ retelling of the story is behaving precisely as the God that many of us were taught to believe in behaves. God is judgmental, God cannot abide disobedience and sin, so Jesus has to die as an atoning sacrifice for those sins and to appease God who, perhaps grudgingly, accepts us back into divine good favor only after the sacrifice of Jesus. If the father in the prodigal son parable stands for God, as virtually all interpreters of the story say that he does, then given what we’ve been taught to believe concerning God this is how the story should go.

But it doesn’t. Instead, while knee deep in the muck of the pigsty, the son remembers his father. I’m his son. Maybe if I go back he’ll at least let me be a servant and have a place to stay. And of course he does go back, his father sees him “from afar off,” runs to him and embraces him. The prodigal has a little speech prepared, but the father says “Whatever. You were always with me, and everything I have is yours. Let’s have a party!”

Pete Holmes remarks “That sounds like God to me, but that’s not the God we want. We want a God that hates what we hate, loves what we love.” This radical and unconditional forgiveness stuff? That’s too much. The God many of us were taught to believe is very different. Holmes continues:

He’s also mad if you don’t believe in him! Or mad if you say fuck! And then I go, you mean like your boss at Applebee’s? Mad that you said the F word? Like, have a god that’s better than your boss at Applebee’s!

That’s excellent advice. Since our picture of God is always a projection of our imagination, we might want to stretch our imaginations a bit.

Suppose, for instance, that the issue is worse than saying “fuck.” Suppose you have cheated on your partner. Suppose that your partner lets everyone know that you have cheated. Your partner’s mad at you, everyone you know is mad at you. But you have this one “ride or die” friend, Larry. You have a couple of drinks with Larry and he listens to you as you try to figure out why you did such a terrible thing. Why do I always screw up every relationship? You come to realize that your examples and models of relationships from your childhood were toxic—you learned to cut relationships off before they get too serious, and learned to distance yourself to avoid getting hurt.

And Larry listens and Larry forgives you, but God can’t? And I go, I shouldn’t have to say this, but have a God that’s better than Larry! Have a God that’s better than Larry!

More good advice. If Larry can forgive you, perhaps God can as well.

My Baptist preacher father once gave me a book to read when I was in my middle school/high school years. It was a small theology classic; J. B. Phillips’ Your God is Too Small. Each brief chapter describes a God of limited imagination: a policeman God, a projection of your parents, a God of perpetual grievance, and more. I recall little of the content more than five decades later, but the concept in the title has stayed with me ever since. If your God get its underwear in a knot if you drop an F bomb, you might want to stretch your imagination a bit. If your friend Larry can forgive you for your worst behavior but your God can’t without blood sacrifice, you need a different God. As J. B. Phillips would have said, your God is too small.

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