The Adventurous Lectionary – The Fourth Sunday in Lent – March 6, 2016
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Today’s scriptures reflect on the burden of goodness and the unconditional love of God. Virtually every adult knows the story of the prodigal son, existentially if not biblically. We all know a family – or a part of a family – whose child has gone astray through addiction, incarceration, mental illness, or alienation. We all know the “lost child” or “black sheep” of the family, whose relatives speak of her or him in whispers and with a sense of judgment. We know the embarrassment some families feel about a sibling or child who has gone astray. There’s a mixture of feelings – anger, hopelessness, worry, helplessness, and denial. This is true now, and was true in Jesus’ time. These feelings of alienation are exacerbated by feelings of judgment – on ourselves, that we did something wrong to merit such a child, and on the “lost child,” who is outside of realm of grace.
Jesus told the parable of the prodigal son in response to an angry and judgmental audience. In response to Jesus’ welcome of outsiders, sinners, and persons deemed unclean – “this fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them” – Jesus tells the story of two lost sons and a loving parent as part of a holy trinity of parables describing God’s care for the lost.
Lostness occurs in lots of ways: the lost sheep, who simply wanders off, stupidly and innocently perhaps, like a toddler in the supermarket, pursuing something bright and beautiful, and then finding herself alone and frightened; like a lost coin, misplaced and out of sight; like the poor and vulnerable, we would just as soon not see, those forgotten by the wealthy 1%, the government, the political candidates, and fellow citizens, often through no fault of their own, simply the accidents of birth, intelligence, poor parenting, and poverty; and the lost son, who willfully turns his back on his parents’ love and way of life, going into a far country, addicted, debased, and discarded.
There is, however, as Thomas Merton says, a “hidden wholeness.” There is something of God in each of us, a still small voice, the whisper of sighs too deep for words, an undercurrent of grace, and somehow in his debauchery and destructiveness, this young man hears the call of home. He’s squandered everything, lost his spirit and place in society, and has nothing to offer. He’s old despite his youth, worn out, torn up, and devalued, even to himself. He’s lost all self-esteem, and has nothing to offer, even to his parents. He doubts his parents even love him anymore.
Yet, this story may have a happy ending. All the while, his parents have been looking for him. Perhaps they hired private detectives or sent out employees or reached out to the local constabulary – after all, the parents were upper middle class and had status in the community! They may have followed his every step, and grieved his choices every day. They may have prepared for a homecoming every day, hoping for the one day he’ll show up and they can restore him to the family.That’s God! God never gives up, never abandons, never condemns. There may be a “hell” but it’s of our own making and God’s hand reaches into hell to rescue the lost. There is no predestination to destruction, no reprobate status. Such abandonment of creation is not in God’s vocabulary, though preachers and political candidates baptize their “in-group” status as God’s will. Even hell and death cannot defeat God any more than a child’s wanton life, leading to death row, can defeat the love of a waiting parent, whose love stands vigil as the state does its dirty work.
Grace is greater than sin. Love never ends, and welcomes every lost child home.
Then, there is the older brother. He bears the burden of goodness, not unlike the scribes and Pharisees. Being the good child can be a burden, too. You feel like you have to deliver. You can’t make any mistakes. The family honor depends on you. Goodness is its own prison, especially if you depend on your own goodness. There is no grace in goodness that must earn its status.
The older brother, the loyal one, is lost, too. Lost in alienation, he stands outside the party. There was always a celebration waiting for him, but he was too busy being the good child to accept it. Grace and celebration was his as well, but he carried the burden of goodness, of always being on duty, and always carrying the world on his shoulders.
One boy needs the grace of restoration. The other boy needs to accept the grace of imperfection, and simply accept himself, let go of goodness for a while, and let his parents love him.
Paul’s words add to the story of these lost boys. Don’t regard anyone from a human point of view. Look beneath the surface. See divinity in every face. There is an angel in every boulder and an exquisite geode behind every rough-hewn and rocky surface. Don’t even regard yourself from a human point of view. Regardless of what you think of yourself, you are God’s beloved child and God embraces you.
Be reconciled to God. Accept that you are loved. Let yourself be welcomed home, and welcome all the strays back into the fold. We may have to face the physical, spiritual, relational, and legal consequences of our alienating decisions. But, grace abounds and will guide us to a celebration of healing and restoration.