The Adventurous Lectionary – The Fourth Sunday in Lent – March 31, 2019
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Today’s scriptures reflect on the unconditional love of God and the challenges of accepting the “unworthy.” Though we are called to great things, most of us have “sinned and fallen short” of our high destiny, either in small or large ways. This is true of family dynamics as well as individuals. Moreover, the distance between the moral and immoral in our families and communities is often less than we think. We are all standing in the need of grace.
Virtually every adult knows the story of the prodigal son, existentially if not biblically. We all know a family – or are 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 them 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. Parents are often magnets for guilt and shame. Accordingly, 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 apparently is outside of realm of grace. In fact, we may have been the “lost child” in need of acceptance and restoration.
Jesus told the parable of the prodigal son in response to an angry and judgmental audience, who were certain of the scope of divine salvation and, conversely, those whom God has abandoned or should abandon. So sure of their righteousness, they build a barrier between themselves and the sinners in their midst. In response to the pharisaic criticism of 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.
The interplay of grace and lostness is manifest in many ways. The forms of lostness are variable: 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 due to 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” even in those we perceive as lost. Process theologians speak of God’s aim at wholeness as universal, even though it is also “the best for that impasse,” and conditioned by our behavior and spiritual state. For those who perceive themselves as “good,” it is important to recognize 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, though we hope for a happy ending, this story ends without clear filial resolution. On the one hand, it portrays the extent to which parents will go to welcome a wayward child back home. In Jesus’ parable, a boy has turned his back on his parents and run away, seeking independence and ecstasy, something beyond the humdrum of family life. Although he falls off the grid, his parents continue to look 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, incognito, 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 Calvinistic 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, bathing him in the love he felt he had to earn.
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. Don’t focus on the obvious – whether lifestyle, economics, place in society – look more deeply to glimpse the Christ within. 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.
In being accepted, we become a new creation, and can begin again with a new identity, new relationships, new values and self-image, and a new place in the social order.
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.
Bruce Epperly is a Cape Cod pastor, professor, and author of 50 books, including “Become Fire: Guideposts for Interspiritual Pilgrims,” “The Mystic in You: Finding a God-filled World,” “Process Theology and Celtic Wisdom,” and “Process Theology and Pastoral Care.”