2 Cor. 5:16-21
Luke 15:1-3; 11-32
Lent IV, Year C
The topic this morning is parables. Matthew [13:34] says that Jesus only taught in parables, i.e., sayings or stories where one thing or person can represent another. The meaning is in the eye of the beholder; we connect the dots ourselves. They are open-ended, inexhaustible. Like the father in today’s story, parables come out to meet us where we are on the road and take us to new levels of understanding.If Jesus taught only in parables, that implies that even his actions can be “read” as parables. Everything he did, besides being what he did, could be read as a parable, where one thing can stand for another. So, washing feet can represent other kinds of loving service. Physical healing can represent other kinds of healing. Turning water into wine can represent other kinds of transformation.
Today’s parable may very well be the best-known of all. It’s even found its way into secular culture. Artists like Rembrandt, Debussy, Prokofiev and Balanchine have developed its universal themes and powerful images: the loving father, the wastrel younger son, the resentful older son, the welcome home with loving arms and a kiss. We call it the Parable of the Prodigal Son. But we could also call it the Parable of the Prodigal Father. Prodigal, in the sense of spending recklessly or being wastefully extravagant.
The father in the parable is certainly extravagant. He surely knows his son’s character by this point and has a pretty good idea how things will play out. And yet: “You want your inheritance now? All of it? OK, here you go! Do what you will!” This is a profligate thing to do, prodigal, overly permissive.
And Jesus is talking about God. The father in the parable is meant to be God. It is God that Jesus is presenting as recklessly extravagant, overly permissive. And so it is: God lets us do as we will. We may not get all our inheritance up front, like the wastrel son, but God pretty much lets us do as we will and as we can, for better and for worse. The father not only lets the son in the parable go out from him, but even pays his way. And so it is: God lets us go out from him, if that is our will.
And then God welcomes us back: with open arms and a kiss. And even when our motives are mixed or confused. In the parable the son is broke and hungry—he expresses no remorse for his behavior. All he says is that he will say to his father that he has sinned: the parable does not say he was actually contrite. The father probably knows this. But what is important is that the son does return, the son is present to the father: the father can express his deep love for him because he is there, present to the father. The emphasis here is on the quality of God’s love for us, not on the quality of our repentance.
The prodigal son leaves, but then returns to the father’s presence. And so it is: the important thing is for us to return, to be present, to show up—even if our motives are mixed or confused or downright questionable. God longs to puts his arms around us and kiss us anyway—in spite of any impurity in our motives.The key thing is to return, to show up, to be present to God. Why? Because to be present to God, to be present to the source of all life, is to be more fully alive: “…this son of mine was dead and is alive again.”
Our lives are full of goings away from and returnings to God. The parable is about a son’s sinfully irresponsible behavior. But there is something for everyone in this story, whether we’re wastrels orwell-behaved. Of course, if we’ve become separated from God through some sinful behavior, God welcomes us back: 70 times 7 times and more. The unreasonable and profligate love of God does not depend on the purity of our motives: the only purity here is the purity of God’s love, as unreasonable, as prodigal, as it can strike us.
But there are many perfectly benign goings away from and returnings to God in our lives. The Prodigal Son is a worst-case scenario demonstrating the extravagance of God’s love. But life for most of us most of the time is not so extreme. We all have our comings and goings from the presence of God–even in a monastery. And a lot of it, even most of it, is perfectly legitimate. In the ordinary comings and goings of life, in our professional activities, in our creative work, in our play. And, in fact, at the end of the service we’re going to tell you to go: “Go in peace…” A more polite version of “you don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.” There’s something of that in our relationship with God: we’re not always face to face or on the mountain top, nor are we meant to be. We go and come back, we go and come back. There’s a rhythm to this that’s as natural as breathing.
When Balanchine was choreographing “The Prodigal Son”he was surely paying attention to his craft—moving the bodies here, then there, this way and that. Dealing with the backstage drama of a ballet company and musicians and costume and set designers, the imperious impresario Diaghilev, the composer Prokofiev. Creative work is holy work—when artists create, they are, in a sense, participating in the divine nature. And when they do so, they pay attention to what they’re doing. Balanchine was a Russian Orthodox Christian—but I doubt he was always face to face with God in that intentional way. When he was in church, he was in church; when he was dancing, he was dancing.
And so it is with us, in our everyday lives. Our lives are a continual going out from and returning to God—at least in our conscious awareness (we’re never actually separated from God.) This is where spiritual disciplines come in, as a way of being intentional about being present to God, being present for the loving arms and kisses of the father, or the metaphorical equivalent. If we want to maximize occasions for being present to God, in that conscious way, we often have to plan, to regularize, to have a rhythm. We have to schedule our times of prayer and reflection, our times for solitude and retreat. Monastic life is largely about our showing up at regular times to be present to God. But anyone can be more intentional about living in a more rhythmical way, or having what we often call a rule of life.
To be fully present to God is to be fully present to the source of all life. To be fully present to the source of life is to be fully alive, to be fully human. We come and we go; we come and we go. For any number of reasons, some good, some holy; some profligate, some prodigal; some practical, some pragmatic; some, maybe even sinful.We return to the merciful Father—and not always with the clearest or purest of motives. Which doesn’t seem to matter much to the Prodigal One, who is unreasonably generous in this regard. He desires only that we come back—and keep coming back, that we may be fully alive in him.
Speaking of being fully alive… There is another parable ahead of us, coming two weeks from today. We could call this one the Parable of the Prodigal Father and the Prodigal Son; we could also call it the Parable of the Paschal Mystery, or the Parable of all Parables–a parable, but also much more than that. Two weeks from today is Palm Sunday, the Sunday of the Passion. From that day until the following Sunday the greatest of all parables unfolds through the course of Holy Week. The passion, death and resurrection of Jesus is the greatest parable of all —it’s what he did, and a parable, and much more besides: inexhaustible.It’s about the most profligate, the most prodigal, the most costly, lavish spending of all. It’s about the wideness of those outstretched arms of love. And the kiss is the kiss of life itself.
There’s a wideness in God’s mercy
like the wideness of the sea;
there’s a kindness in his justice,
which is more than liberty.
There is welcome for the sinner,
and more graces for the good;
there is mercy with the Savior;
there is healing in his blood.
There is plentiful redemption
in the blood that has been shed;
there is joy for all the members
in the sorrows of the Head.
For the love of God is broader
than the measure of the mind;
and the heart of the Eternal
is most wonderfully kind.
[from Hymnal 1982; words by Frederick William Faber]
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