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Prodigal Goodness – Br. Sean Glenn

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Br. Sean Glenn

Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28 | Psalm 14 | 1 Timothy 1:12-17 | Luke 15:1-10

This morning we encounter with some pretty strong language (an understatement), particularly expressed by Jeremiah and the psalmist. “The whole land shall be a desolation yet I will not make a full end. Because of this the earth shall mourn, and the heavens above grow black.”[1]“Everyone has proved faithless, all alike have turned bad; there is none who does good; no, not one.”[2]It can be difficult to hear we are lost. It can be discouraging to find one’s self, at the end of the day, a sinner, a straying sheep. 

In light of the density and tone of the readings before us, I think an earlier translation of this morning’s Collect will help tune our ears to the Good News some of the strong language may hide from our hearing. “O God,” reads the Collect as it appears in the 1549 Prayer Book, “forasmuch as without thee, we are not able to please thee: Grant that the working of thy mercy may in all things direct and rule our hearts.”[3]Editions from 1662 onward elide the concept of mercy with the action of the Holy Spirit,[4]and while there is nothing theologically dubious about this move, I want us to hold in mind the mercy of God as we walk through these texts this morning.

Time spent with scripture will always make us aware of a holy tension. We never approach scripture with a naked objectivity or set of eyes unchanged by time. We bring a world of experiences and assumptions, many we do not even suspect we carry. Some of these are of our own design, while others are made for us by the societies in which we live. We never read these words “as they are.” 

If we are careful and sensitive to this tension, we discover we read much more than scripture in this way. We read history, biology, physics, whole nations and peoples, our selves—indeed, all of reality itself—according to legions of assumptions and contradictions. These means we very seldom, if ever, have the full picture of any event, phenomenon, or person. 

In the last century, Thomas Merton observed, “We have become marvelous at self-delusion; all the more so, because we have gone to such trouble to convince ourselves of our own infallibility. … and therefore, even when we are acting with the best of intentions, and imagine that we are doing great good, we may be actually doing tremendous material harm and contradicting all our good intentions.”[5]

Despite their hiddenness, scripture tells us we wind up living these blind spots out in our lives as judgments. Judgements about ourselves, others, texts, events, even God. Too often, we assume our judgements are infallible; or at the very least, contextually correct: I am irredeemable. I am unlovable. I am the most lovable. I have a right to so and so. That person over there isn’t really human. God can’t be trusted because of the evil of the world. Has God said? There is no God.

Or, no god but we. [if you don’t think you occasionally fall into this…  just ask the people you live with]

Jeremiah describes the inevitable calamity wrought by generations of God’s own people when they seek collectively to build a world apart from God, on terms of their own devising.

I looked on earth, and lo, it was waste and void;
and to the heavens, and they had no light.

I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking,
and all the hills moved to and fro. 

I looked, and lo, there was no one at all, 
and all the birds had fled.

I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert,
and all its cities were laid in ruins before the Lord.[6]

“Waste and void.” These words, tōhûwābōhû, appear first in the opening lines of Genesis. Here, however, the procession of creation is undone as Jeremiah’s own people turn from the Truth that seeks them. There is no God (but I). Contrary to how we might receive this passage, this is not a description of divine punishment or wrath. “For my people are foolish,” laments the heart-broken God of Jeremiah, “they do not know me; they are stupid children, they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil, but do not know how to do good.”[7]

C. S. Lewis paints for us a vivid picture of an eternity spent willfully blind or impassive to the scandalous extravagance of God’s goodness and mercy. In the fourth chapter of his allegory The Great Divorce, two people meet in the hereafter at the threshold of paradise. One, a “ghost,” is visiting from hell, and another, a “solid person,” a citizen of heaven, tries to get the ghost to accompany him up the mountain and enter into God’s joy. But the ghost will not let go of his judgments of himself, others, and God. 

 “‘I only want my rights,’” says the ghost, “‘I’m not asking for anybody’s bleeding charity.’ 

‘Then do. At once. Ask for the Bleeding Charity. Everything is here for the asking and nothing can be bought.’ 

‘That may do very well for you, I daresay. If they choose to let in a bloody murderer … But I don’t see myself going in the same boat as you, see? Why should I? I don’t want charity. I’m a decent man and if I had my rights I’d have been here long ago and you can tell them I said so.’ 

The other shook his head. ‘You can never do it like that,’ he said. ‘Your feet will never grow hard enough to walk on our grass that way. You’d be tired out before we got to the mountains. And it isn’t exactly true, you know.’ Mirth danced in his eyes as he said it. 

‘What isn’t true?’ asked the Ghost sulkily. 

‘You weren’t a decent man and you didn’t do your best. We none of us were and none of us did. Lord bless you, it doesn’t matter now. [8] 

Unable to relinquish to God control of his destiny or reading of reality, the ghost has reduced himself to almost nonexistence. He clings to an incomplete picture of reality. Deceived and drawn by the Enemy away from reality’s true fullness, he has made himself the arbiter of truth. “Unless the Lord builds the house,” writes the psalmist “their labor is in vain who build it.”[9]

Much like the zealous young Paul, our limited vision of reality can seriously distort our concept of goodness. This distortion made Paul “a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence.” It is not our work or strength that will make us whole; no program will lift us to that place from which we finally lose our tiny, creaturely perspective. For Paul as for us, the only thing that can restore our vision is the mercy of God—an encounter with Jesus, the shepherd who has left all to “tramp the hills”[10]in search of you and me. Our invitation as God’s people is not to pretend to be good, or pious or saintly; it is to open ourselves to the searching, active mercy of God. 

 There is nothing flattering or becoming about the two images Jesus uses to describe lost humanity in this morning’s gospel—sheep are not known for being particularly bright or self-governing, and a coin lacks the ability to find or save itself altogether. 

Ah, but we have assumed the parable was about us.

The good news for us today is less about us, and more about who God is. The good news is that Jesus shows us a God we can trust with the evil we see in the world, who has not kept himself distant from it or us. A God who spends everything to find and recover us. A God who empties himself to fill you with himself so that you might never be lost or alone again.

But it may just mean learning to leave our judgments behind as the Shepherd carries us to the other side of Jordan.

Amen.


[1]Jeremiah 4:27b-28a

[2]Psalm 14:3

[3]Collect for Proper 19, The Book of Common Prayer [1549], as cited in Marion J. Hatchett, Commentary on the American Prayer Book (New York: Seabury Press, 1980), 191-192.

[4]Ibid.

[5]Thomas Merton, The Seven Story Mountain, 225.

[6]Jeremiah 4:23-26

[7]Jeremiah 4:22.

[8]C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce(C. S. Lewis Pte. Ltd., 1946 & 1973, reprinted by HarperCollins, 2001), 28.

[9]Psalm 127:1, The Book of Common Prayer, 782.

[10]“Shepherd, do you tramp the hills,” no. 68 in Hymns for the Gospels (Chicago: GIA Publications, Inc., 2001)

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