Thursday, October 22, 2009

Tuesdays in the Chapel

We’re looking at finding hope in hard times. In this parable (The Prodigal Son) that Jesus told, certainly this younger son has fallen upon hard times. But it is the father, too, who has fallen upon hard times. What mother or father does not know the pain of witnessing a son or daughter make poor choices? Those poor choices sometimes throw into question the quality of the parents, resulting in shame or dishonor. What about a spouse who is unfaithful or who has given up hope? Or a friend who now doubts or rejects you? What do you do when those who are dear to you make choices which reflect poorly on your reputation?

Much has been made of the notion that because the father saw the son from a long way off, that the father has been anticipating or hoping for his son’s return. I think this may be true. But when you consider the hard times that the father might have been going through, any notion of joyful anticipation and hope is counter-intuitive. In a culture of honor, the son has not only wasted an inheritance, he has brought shame to his father and his household. Surely, a good father wants to restore a wayward son, but a proud father would certainly have difficult feelings about such a son.

Why do people look in the direction of another from a distance? We can well imagine the son standing in a tavern doorway at night, looking toward his father’s estate half-way through his indulgent excess saying, “Take that, old man.” What drove the son to such prodigal excess? That is the definition of a prodigal, by the way: to be excessive. The parable is known as the Parable of the Prodigal Son. But it may as well too be known as the Parable of the Prodigal Father. The Father is himself excessive. And his excessiveness may be behind how the boy ended up in his own excess.

If you really had a father who was genuinely graceful and giving in every way, embodying both love and truth, justice and mercy, such excessive goodness would be too much to behold. Such incredible love should drive you insane. Such love does not fit our realities. We need a whole lifetime to grasp the unconditional love of God. How can anyone be so genuinely good? As a child, you simply receive such goodness. But as you mature, your response is that you can’t possibly deserve such goodness, so you work hard to justify the goodness that you are surrounded by. You’re not working to earn it ~ you’re working to feel good about having it. You begin to feel justified in being so blessed because after all, you’re good too, by golly. That’s the state of the older brother in the parable, though I regret that we don’t have time to stop and try to understand him today.

But then that feeling gets old. Working to justify the goodness that you are surrounded by is unsatisfying because you weren’t designed to satisfy yourself. You chafe and you twist and you wriggle but you can’t shake the feeling that you now feel even more distant from the source of goodness in your life. When you can’t take the pressure you put on yourself to assure yourself of your worthiness in stoic excess, you turn and begin to assure yourself of your worthiness in nihilistic excess. When that too proves unsatisfying you have nothing left except one thing: to go back to work. To be productive. To serve and to help others. Is that wrong? No. But it’s fruitless and unsatisfying if it’s meant to give your life meaning because nothing you can do will ever give your life meaning. Only God Himself gives you and your life meaning.

Let’s cut to the last scene. The young man has a speech prepared. It sounds very nicely religious, he would get an A in Sunday school for it, but it’s really designed as an instrument of self-justification: “Dad, you have to take me back because I’m sorry and I’m willing to earn my way.” Chances are the boy has refined this speech in anticipation of a disagreement with his dad. One word out of his dad’s mouth and this boy would surely ramp up the speech to twice the intensity with twice the finely tuned arguments.

So what happens? The dad does indeed totally disagree with his son. How? He runs to him, embraces him, kisses him, and doesn’t say a word about his son’s speech. The robe, the ring, the sandals, the calf, they’re all loaded with symbolism about the restored relationship the son now has with the father, in total rejection the son’s proposition. In hard times, when you have been shamed or you have been deeply hurt by another, and that person turns to you, forgive.

You can’t offer an expression of forgiveness until there is readiness to receive. Sure, you have forgiven someone from the moment they turned away! Or, maybe not! But now you have. But if you have to use any words to convince someone that they’re already forgiven, they’ll argue you into the ground that they don’t need your forgiveness or want your forgiveness or deserve your forgiveness. Not once did Jesus expressly say to anyone that they are forgiven except to do so by healing them at the same time. His healing was an expression of His forgiveness that was already true. God’s forgiveness, His excessive prodigal grace, is already yours. He awaits your turning to Him to receive His love and mercy. He doesn’t need your words, He doesn’t want your words; He wants only you.

Dave Thom