Embracing the Celebration
Episode 27 – March 31, 2019
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Referenced Articles & Websites
Supreme Court blocks execution of Texas prisoner who was denied presence of Buddhist spiritual advisor by Richard Wolf (USA Today)
A Sanctified Art
Ainsley McNeaney – “Better Days”
Ry Cooder – “Prodigal Son”
Reading No. 1
Reading No. 2
Cultivating: Week 4 by Sarah Ayre of A Sanctified Art
So the Revised Common Lectionary does this…thing…which is kind of annoying. What Richard read for us is just part of a large conversation. The story of the prodigal son has been lifted out from a larger mini-series of three parables, each dealing with something of value being lost, found again, and then rejoicing within the community.
But before we get to the stories, we have the Pharisees. And the Pharisees are grumbling. Jesus has been eating with sinners, and tax collectors, effectively dishonouring himself. The Pharisees don’t like it. So, in the rhetorical style of the time, Jesus begins to tell some stories to illustrate his point.
He begins talking about a lost sheep. The shepherd leaves all their other sheep to find the one that is lost. When the sheep is found, the shepherd invites the community to celebrate. Then there is a woman who has 10 coins but has lost one. From other translations of this scripture passage, we know that this coin is not particularly valuable. But the woman turns her house upside down. I’ve had visions of her going through all the cushions, shaking out the dirty laundry, pulling all the pockets inside out…until she finds it. And she invites the community to celebrate.
And then this final story, the story Richard read for us. The difference here is that the younger son in this story – he actually has some agency. I grew up around sheep. I can tell you they don’t have much capacity for planning and strategy. Coins do not CHOOSE to be lost. They simply are. But the younger son in this story is making a very deliberate choice. By asking for his share of the inheritance, he’s effectively wishing and acting as if his father is dead. Actually, not only the father, but his older brother as well. It would have been an incredibly brazen and outlandish request, and equally outlandish that the father would go along with it.
So off the son goes, and he lives…lavishly. In art, he is usually depicted alongside sex workers drinking his face off. And then, unsurprisingly, he runs out of resources. A famine hits and he becomes an indentured servant, feeding pigs. Remember, Jesus is a Jewish man speaking to a Jewish audience—for this man to be interacting with an unclean animal, such as a pig, would be about as low as you can get. The A&E reality show Intervention would probably consider this rock bottom.
But then the younger brother realizes that even the servants in his father’s house have food to eat. He rehearses a speech acknowledging he is no longer worthy to be considered a son. And then, there is a moment of repentance. Not necessarily remorse. I can’t tell if he’s sorry—sorry for how he acted towards his family—but perhaps that’s not really the point. But it does seem as if he is repentant. Metanoia is the Greek word which is often translated as repent in English versions of the Bible. Metanoia is a complete change in mind and spirit, which results in a complete change of action going forward. So, does the younger brother feel badly about what he did? Maybe? Probably? But he is certainly changed, and in that change, he goes off to meekly ask for his father’s mercy.
He hardly gets the chance, though. The father sees him coming from a way down the road. And then the father runs to meet him. In Jesus’ time, men…especially men of status…did not run. Women ran. Children ran. Servants ran. Not heads of households.
Except for this father…he runs to meet the son, and throws himself on his neck—another shameful act. He orders the calf killed and throws a party. What was lost has now been found and there is a celebration. Everything works out okay…unless you’re the calf.
Or, unless you’re the older brother. He’s not happy. “I have worked for you. I have obeyed you. I have done all the right things!!! I’ve never been able to party with my friends. What the actual hell, Dad!?”
I cannot tell you the number of times I have heard this story, and some preacher or workshop facilitator has asked me to imagine which character I am in the story. Dutch priest, author and all around spiritual badass Henri Nouwen, wrote a wonderful book called Return of the Prodigal Son. In it, he reflects on his relationship to all three characters in this story. Ideally, I think my school would hope I could see myself in all three of these characters, at least at different moments of my life. And if I had to write a paper about that I could probably muster up something minorly convincing. But honestly, if I am speaking from my most authentic place, my deepest self, I know I am the older brother. And that makes me sad, because the older brother is totally the antagonist in this story. He has worked hard. He has obeyed his father. He has maintained his honour and his father’s honour. I am an oldest child. There was a running joke when I was a kid that my name must be “Somebody” because if ever my parents asked “Somebody” to do something–pick up the clothes, get something from the car, wash the dishes–I was the one who did it. But the son in this story, he obeys out of duty…not out of love. This is a good place to remember who Jesus is telling the story to: The sinners; the tax collectors and the Pharisees.
The United Church of Canada has a number of faith statements. Our most recent statement, from 2006, called, “A Song of Faith” is a profound piece of poetry exploring many aspects of our spiritual lives. It is quite long, so it is not often used is worship services, but there is a section that deals specifically with the concept of sin. It goes like this:
Made in the image of God,
we yearn for the fulfillment that is life in God.
Yet we choose to turn away from God.
We surrender ourselves to sin,
a disposition revealed in selfishness, cowardice, or apathy.
Becoming bound and complacent
in a web of false desires and wrong choices,
we bring harm to ourselves and others.
This brokenness in human life and community
is an outcome of sin.
Traditionally, the characters in this parable are understood to be as the younger son, representing the lost, the low, those separated from God…the sinners and the tax collectors. The Father in the story is a ever present, ever waiting, ever patient and ever loving God who rejoices at the return of their children. And the older son is the Pharisees, those within the religious elite who already live “righteous lives”…at least righteous by the social standards of the day, but who also have the privilege of getting to spend all of their days thinking and being with God.
So, if I so clearly see myself as the older brother in this story. Who does that make the younger brother? I’m pretty good with social outcasts. After years of being in relationship with Death Row inmates, I’ve learned a lot about what it means to live on the margins. What the costs are of that. About redemption and grace within the most vulnerable of communities. I’d be throwing a party for that definition of “sinner”, without a second thought. Party it up!
But if we keep reading The Song of Faith, there is much more to say about what sin is:
Sin is not only personal
to become habitual and systemic forms
of injustice, violence, and hatred.
We are all touched by this brokenness:
the rise of selfish individualism
that erodes human solidarity;
the concentration of wealth and power
without regard for the needs of all;
the toxins of religious and ethnic bigotry;
the degradation of the blessedness of human bodies
and human passions through sexual exploitation;
the delusion of unchecked progress and limitless growth
that threatens our home, the earth;
the covert despair that lulls many into numb complicity
with empires and systems of domination.
We sing lament and repentance.
As the story of the Prodigal Son has seeped into popular consciousness, the word prodigal is often thought to mean someone who has left, and then come back again. If I happen to go too long without visiting my Grandmother, she will, only half jokingly, say her prodigal grandaughter has returned. But prodigal does not mean lost–it actually means lavish and wasteful. So, the younger son wasted his resources on that which had no real value. Those within the throws of political power seem to continue wasting resources on the military, on horse racing, on insider deals and coverups, as education systems crumble, children go hungry, the lonely become more isolated. It is a wasteful use of resources.
So, yeah…if suddenly the people holding all the power suddenly had a moment of Metanoia, completely changing their thinking and actions…that would be cause for a celebration within the community–because there would be powerful implications within the community for this kind of about face. And really, I should be there celebrating. But it would be so, so, so very hard. Anger and resentment have a way of poisoning us. So this story is something of a warning to me about never shutting myself off…never closing myself off to that which should be a celebration within the community. There is always space for repentance…for metanoia. The father in this story got it. God’s love is creative, and self giving…
Because, the opposite of waste is valuing and holding on. Not in a covetous way. More like cherishing. The father continues to cherish his son. God continues to cherish their children. So can I cherish even the people who grind my gears? Who piss me off the most? Who have turned their back on everything I value about how to be a decent human in the world? Would I ever accept them? It would be hard…
We don’t know what happens at the end of this story. Does the older brother join the party? And then after the party, does the father ever sit the younger brother down and say, “Ok, glad you’re back…but can we talk about this whole squandering your inheritance thing? I want to know what you’ve learned.” We don’t know how it ends, so I feel a bit better not having a better answer for you.
But if nothing else, if we take nothing else from this passage, this is what we can keep.
Nothing, absolutely nothing we do, say, put into action, break, or turn our back on can ever irreparably separate us from God, from Spirit and from Love.
And that, my friends, is cause for celebration.