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Sunday, March 10, 2013

Ambassadors of "love in humiliation" (4th Lent C)

Prodigal son, he'd been away awhile.
He was working his way back home now
Over many a ragged mile.
When he finally crossed the river
And his father saw him near,
There was a joyful sound for all the world to hear.
Gospel Changes - Poems, Prayers & Promises by John Denver

As you might be able to tell from what I wrote Wednesday about writing the musical Lost and Found, I did a lot of research on the parable of the two lost sons in Luke 15, the gospel for today. It sealed my love for study of the bible and my appreciation for it as a work of literature, written in a time, language, and culture different from mine, so remote from my experience that every hour spent plunging into that past paid off in new insights and a new appreciation both for Jesus as a storyteller and Luke as evangelist. I found that I was too familiar with the story, in a way, and too familiar with its interpretation, and studying works of biblical criticism helped to break away that veneer of familiarity so that the story could shine again with a new brilliance, closer, I hope, to what the original hearers experienced. But before getting into the gospel, just a word or two about the readings and psalm that precede it, because they open our ears to hear the gospel in a certain way.

The first reading recalls the entry of the Jews into the Promised Land under Joshua. Their crossing of the Jordan into Israel occurs at 14 Nisan, the date of Passover, near the time when forty years earlier they crossed the Red Sea out of Egypt. So the first reading alerts us to the covenant kept, the eating of a meal as a memorial symbol of God's steadfast love, and new beginnings, all with a few rich verses from the book of Josue. What a way to set up the liturgy of the word for a Lenten Sunday!

We sing, then, "Taste and see the goodness of the Lord," which reinforces the physicality of our faith. These scriptures are for people of flesh and blood, people who are on a journey together, people who stumble and fall, people who pick each other up and start again, people who live in a political world. The "goodness of the Lord" isn't an idea: it is an experience. It is an experience of shared food, of our common life, and the unexpected joy of self-emptying love.

The second reading has a special place in my heart from my many years of work with the North American Forum on the Catechumenate in the years when we did "Remembering Church" institutes that attempted to revive some ancient practices of reconciling ministry in the church that paralleled the catechumenal process. These ancient practices, patterned after the "Order of Penitents," evolved (devolved?) over time, and were compressed and conflated into the sacrament of private confession. Despite our best efforts, the idea of restoring something like the order of penitents never caught on in most places, and expectedly there was some pushback from magisterial authority. These workshops evolved into "Reconciling Community" events, but since reconciliation is based on dialogue, and dialogue, too, is out of fashion, these are not often requested either. Nevertheless,
God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ,
not counting their trespasses against them
and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.
So we are ambassadors for Christ,

as if God were appealing through us.
Which brings us to the gospel, Luke 15, with its first verses that set up the telling of three parables:
Tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to Jesus,
but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying,
“This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
In response to this accusation, Jesus tells the parables of the lost coin, the lost sheep, and the two lost sons. Only the third is in today's gospel, but it might be illustrative to briefly demonstrate the structure of the shorter parables so that the structure of the longer one, the one we do hear, is clearer.  The parable of the two lost sons is, in effect, two parables. One traces the journey of the younger son, which sets up the second parallel story of the older son, also lost, equally reprehensible, but the subject of a story that has no resolution.

The literary structure of the first two parables is transparent when you see them laid out graphically. Each element of "lostness" is balanced by an element of "foundness", with a kernel at the center that represents the heart, or the real lesson, of the parable. The tightness of the story structure is part of what scholars believe to be traceable to the genius both of the author of Luke and, more importantly, to Jesus himself, a skilled storyteller. Here, for example, is the parable of the lost coin:
A. ...if she loses one coin
B. does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it, and finding
C. she calls together her friends and neighbors saying, "Rejoice with me"
B'. for I have found the coin
A'. which I had lost. (page 156, Poet and Peasant, Bailey)
Just look at the symmetry of the story! The structure begs the observer to attend to the center for the "filling," which is rejoicing, in fact, a communal rejoicing, over the lost item. A feast of restoration and joy are at the center of this parable. Taste and see the goodness of having things made whole again! Similarly, perhaps even more strikingly, at the geographical and literary center of the parable of the lost sheep we see:
A. ...and go after the lost one
B. until he finds it, and having found it
C he places it upon his shoulders rejoicing
D And coming to the home he calls to the friends and neighbors
C' Saying to them, rejoice with me
B' because I have found my sheep
A' which was lost (page 144, ibid.)
Once again, there is a communal rejoicing over the restoration of the lost at the center of this story. But the parable of the two lost sons, while similar, introduces two new elements into the mix.

The word "prodigal" means recklessly, lavishly spendthrift. I confess to you that, for many years of my life, I assumed that "prodigal" meant "repentant" or had some negative financial connotation precisely because I only ever heard the word associated with the son in the parable. Once I understood the word and studied the parable better, I wondered whether "the prodigal father" might be a better title, but decided that I would follow the lead of Kenneth E. Bailey in his amazing parable study, Poet and Peasant, and think of the parable as "the father and the two lost sons." Bailey is the Chairman of the Biblical Department at the Near Eastern School of Theology in Beirut. He spent many years living among and interview Bedouins and others in "isolated peasant communities"in the Middle East, where he found that "it is possible to discern...what it meant 2000 years ago for a friend to come calling at midnight, or for a son to ask for his inheritance prior to his father's death," as happens in this parable. Much of what I write here is reflective of his work.

1. The younger son

It's important to remember the context of the parable: the accusation that the table partners of Jesus are unworthy of his presence. Table-fellowship was important in social stratification. One dined with ones equals. To be invited to eat at the table of another was to accept the gift of social identification. You can see the beginning of the end here for Jesus, in a sense. The Pharisees are thinking like this: Jesus claims a special relationship with God. He eats with sinners, therefore he is a sinner. Thus, by being a sinner and claiming special relationship to God, he is a blasphemer, and deserves death. How this repartee comes out between him and his accusers is of great importance. It's a matter of life and death.

By law, at the father's death, the younger son would be entitled to a third of the father's estate, the older son two-thirds. But, Bailey notes, there is no case in all of Middle Eastern literature in which a son would receive, let alone ask for, the estate before the death of his father. In inquiries throughout the Middle East of people of all walks of life, the very suggestion would be an occasion for a severe beating. This son acts reprehensibly. He is, in fact, saying to his father, "I wish you were dead. You are, in fact, dead to me. Give me what you owe me now. We're through." But what happens in the parable? The father, in an act of self-humiliating love, concedes. He divides the estate, and gives the younger son his share. The younger son is effectively cut off from the household, and because of the nature of his offense, from the entire village.
The Prodigal, by Chinese artist He Qi

The son goes through the inheritance in a foreign land and is reduced to servitude, most disgustingly to Jewish hearers of the story, as a swineherd. He concocts a plan. He will offer himself as a servant to his father, which will enable him to live in the village with some honor, and pay his father back, preserving his life from the destitution he is suffering. But the father knows the gauntlet of shame that will enclose on him should he approach the village. So, seeing him "from a long way off,"  he initiates a series of actions that are intended to restore him to the community. In another act of self-humiliation for a Middle Eastern nobleman, he runs out to meet the boy on the road, in front of the whole village. He begins the reconciliation where all can see it. He "substitutes kisses for words." His repeated kisses of the boy on the cheek prevent the boy's falling at his own feet, or kissing his hands. He interrupts the boy's planned speech and disrupts his plan to earn his way back. The gift of the signet ring and the robe (the listener's would assume that the "best robe" is the father's own robe) signify restoration to the family, and the slaughter of the fatted calf, an amount of meat enough for the whole village, signifies restoration to the whole community. It is all pure gift, at the cost of the father's self-abasement. Though his last word is "I am not worthy to be called your son," he accepts the gift of sonship given with prodigal love. Thus ends the first half of the story.

2. The older son

To the "good" son, the father says, "Everything that I have is yours." But on hearing the festivities brewing, he angrily confronts the father while the guests are gathering and present. The result is a break in their relationship as serious as that of the younger son. His refusal to join the party is an insult to his father. He does not call him father, he refers to himself as a slave, and, having insulted his father publicly, says "I have never disobeyed your commandments." The younger brother was rebellious and left the house; the elder brother is rebellious in his heart while still in it. He denounces the younger son in a way that might yet arouse the neighbors to retributive justice, unfoundedly saying that he "wasted your (the father's) living on harlots." The older son's speech, by admitting he wants to be able to dispose of his father's wealth on his own authority to give a party for his friends, is leading down the same path the younger son took: he, too, wants his father dead.


But the father neither counterattacks on behalf of his own honor nor apologizes for the banquet. Rather, he pleads with the older son to understand the freedom of grace. As Bailey puts it (page 203), "(The) appeal of love offers the only hope to the father, who wants not servants but sons. The younger son was dead and is alive. The older son is likewise dead. Can he come to life?"

The astonishing answer is revealed in the structure of the second half of the parable. In a ballad of three-line stanzas, the symmetry of the story is obvious right up to its last line.
A the older brother comes near
B servant: "your brother is safe," there is a feast
C the father comes out to reconcile
D I have served you, never disobeyed, you never gave me a kid (how you treat me)
D' but this son of yours came, devoured your living with harlots, you killed the fatted calf (how you treat him)
C' father tries to reconcile
B' your brother is safe, it is right to have a feast, he was dead and is alive, lost and is found.
A' ----
What is missing is the resolution. What the hearer of the parable expects is a parallel to A, that is, "and so the older brother came in and entered into the feast, and the sons were both reconciled to the father." But that doesn't happen. The resolution of this story takes place in the hearer. How will those who accused Jesus of eating with tax collectors and sinners hear the ending? What will they do now? What will we do now? Stay outside, or step inside the door to the feast?



Like the second scrutiny and the story of the man born blind used on this Sunday in year A, this Sunday tries to teach us the meaning of true religion. True religion is not God's clean house, where everyone is alike and looks like us. It's not a gathering of the righteous. It's a gathering of those saved by amazing grace. True religion is not about preserving a sabbath for a god who demands the kind of ritual purity that sterilizes time, people, and vessels, but is about honoring a God who serves, who comes among us, who self-identifies with sinners and outsiders. The self-humiliating father in the parable of the two lost sons does not want servants. He wants sons who understand each other and live in one house in mutuality and grace.

Paul in 2 Corinthians today calls us "ambassadors of Christ." God is appealing through us. God is making the case for prodigal, unashamed love through us. Can we hear that summons new today, and live in the freedom of grace, extending the invitation to that same freedom to every other person?

When we do, we will "taste and see the goodness of the Lord" in all its surprising, milk-and-honey sweetness. On "Laetare" Sunday, that would be really something to rejoice about together!

Special to my blog readers: If you would like a copy of the CD Lost and Found, a musical based on the story of the two lost sons, use the "Buy Now" link below to receive a copy for $10 including shipping. This is only available here. The link on my website is for $15.00. (Sales to addresses in USA only) Thank you for reading.