Lent 4C: The Prodigal God
A Sermon Preached at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark
Lent 4C: Joshua 5:9-12 Psalm 32; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
The Very Reverend Tyler B. Doherty, Dean & Rector
One of the difficulties with Holy Scripture is that it often speaks of our relationship with God in human terms. It makes sense on one level because God is inherently relational—the very heart of the Holy Trinity reveals this to us. As human beings we quite naturally apply our how things work in our human relationships to our relationship with God and often end up with rather upside-down pictures of who and how God is for us. I remember, for instance, hearing a sermon preached about how the Father in the parable welcomed the Prodigal Son back, certainly, but when he gave him the credit card for the family business, there was a $500 limit!
In Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians we find the words, “From now on, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” Our tendency, Paul reminds us, is to apply human logic, human relationships to who and how God is for us—to see things from a human point of view. And, of course, from the human point of view a Father who imposes a credit card limit on a wayward teenager makes sense and is highly commendable! Limits, boundaries, responsibility, accountability all make sense in terms of familial relationships.
The trouble comes when we apply those criteria to our relationship to God, and specifically to God’s love for us. We end up with a picture of God who is that looks more like us than the God whose loving-kindness (hesed) is more precious than life itself as our psalm proclaimed last week. We end up with a picture of a transactional God who forgives only after we repent. We end up with a picture of a God whose mind is changed from anger, disappointment, and wrath, to one of acceptance and love. This is not a comforting picture! It means God’s loving-kindness, mercy and grace and meted out according to good deeds like some kind of cosmic vending machine. It means that the onus is on us—to straighten-up and fly right. It places the emphasis on what we do, as fallible human creatures who see as through a glass darkly, rather than what God has done for us in Christ. We become, rather predictably, the heroes, or villains, of the story instead of what God has done for us in Christ being the center, the main actor in the drama of salvation.
And what is it that God has done for us? He, in His Good Will, has reconciled us to Himself. He has flung open the doors to the banquet of divine love. He has welcomed us into his very life with the words—“take, eat.” God’s deepest desire is to be in loving relationship, harmony, and communion with us and all of creation. God’s deepest desire, God’s dream is that might awaken from the nightmare of the universe with ourselves and desires at the center and discover, remember, that true happiness is found in Him as He Is, and Him Alone. God’s desire is to reconcile, repair, mend, and heal everything in our lives and on our fragile island home that lures and distracts us away knowing ourselves as beloved and from being that love, concretely in our local communities, for others: people, rivers, forests, firmament, oceans… the whole enchilada.
And to what lengths will God go to make this happen? What will God do to reconcile us and all of creation to Himself? Anything. In Rembrandt’s picture of the Prodigal Son which we reflected upon and prayed over in our Wednesday morning class a couple weeks ago, I was struck by the contrast in height between the reconciling Father and Elder brother. The Elder brother is depicted standing tall with his arms crossed. The Father, however, is bent almost to the ground, nearly doubled over, in his embrace of the Prodigal Son as he welcomes the tattered-shoed wastrel into the warmth of his loving embrace. There is no limit to how low God will stoop in order to make his love for us known and manifest. God will gave his only son, to be mocked and scourged, pilloried and humiliated, hung on trash heap outside the city walls in order to show his boundless, unchangeable, steadfast love for us that we might in turn be that love for others.
In the parable, this is demonstrated by that detail of the Father running out to greet the Prodigal Son “while he was still far off.” It is the Father’s nature to run to us and meet us in our need. Before we can get off our well-rehearsed apology, or make our detailed confession of sin, he has spied us from afar and is coming to us with the sole desire of welcoming us to the party he’s been dying to throw upon on our return. Remember in Palestinian culture of the 1st century, hiking up one’s robes to run was considered completely undignified and ungraceful. Proper gentlemen strolled. Men of means stood still and waited for people to come to them. But the Father in the parable forgoes his dignity—he throws away his good name in order to welcome his lost son. In the eyes of polite society, the Father become a bad father.
Sound familiar? Recall the kenotic hymn in Philippians 2: 5-8: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” God pours himself out for us. God holds nothing back in order to come to us, just as we are, in order to draw us to Himself, in order to get us to see, to know, to experience, that we are loved. All of salvation history is a footnote to the simple call for us to accept our acceptance.
And so we begin to get a sense that while we read of the Prodigal Son wasting himself in riotous living, God also wastes Himself on us. He forgoes all the honor, privilege, and kingly power that is due his name and comes among us a servant, as the feeding one, the healing one, the one who hears the cries of a broken world, as the one who washes the feet of his servants. The ruler of the universe, the most high, stoops low and ties a towel around his waist. He gets down in the muck. If you are a betting person, be warned! Don’t challenge this God to a limbo contest!
Of course, this desire for reconciliation, welcome, to extend the invitation to the banquet isn’t just for Prodigal Son—it is for the Elder Brother as well. By rights, when the Elder Son rejects the Father’s invitation to join the banquet, the Father can reject him, write him off, for refusing to obey the fourth commandment—“Honor your father and your mother.” But the Father in the parable doesn’t do this either. Apparently, this father doesn’t care too much about Mosaic law. Instead he says, “You are always with me. Everything I have is yours.” This is another instance of the Father not behaving according to how Fathers are supposed to behave. Neither the younger son’s waywardness, nor the elder son’s stubbornness and self-righteousness are a problem for the Father whose desire is for the entire family, indeed the entire human family and all of creation, to be united, to be together again at the banquet of divine love. Neither legal codes nor conventional morality can contain the overflowing abundance of God’s love for all of creation.
This kind of love, love that is not comprehensible from a human perspective, when it’s taken to heart, has an earth-shattering effect. When we realize that nothing we can do will separate us from the love of God, it dawns on us eventually that perhaps God’s love is where we should dwell. Some will seek love and affection in riotous living like the Prodigal Son. Some will seek it in doing everything right and following all the rules. But both of those misguided attempts are poor substitutes for the happiness that comes from dwelling, abiding, resting, in God’s love for us that has been poured into our hearts.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, this is not cheap grace (pace Bonhoeffer who was having a bad day when he conceived the concept), but how transformation actually happens in our lives. We are loved into loving. We don’t find the love that will see us through the chances and changes of this life in riotous living—in wine, women (or men), and song. We don’t find the love that will make us beautiful as He is beautiful in doing everything according to our own carefully mapped out system of shoulds and should nots. Both of those are strategies that leave us lost, dead, like the Prodigal Son is declared dead by the Father. It is in accepting our acceptance that we find ourselves accepting others. Having found a surprising seat at the banquet we can’t help but invite others to join us at table—there’s a spot with your name on it right here Prodigal Son, right here Elder Son, and the Prodigal Father wants to spoil you rotten so that you can spoil others, all others without exception, with his bounty.
Before we’ve uttered our apology, and before we’ve even done one thing on the to-do list of the infinitely-runged ladder of our self-constructed meritocracy meant to earn us the love of God, everything the Father has is ours. We are children and if children heirs—unexpected and unmerited and surprised insiders in the very life of God. The question is can we believe it? Can we trust it? Can we live it? Can we live from that reality and let it live in us for everyone outside these walls? Can we run out, by Him, and with Him, and in Him to all those who are far off and waste ourselves on them as he wastes Himself on us?