Fasting from Fury; Feasting on Forgiveness
For the past few weeks, as we've worked through this theme of "fasting" and "feasting," we've explored what it might look like to give up something we know we ought to stop and to take on something we know we ought to do. There's nothing magical about Lent as a time of year to do and/or stop things. It just gives us a good excuse to practice what we might not otherwise pay any attention to.
Today's lesson is the Prodigal Son. It is one of Jesus' three responses to the charge from the Pharisees and scribes that he "eats with sinners." There's the lost sheep: 99 are accounted for, and the shepherd takes off to look for the one. Then there's the lost coin: there are 10 coins in all, but one has rolled away and the woman cleans until she finds it. Then there's this parable. We know it by this name of the "prodigal son" because of the younger son's departure and descent into "dissolute living" as the text puts it so sublimely. In the Arabic Orthodox church, it's known as the "clever" or "intelligent" son, because he returns to his senses. Ken Bailey, Presbyterian scholar of the New Testament, refers to it as the parable of the two sons, because in it, the father ends up losing not just one son, but both.
In the story Jesus tells, the younger son leaves, but first asks his father for his half of the inheritance. It's not as clear to us, but the meaning would likely have been apparent to those who first heard it: "I wish you were dead." And yet, the father, despite this abuse, relents. The son leaves. And after spending it all, the son is at the absolute pit of despair for an observant Jew: he is working for a pig farmer and is even tempted to eat from the animals' trough because of hunger. And it is at this point that he decides to return. It's not clear whether he really feels bad for what he's done or if he takes stock and realizes he'd rather be back at dad's house where the living is easy.
In any case, he heads for home. And when he is the one deserving of shame, it is the father who, in breach of ancient Near Eastern protocol, runs through the village to embrace this errant boy and takes the son's shame upon himself. And in place of punishment, the son gets a fete thrown in his honor. What jumps out at me is how the older brother hears about this. He's out in the fields, presumably working, when he hears the ruckus back at the house and learns through the servants that his obnoxious little brother is getting a party. He is furious and, in my mind, reasonably so. He wasn't consulted. He remained faithful throughout. And he, to me, becomes a rather sympathetic character. The end of the story isn't clear. As the father goes out to bring his second son back into the household, does he succeed?
The meaning of the parable was probably clear to those who first heard it. The father represents God (and as if we needed to deconstruct divine gender, Jesus has done it for us by having the woman in the previous parable play the role). The older son stands in for the Pharisees and the scribes. And the younger son is these sinners whom Jesus is cavorting with. The early church might even have seen it as the older son representing the Christians who came out of the Jewish synagogues while the Gentile converts are the younger son.
It's the subject of another day, but I can't help but wonder if there would be a worthwhile conversation for us in the idea that the traditional mainline church could be the older son and that other non-traditional churches are our snotty little brother. But that's a topic for another time.
Who are we in the story? Perhaps we're the younger son, those who have wandered astray only to return to our senses at some point. But the title implies we might look more closely at the older brother. He's angry, and perhaps even justifiably so. And he has to be compelled by his father to forgive. Does that sound familiar? Have you ever felt ripped off by forgiveness? You've been good (or at least reasonably so), and meanwhile someone who has frittered their life away and wasted every good chance given to them, God has the nerve to forgive them, too! That ain't fair.
Let's take our cue from economics. After all, Presbyterians are the ones who use "debts" to signify "sins" in the Lord's Prayer. And the New Testament is rife with economic language for our relationship with sin and moral behavior. So let's pretend, for the sake of argument, that you've been extremely careful with your money. You've saved carefully. When you've taken out loans, you've always paid them on time. You've never cheated anyone out of what's rightfully theirs. You've been an upstanding citizen. And along comes someone who has wasted their money at every opportunity. They've defaulted on loan after loan and have built up credit card debt upon credit card debt. They go to bank and ask to be forgiven (all metaphors are flawed – in this one, the bank gets to be God). And the bank wipes the debt away as if it had never existed. Would you be angry? Yes! Is it reasonable, even justifiable anger? Yes! But the bad news is that the economy of God's forgiveness simply works different. Or, do we see it as good news?
Forgiveness isn't easy. Especially when we've really been wronged by someone who has hurt and wounded us deeply. And it's worth mentioning that forgiveness isn't the same as reconciliation. Forgiving doesn't mean that everything goes back to the way it was. Reconciliation is a process, of which forgiveness is a part. But that, too, is a story for another day.
Grudges we can do all by ourselves. Forgiveness is God's work. Who is it that is worthy of forgiveness? The bad news is that God isn't going to consult us; or perhaps this is the good news…