Monday, March 7, 2016

A Good Life at the Expense of The Good Life

11 And he said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12 And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. 13 Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. 14 And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to [2] one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. 16 And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything. 17 “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father's hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! 18 I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”’ 20 And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. 21 And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ [3] 22 But the father said to his servants, [4] ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. 23 And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. 24 For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate. 25 “Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. 27 And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ 28 But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, 29 but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ 31 And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’”  (Luke 15:11-32 (ESV)
“Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”
A fitting end to the parable of two sons. This perhaps should really be the name of this parable. The parable is really directed at the older son, but we name it the Prodigal son, and this title tends to draw attention to the younger boy who squanders his fortune like a lotto winner. He lives it up in a foreign locality that actually provides opportunity for opulence before going broke. He finds himself feeding pigs and wanting to eat pig feed before he comes to his senses, repents and returns to the father. That part of the story reads like all those testimonies that used to be so popular when I was a kid. The good ones always had some guy that got strung out on drugs, and seemed to be the Christian version of the humble brag, each one getting up to embellish his story just a bit more, the harder the drugs the more beautiful the women the further the fall. I remember one day when I was in college I got glued to TBN as if it was a bad car accident. I couldn’t help but watch in horror as guys ripped phone books in the name of Christ, and then told their stories of how they came to Christ. I got the impression you couldn’t be a Christian if you didn’t first live your life in as stupid a manner as possible. I mean, is drug addiction really a prerequisite for Christian faith? I got the impression that some of these people believed it was. But we all love a rags to riches story. And the story of the younger son suffices. We hold it dear. It holds out hope for us. We all have friends and family we consider to be the prodigal to some extent or another. We pray for them and hope it turns out for them as it did the younger son in this parable.  Some of us see ourselves in the prodigal to greater or lesser extent.
And perhaps the reason we love this story so much is that Jesus describes our Father in heaven so perfectly here. It captures our imagination. As son’s, this is the father we want. Perhaps, we know all too well, no matter how much our fathers try to hide it, the disapproval and disappointment of our earthly parents. Perhaps as parent’s this is the kind of parent we aspire to be, and we find ourselves failing miserably because we also want what is best for our children and are disappointed to see them make the same sort of stupid decisions we made, decisions we perhaps blame for some sad lot in life. Perhaps we find ourselves then, a little more reflected in the other son, the true sinner to whom this parable is directed. Jesus is speaking to Pharisees, and we all have a Pharisee within us, our Old Adam, the sinner within who in the name of religion is too afraid to just enjoy life for what it is.
See the Pharisees are upset that Jesus is eating with tax collectors and sinners. And so Jesus tells this parable to highlight just how awful the Pharisees are being that they can’t rejoice with angels over the repentance of sinners. And anyone who has a brother can identify, at some level, at the ugliness that fuels the older brother’s anger. I mean, family life, brothers and sisters fighting for the affections of parents. Cain and Able is a story that takes every ounce of energy possible not to reenact every day. And perhaps the only thing that restrains you is knowing that you can’t very well win your parent’s affection by killing the brother they love.
But the older brother, here, is a stick in the mud. He seems to think that the best way to win his father’s affection is absolutely refusing to enjoy in even the least of ways the life that his father has made possible for him. He’s afraid to even ask his father for a goat to roast with his friends in honor of his birthday. This is the real sinner. I mean the younger boy may have abused life in a manner that really does end up robbing life of joy. But at least, he tried! Life is a gift, our father in heaven has given us this gift. A person might try enjoying it. But the old Adam within us is constantly on guard against it. Religion we believe is about living a good life at the expense of living the good life. And so in the name of religion we are tempted to live a miserable life. We are tempted to be like the Mormon Missionary I met once, we compared experiences of life in Italy. I was horrified. In the name of religion he had managed two years in Italy, managed two years there never drinking a cappuccino, enjoying a glass of wine, or experiencing the wonders of grappa. Lived an hour from the beach and never went for fear or seeing a semi-nude sunbather. This sort of thing is hubris. It’s the epitome of the Pharisee that will travel to the ends of the earth to make convert one proselyte and turn them into twice the child of hell as they are when they succeed.
So go ahead, ask your dad for the goat. Everything I own is yours the Father says to the older son. “It’s not my fault if you refuse to enjoy this life I have made possible.” I think about that when I fall into funks. I’ve been too often in life given to those. This life is a gift. That we seem incapable of not abusing. We abuse it by being sticks in the mud, and we abuse it by having too much fun. Our sin bends us to wantonness and our sin bends us to prudish self-styled moralism in which we take ourselves all too seriously and fostering resentment for those who are given to wantonness. We can’t win for losing. We’re like drunk peasants trying to get on a horse as Luther once likened the dilemma. We fall off one side of the horse and then the other. I think he may have been speaking from his own experience in more ways than one.
But then, that is why Christ came. He understood the dilemma. In him, we have a brother of a completely different sort. The unspoken third brother that makes reconciliation with the Father possible because his love is the Father’s love. He doesn’t compete for our Father’s affections because he already has the love of the Father. And that love he brings to you and me.  It is for this love, the love the father has for his prodigals, the love he has for those afraid to enjoy life that he sent his only son to die for you and me. It is in him we find forgiveness, and in this forgiveness we find true joy for life and in life the joy that comes from being washed in the love of God, the joy that comes when we join our father in the feast of grace to celebrate the redemption of our siblings, even the redemption of a stick in the mud.

Now the peace of God that surpasses all understanding keep your minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen. 

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