Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Prodigal What?

Sometimes I think it's hard to be glad that spring is finally on its way, in the midst of Lent. Maybe I take the season too seriously, or perhaps I don't quite get what it's about, but I feel like enjoying the warm weather and reveling in the abundance of sunshine is somehow out of place right now. Maybe it's just because it's been so much colder this year that enjoying the weather seems like a guilty pleasure! Well, whatever it is, I've found myself recently thinking that I should be a little more sober during this season of Lent. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm always able to tell you the places where I need to improve--sometimes to such an extent that I wouldn't be able to tell you what I'm even doing well, but that's another matter, entirely. It seems like in the last several days, though, I've had reason to think about some things I find myself repenting for, time and again. I guess you could say I've gotten good at keeping God out of just a few areas of my life. And if I manage everything else, shouldn't it be good enough to keep it down to one or two vices? I mean, we all have to have our faults because we're all human, right?

But no, the season of Lent reminds me, more than usual, that God isn't really interested in my excuses for why I've not gotten myself right in one area or another. Last Sunday’s gospel lesson, Luke 13:1-9, reminded us that our time here is short and it's a gift from God. And Jesus admonished his hearers that they were in need of repenting just as much as the people they judged to be worse sinners than themselves. In my sermon, I mentioned that Jesus was effectively saying, "Don't worry about what those other folks are doing wrong. Worry about your own selves first." And whew--that's a message I need to hear myself, too. How much time do I spend trying to justify what I'm doing by judging someone else and finding myself better than that person? What a waste of time! I thank God that I've gotten the gift of another day today, to try to get it right! Gotta keep working on getting my own self right, so I can shine God’s light to others…

Still, as I approach this Sunday's lections, I am faced with the story that we usually call "The Prodigal Son," and I can't help but wonder why this lection made it into the Lenten season. Why do we read about God's gift of life last week and God's abundant mercy and love this week, at this season of the church year? And what's in that story about a man with two sons that matters much to me?

Well, the answer to that question may remain to be seen, in some respects, but what has struck me, since I heard this passage preached at a retreat recently, is that I need to rethink who is the prodigal in this story. I've spent much of my life clucking my tongue at that wayward son, thinking that I will never be like him. I've worried for the older son, wishing he would just be happy for his brother and his dad. I've wanted to write my own ending to this story--make it a happy story for everyone involved, erase the greed and selfishness of the younger son, the bitterness and indignation of the older son. But what have I thought of the father here? He was always a stock character to me--a man who loved his sons, a quaint and reassuring portrait of a forgiving God. That’s all.

But when I heard this parable preached recently, the preacher pointed out that it's not really all about the sons--it's about the father, too. The father is the one who's prodigal here! This father is willing to waste almost all he has, to disgrace himself in front of his community, to risk ridicule and look foolish, just because he loves his son so much. He not only willingly hands over half of his stuff to this selfish son, who heads off into the sunset, basically forsaking the family name, but the father then spends lavishly on this same son when that son returns home. What kind of father is this? Do I know any father like this? Have I come across a love so lavish, so extravagant, so wasteful, even, that all of those sins I'm spending so much time scrutinizing right now are completely laid aside by the one who loves me? Is that kind of love even possible?!

But here it is—here’s the answer I’ve been looking for: YES, it is possible. No matter how often I try to earn some grace, to get my ticket punched for heaven by my own good works, during Lent I have to take a long look at myself and admit that I’ve failed. I’m human. But during Lent I have to admit that it isn’t about me, anyway. Whether I’m the wayward son or the reliable son, whether I’ve just wasted the gift of this day or I’ve used it wisely, God wants to love me and welcome me home, just the same. And when I can get myself turned around and headed back home—whether just from out in the fields, or from a far away place of famine—there’s the fatted calf on the spit, the best robe waiting for me, the signet ring—the mark that says I’m the father’s child—once again. I’m welcome. That father is there, waiting for me to make it back home, waiting for me to receive that love he so wants to give me, even on my worst, most miserably brokenly human days. Thank you, God, for wasting your love on me. Help me to learn how to waste it on others, too, with every moment of every day that you’ve given me. Amen.