Sunday, March 14, 2010
Learning To Be Reconciled and To Reconcile
Today we've reached mid-Lent, formerly called "Laetare" Sunday, from the opening words of the ancient entrance hymn for the liturgy, taken from Isaiah 66: "Laetare, Jerusalem, et conventum facite, omnes qui diligitis eam...Rejoice, Jerusalem! Be glad for her, all you who love her..." The hymn goes on: "...rejoice with her, you who mourned for her, and you will find contentment at her consoling breasts." The oldest lectionaries and commentaries also called it "Refreshment Sunday". Certainly, the above reference to a mother's breast is obvious; the 1928 Book of Common Prayer also uses the Gospel of the feeding of the 5000. In the Anglican tradition it was also called "Mothering Sunday", from a previous time when there was emphasis on God's work as seen in the example of our mothers. In ancient times apprentices and those working at a distance from home were given leave to visit their mothers. Another emphasis was on the idea of "Mother Church", the "new Jerusalem". In medieval dioceses this Sunday was especially devoted to the mother church of the diocese: the cathedral.
Lent 4 is a time of transition in the season of Lent. Old devotional handbooks noted that before mid-Lent you looked at your own sins and spiritual pilgrimage, trying to amend your life and to grapple with Satan in the wilderness. After mid-Lent, in these books, the focus shifted from oneself to Jesus and the whole movement toward his Passion. So today there's a sort of psychic breath-taking before we begin in earnest the journey to encounter the Cross. We look backward to where we've been, and we look forward to how far we still have to go.
Far and away, the most common topic chosen for sermons on this day is probably Luke's account of The Prodigal Son (15:1-3; 11b-32). Notice that this story is one of three stories in Luke 15 dealing with the recovery of something(one) lost. Verses 3-7 talk about lost sheep, although the parable is really about the shepherd who seeks, finds, and restores the sheep to the fold. In the parable of the lost coin (vv. 8-10) the story is about a woman householder who turns her house inside out until she finds the coin which she misplaced. She's so happy that she can't keep it to herself, and thus feels the urge to invite her friends to rejoice along with her. So, when we come to verse 11, it should be no surprise to find another story of recovery of the lost.
Luke has Jesus getting right to the point: "There was a man who had two sons..." It's sort of a tip-off that the story isn't really about one of the sons, just as the previous stories weren't about the sheep, nor about the lost coin. This parable gives a lot of space to the the real subject: the father. The father is the one who initiates the younger son's prodigality by giving him the inheritance and the independence in the first place. The father sees the young man at a distance, runs out and welcomes him, and won't let the son feel ashamed or humiliated. The father is the one who tries to pacify and reassure the older son. And the father has the last word in the parable: a word of resurrection and reconciliation.
In the two earlier parables of Luke 15, the sheep are recovered by the shepherd's efforts, and the coin is found by the woman's industriousness. In this story the younger son's efforts lead to new insight and to self-discovery. Luke says, "...no one gave him anything, but when he came to himself..." he returned to his right mind, as if coming out of an illness or a feverish state. No activity by the father to recover the son is suggested. He simply waits: no search party, no deprogramming plan for when he returns. Once the son recovers himself, the father then takes the intiative as soon as he sees him approaching from afar off.
Then there's the older son, about to be lost to the father because of anger and bitter resentment toward his younger sibling. Here the father, like the shepherd and the woman of the previous parables, tries to recover what he's in danger of losing. He patiently explains to the older son what's going on, he pleads with him to let go of the anger and hardened attitude which is eating the young man up inside. In the story's closing sentence, Luke brings together the themes of all three of the parables of loss and recovery: the lost is found, as with the good shepherd; and the joy of recovery is so great that it needs to be shared and celebrated with joy and music and dancing.
Luke introduces us, in today's Gospel, to three vividly portrayed people: the patient, loving father; the impetuous, irresponsible and, eventually, repentant younger son; and the faithful, plodding, hardworking, but jealous and resentful old brother. It probably would be a mistake, however, to view the father and the older son as the contrast with the prodigal son. In fact, both of the sons are prodigal: both are wasteful, uncaring, insensitive, each in his own way. They, like the sheep and the coin, are the backdrop against which we learn something about the father. We know that he's fair and generous, perhaps even foolish, to the point of liberality. He honors the younger son's request for his share of the wealth, before it's due. Of course, it doesn't really belong to the son because an inheritance presupposes the death of the heir's benefactor. Nevertheless, the father probably deprives himself of income which might have been needed as he grew older. We're not told if the father doubts the wisdom of his decision, nor if he regretted it, once made. Nor are we told if he's worried about the son's going off on his own.
What we do know is that the father deeply loves both of his sons, and that he's greatly relieved and rejoices at the younger son's return. He celebrates lavishly, prodigally, the return to life of a "dead" son. Luke depicts the father using all the symbolic language and gestures of resurrection and of starting anew: 1) the cloak; new garments: a symbol of all the rights and duties of the household; 2) the ring: probably a signet ring, a sign of authority and wealth; 3) the sandals: a sign of being relieved of humiliation and extreme poverty; 4) the fattened calf: reserved only for the biggest feasts, usually for monarchs or princes, an especially delectable food.
We also know that this father greatly desired not to lose his older son, despite the fact that the son was angry and resentful, that he wouldn't even acknowledge the other son as his brother ("...this son of yours"), despite the fact that he'd been there for the father for a long time, and that he'd kept all the "rules", EXCEPT for the one which really mattered: the rule of love and forgiveness, especially of his own flesh and blood. The father reminds the older son that, though he maintains a different relationship to him, he loves him no less fully.
Luke's passage, to this point, has been filled with entreaties to repentance. The burden has been on the one(s) erring to come back, to repent of the past. Now the emphasis of the story shifts a bit: to God's persistence in seeking out the lost and on God's love and joy at recovering the lost one. The father's joy, and the woman's and the shepherd's happiness, are all the consequence of people turning their lives around and being reconciled. And this is the point of the story: that God isn't primarily interested in the sin, the mistakes, the failures of your past and mine, but rather in what God sees can be made of us in Jesus: a new creation, in the present and in the future. Jesus is central to the process of restoring broken relationships, of reconciling us to the Father and to him, and of moving us to reconcile others in himself.
Paul reminds us that God has handed this on to us as a primary ministry: "All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation...So we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God."