Love – carelessly carefree

Why does Jesus tell this story?  There are no obvious ‘religious’ reasons; no lessons about sacrifice, no mention of God.  It is a parable; pointing to something at the edges of our awareness, and there is no one way to hear it; no single interpretation that satisfies.

Maybe that’s why Jesus tells it…

We would tell the story differently.  Dorothy, Luke, – Buddy the Elf – The Lion King – (Disney knows this story backwards and forwards)  Child feels misunderstood, so sets off to find their fortune – to change their destiny.  Along the way there’s trouble, comedy, heartache, disappointment for the child; anguish, self-doubt, (or occasionally, indifference) for the parent.  then the “aha” moment – a crisis averted by a dream or the discovery of some long hidden talent, a turn towards home, one final conflict with the last of the old prejudices, then: (a) happy / tearful reunion or (b) child takes parent’s place in the social order or perhaps (c) long flashback sequence causes child to realize they had what they needed / wanted all along (there’s no place like home)  end credits, fade to black.

Yes we would – we have – told the story differently, and to good effect,  but there is another twist that we are inclined to give this age-old tale; one that takes us in a different direction in our understanding of what justice is – of what love might be – and ultimately who God is (because that is why Jesus tells the story, isn’t it) – so let’s imagine for a moment what happens if dad says no?

What if, after this long walk home and after the well rehearsed, repentant speech, Dad says, “you’re absolutely right – you are not worthy to be my son.  There’s the door!  Hit the road!”  In past examinations of this parable, I have put myself in the prodigal’s place, I have considered the older brother’s complaints and I have tried to understand the father’s journey to joy – but what if it doesn’t work out?

If the father takes offence, and acts out of justice, and condemns this rascal to a life of servitude (at best) or abandonment and misery (at worst), who among us could complain?  The father could be excused for taking a stand, couldn’t he?  After all, there was mercy in his original decision to hand over the cash – to accept his son’s request, without question.  Some would say “That’s the love of a parent to their child; to offer them every chance and send them out into the world well equipped (or at least well financed…), and in recent times that has been held up as a method of parenting; provide what they need and leave the rest to them.  The notion that you should have to do that more than once is absurd.  Money doesn’t grow on trees, after all, and we are sure at some level that we are meant to learn something from our mistakes.  How does this open-armed welcome teach anyone a lesson?

When we are left to imagine (or enact) a modern version of this tale, we make it more complicated.  We have the parent struggle their way to forgiveness.  The younger son becomes a real rebel – an anti-hero whose only regret is that he didn’t ask for more, or start his program of ‘loose living’ sooner – (especially since, in the end, all is forgiven!)  In our arrangement of this parable, the elder brother is solid, dependable and boring – his objections have no venom; his dull faithfulness adds nothing to the story.  And the father becomes the fretful, self-doubting, philosopher who worries and wonders for most of the movie about what he might have done differently.

Our hunger for complexity has us ready to ignore the beautiful simplicity of this parable, and turn God into the father who says “no – once was enough” We imagine that God’s purpose is to teach us a lesson – to guide us to faith by our errors, our misery, our mistakes – and then, only grudgingly and once we have performed the proper ritual, can we return to the safety of the fold.

We would rather hear the father refuse an apology because we imagine that justice requires punishment; so says our legal system, our systems of government, our doctrines of war, and, unfortunately, our theology.  We can’t imagine a worthwhile lesson coming in such a straightforward manner.  All is forgiven, abundantly – the younger sons wastefulness – the elder brothers boring spite.  All these offences are buried by love; these relationships are completely refreshed by love, and that, says Jesus, is that.

Jesus tells this parable in just the right way – the father does what he does because he can do nothing else.  Love is not motivated by a desire to teach lessons or mete justice.  Love wants only to embrace its object. Love does not wait patiently for the apology to be finished, or perfect – love interrupts.

Love runs carelessly toward trouble; love mourns the stubborn pride that does not recognize the opportunity for celebration.  Love looks like that father in Jesus’ story, open-armed, open hearted, open-minded.

God’s love, Jesus doesn’t say…Jesus doesn’t need to say…is just like the love this father offers; love that is willing to wait; eager to share without expecting gratitude; always ready to comfort and above all, seeking to build relationship.  Thanks be to God for that love, which we will encounter as our Lenten journey continues towards Easter. It is that love that will sustain Jesus through his horrific Holy week.  It is that love that shines an unlikely light on the dark and dangerous cross, overwhelms death and rolls back the gravestone to overcome our hopelessness with life, new and abundant.  Amen.

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