15 September 2013

Parable of the Merciful Father (Reprised)

Commentators tend to name today's Gospel parable after the Merciful Father, because he is central to all the scenes (even when the younger Son is in a far off place, the Father waits silently, implicitly, in the wings). We should notice it is his foolish generosity that predominates, so in this sense, he too is prodigal. Perhaps then we should call this the parable of the Prodigal Father. The younger son squanders his inheritance, but the Father is also (in common terms and in terms of Jewish Law) foolish in giving him the inheritance, the "substance" (literally, the ousias) of his own life and that of Israel. His younger Son treats him as dead (a sin against the Commandment to honor Father and Mother) and still this Father looks for every chance to receive him back.

When the younger son comes to his senses, rehearses his terms for coming home ("I will confess and be received back not as a Son, but as a servant,"), his Father, watching for his return, eagerly runs to meet him in spite of the offense represented in such an act, forestalls his confession, brings his Son into the center of the village thus rendering everything unclean according to the law, clothes him in the garb of Sonship and authority, kills the fatted calf and throws a welcome home party --- all heedless of the requirements of the law, matters of ritual impurity or repentance, etc. Meanwhile, the dutiful older son keeps the letter of the law of sonship but transgresses its essence and also treats his Father with dishonor. He is grudging, resentful, angry, blind, and petty in failing to recognize what is right before him all the time. He too is prodigal, allowing his authentic Sonship to die day by day as he assumes a more superficial role instead. And yet, the Father reassures him that what is the Father's is the Son's and what is the Son's is the Father's (which makes the Father literally an "ignorant man" in terms of the Law, an "am-haretz"). Contrary to the wisdom of the law, he continues to invite him into the celebration, a celebration of new life and meaning. He continues to treat him as a Son.

The theme of Law versus Gospel comes up strongly in this and other readings this week, though at first we may fail to recognize this. Paul recognizes the Law is a gift of God but without the power to move us to act as Sons and Daughters of God in the way Gospel does. When coupled with human sinfulness it can --- whether blatantly or insidiously --- be terribly destructive. How often as Christians do we act in ways which are allowed (or apparently commanded) by law but which are not really appropriate to Daughters and Sons of an infinitely merciful Father who is always waiting for our return, always looking for us to make the slightest responsive gesture in recognition of his presence, to "come to our senses", so that he can run to us and enfold us in the sumptuous garb of Daughterhood or Sonship? How often is our daily practice of our faith dutiful, and grudging but little more? How often do we act competitively or in resentment over others whose vocation is different than our own, whose place in the church (or the world of business, commerce, and society, for that matter) seems to witness to greater love from God? How often do we quietly despair over the seeming lack of worth of our lives in comparison to that of others? Whether we recognize it or not these attitudes are those of people motivated by law, not gospel. They are the attitudes of measurement and judgment, not of incommensurate love and generosity.

At the begining of Lent we heard the fundamental choice of and in all choices put before us, "Choose life not death." Today that choice is sharpened and the subtle forms of death we often choose are set in relief: will we be Daughters and Sons of an infinitely and foolishly Merciful Father --- those who truly see and accept a love that is beyond our wildest imaginings and love others similarly, or, will we be prodigals in the pejorative sense, servants of duty, those who only accept the limited love we believe we have coming to us and who approach others competitively, suspiciously and without generosity? Will we be those whose notions of justice constrain God and our ability to choose the life he sets before us, or will we be those who are forgiven to the awesome degree and extent God is willing and capable of forgiving? Will we allow ourselves to be welcomed into a new life --- a life of celebration and joy, but also a life of greater generosity, responsibility, and God-given identity, or will we simply make do with the original prodigality of either the life of the younger or elder son? After all, both live dissipated lives in this parable: one flagrantly so, and one in quiet resentment, slavish dutifulness, and unfulfillment.

The choice before those living the latter kind of Christian life is no less significant, no less one of conversion than the choice set before the younger son. His return may be more dramatic, but that of the elder son demands as great a conversion. He must move from a quiet exile where he bitterly identifies himself as a slave rather than a free man or (even less) a Son. His own vision of his life and worth, his true identity, are little different than those of the younger son who returns home rehearsing terms of servility rather than sonship. The parable of the merciful Father puts before us two visions of life, and two main versions of prodigality; it thus captures the two basic meanings of prodigal: wasteful and lavish. There is the prodigality of the sons who allow the substance of their lives and identities to either be cast carelessly or slip silently away, the prodigality of those who lose their truest selves even as they grasp at wealth, adventure, duty, role, or other forms of security and "fulfillment". And there is the prodigality of the Father who loves and spends himself generously without limit or condition. In other words, there is death and there is life, law and gospel. Both stand before us ready to be embraced. Which form of prodigality will we choose? For indeed, the banquet hall is ready for us and the Father stands waiting at this very moment, ring, robe, and sandals in hand.