The Prodigal Returns (Romans 8:1-30, Luke 15:11-32)
It’s good to be back… the prodigal returns. I have been in a far country spending your hard earned money on hard thinking. Doesn’t sound nearly as exciting as loose women and parties does it?
There was a man who had two sons… It’s a parable….
The first son is the well known one… he goes and lives life to the full, we would say, at least he goes out to get from life what he can, he is a model 21st century citizen. … His first act is to seek his rights. He knows what they are and says to his Father ‘give me my share of the property’. Fair enough we would say these days. It’s his life now. And he’s off to live it for himself, of course. No moral guardian sitting on his shoulder telling him he shouldn’t do this and he shouldn’t do that. But perhaps, for all his assertiveness, he wasn’t selfish enough. He didn’t think ahead about his own security. He didn’t get insurance. He didn’t save some money for an economic downturn. If he’d listened to some other wisdom he might have been just that little bit more selfish, and looked after himself. Instead he lived in the moment too much… and he is caught out. So he crashes big time, he becomes dependent on others. He becomes a pig feeder. Not exactly the most glorious of positions. And he ends up sitting there simply wanting to eat the pig food. And the story says, ‘no one gave him anything’. Which makes sense too doesn’t it? After all he’s wasted his own stuff so, What does he deserve to get? To give him something would simply be to give him a license to waste more wouldn’t it? And why would we give money to someone who can’t take responsibility for his own life? He has reached the bottom of the heap. …
But then he has an idea – a cunning plan (to quote another great loser – Baldrick). If I go and grovel and say how sorry I am, maybe my Father will give me a job on his estate. After all the servants get more to eat than I have here. Notice in the story, he rehearses his speech to himself, sitting in the pigsty. And then he sets off.
And his Father sees him coming from afar off. He had no cellphone. There was no txting in advance to prepare the Father for his coming. The Father’s eyes are scanning the horizon. There is grief and hope in the Father’s face as he waits. And as soon as he recognizes the drooping figure of his wasted son in the distance, he is up and running. Down the road, arms open he embraces and kisses his son.
The son begins his speech. Father, I have sinned against God and against you; I am no longer fit to be called your son. And then he stops. No question about becoming a hired servant. I wonder did he forget that part of his speech? Or has something changed.
What I notice in this story is that he may have hit rock bottom in the pigsty. The memory of his Father may have reached him there… But the real change doesn’t happen until he is in his Father’s arms.
Up until that point his minds is operating according to the normal economic logic of this world. You get what you deserve. Life is a deal. You give something you get something back. His decision to go home follows the same way of thinking as his initial departure from home in the first place. Now he returns home to get what he might be worth. To earn favour again. His credit rating has dropped. In tight times like these you need a good credit rating don’t you? You need to circle the wagons and make sure everything is safe… He finally realized that his Father was his only asset left… That kind of language fits with his way of thinking. And he might as well make use of this asset. Do a deal… And he was thinking like that right up till the moment his father embraced him.
Suddenly he had a Father and not a deal. Suddenly he becomes a son again, and not a hired contractor – suddenly his world is turned upside down… Have you ever had that kind of a turn around?
So much of life is about negotiating a place in the scheme of things isn’t it? We may not have the desperation that the prodigal son had, but we find ourselves negotiating our place in the world, our identity, who am I? Am I ok? Am I one of them? If we are good at it we do it with the appropriate level of modest self-deprecation.
• I’m not perfect by I try hard… I’ve done my best.
• I’m a keen Christian. I know I fail often enough
• I have organized these church activities, it’s such a joy
If we are really good at it we say nothing, we just keep score in our heads and send out subtle cultural messages, like wearing the right clothes, and reading the right books
[See “Christian Hipster” blog] - status things, if you want to be cool,
Things they don’t like:
Christian hipsters don’t like megachurches, altar calls, and door-to-door evangelism or youth pastors who talk too much about Braveheart. Christian hipsters tend not to like contemporary Christian music (CCM), or Christian films or churches with flags on stage. They prefer “Christ follower” to “Christian” and can’t stand the phrases “soul winning” or “non-denominational,” and they could do without weird and awkward evangelistic methods including (but not limited to): sock puppets, ventriloquism, mimes, sign language, “beach evangelism,” and modern dance.
Things they like:
Christian hipsters like the arts – respected by their particular group. They love books like Resident Aliens by Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger by Ron Sider, God’s Politics by Jim Wallis, and The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis. They tend to be fans of any number of the following authors: Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Wendell Berry, Thomas Merton, John Howard Yoder, Walter Brueggemann, N.T. Wright, Brennan Manning, Eugene Peterson, Anne Lamott, C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, Henri Nouwen, Soren Kierkegaard, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Annie Dillard, Marilynne Robinson, Chuck Klosterman, David Sedaris, or anything ancient and/or philosophically important.
Christian hipsters love thinking and acting Catholic, even if they are thoroughly Protestant. They love the Pope, liturgy, incense, lectio divina, Lent, and timeless phrases like “Thanks be to God” or “Peace of Christ be with you.” They enjoy Eastern Orthodox churches and mysterious iconography. They love poetry readings, worshipping with candles, and smoking pipes while talking about God. Some of them like smoking a lot of different things.
Christian hipsters love breaking the taboos that used to be taboo for Christians. They love piercings, dressing a little goth, getting lots of tattoos (the Christian Tattoo Association now lists more than 100 member shops), carrying flasks and smoking cloves. A lot of them love skateboarding and surfing, and many of them play in bands. They are, on the whole, a little more sincere and idealistic than their secular hipster counterparts.
Problem is, it’s just too close to the bone really…
It’s all about negotiating our place in the world… Now that I have told you what the latest Christian status symbols are, you can all go out and get Christian tattoos…
We may not be the prodigal son in desperation… but all of us are vulnerable! …Which means that negotiating goes on…
The heart of this amazing story is really the truth about God. God is Father. God thinks you’re just wonderful. God lives by gift… there’s no “exchange economy” in God… and no matter how tightly you cling to your exchange economy, your negotiating… God is running towards you, with arms open wide.
It’s a parable of the big story…God gives Jesus the Son as a gift into the world. And Jesus gives himself as a gift to the lives of others. In the aftermath of crucifixion God gives Jesus again to the world, to us. That’s the embrace this story is about.
And as the Father embraces the prodigal son, the deal he was planning becomes a confession. That is the moment of Christian faith. The deal becomes a confession….
A friend of mine is a minister… and whenever he is approached by a new congregation and he meets with them he asks them this question: “Is this a congregation a place where you can confess your sins?” … Body language… gives it away.
Once you take off the bit about being a hired servant, all you have left is a confession. The ‘getting-what-you-deserve’ system flies out the window.
But! The system fights back – the anger of the older brother. “If he doesn’t get what he deserves that will undo everything around which I build my life.” He is threatened. Anger is grounded in fear.
Romans 8: 14-17
For all who are moved by the Spirit of God are sons and daughters of God. The Spirit you have received is not a spirit of slavery leading you back into a life of fear… [pause to consider the fear of the younger son… negotiating fear, the fear of the older son, self-righteous anger fear], … but a Spirit that makes us sons and daughters, enabling us to cry ‘Abba! Father!’ In that cry the Spirit of God joins with our spirit in testifying that we are God’s children; and if children, then heirs. We are God’s heirs and Christ’s fellow heirs, if we share his suffering now in order to share his splendour hereafter.
Those moved by the Spirit of God are sons and daughters of God… They are receiving the “genetic material” of God, they are being re-generated to share in a different life, a life of Gift… a life in which death is not a dark horizon, but shining with the splendour of hope, when we will see face to face and experience in a new way the embrace of the Father.
21.7.09 at St Clair and Green Island