Friday, March 16, 2007

Lent 4




I remember a minor neighbourhood scandal that erupted once, many years ago, in my suburb in Brisbane.  A couple of blocks away from where I lived with a group of students a big hand-painted sign had appeared on a fence next to the entrance to a double garage that read, ‘Party, Friday 8.00pm.  Everybody welcome.  Free beer in shed.’  Needless to say, the word got around pretty quick, for impoverished uni students this was like a dream come true.  Nobody seemed to know who was throwing this too-good-to-be-true party, and it did sound like a peculiar idea – I had visions of hundreds of people trying to cram into this backyard shed, neighbours and friends, complete strangers and freeloaders all presuming on this strange and wonderful hospitality.  Unfortunately, within a couple of days the sign had been taken down, and in it’s place there was another one that read, ‘Sorry, no party this Friday.  Someone’s idea of a joke’.  Turns out the elderly couple who lived there were in the habit of inviting a few friends over to practise their square-dancing.  They almost got a bit more than they bargained for.

Still, for a day or two the idea that there was a party going on and we were all invited was tantalising.  Even more so since we had no idea who might be throwing it or why.  And because it seemed to make no difference at all who might come, who we might be when we walked in through the roll-a-dor, or why we had bothered to show up – whether out of curiosity, or boredom, whether we were life-of-the-party types or introverts, whether we were there for the company or just the beer.  A party where it didn’t matter how you found out about it or how you got there, the only thing that mattered was that it was a party.

Course I’m a lot older now, it doesn’t sound quite as much fun now as it did at the time.

A party just for the sake of having a party?  Does that sound at all like church?  Because the story we heard from the gospel this morning – this parable of Jesus that someone once described as being like the whole Bible in a nutshell – this actually is Jesus’ defence against the accusation that he’s not respectable enough.  Right at the beginning of chapter 15, where the Pharisees, the religious professionals of their day, are accusing Jesus of being a party boy, somebody who is a bit too fond of a good time and who isn’t too particular about the company he keeps.  ‘This man’, they complain, ‘receives sinners and eats with them’.  The point seems to be, what sort of prophet can he possibly be if he hangs around with ne’er-do-wells?  Shouldn’t he be more concerned with telling them to lift their game, and a bit less keen to party on with them?

And in response, Jesus tells them three stories, one after another just to make sure there’s no question of missing the point.  A farmer who goes to extraordinary lengths to find a lost sheep, and then when he finds it, gets all the neighbours around for a party.  A woman who throws a party after she finds a lost coin.  A foolish father who allows his wayward son to make off with a good share of the family assets and then welcomes him home with a party when its all gone.  What sort of God is this, who not only allows sinners to run riot but who makes himself look undignified at best as he runs through the streets of the town to meet them when they come home bedraggled and woebegone, who tidies them up and throws a party?   I often think this story is misnamed as the Prodigal Son, maybe we should call it the story of the Prodigal Father.  And the original criticism of the Pharisees that Jesus is just a bit too cosy with sinners finds its echo in the older brother’s understandably grumpy question, a question that we sometimes echo ourselves whenever we see people getting what they need, not what they deserve – ‘how can you justify throwing a party for the likes of him?’

Well, the first thing that always gets noticed about this story is that it’s about forgiveness.  The youngest son’s behaviour is certainly beyond the pale, and by the standards of the day his dad wouldn’t be expected to give him a second chance.  Not only that, but I really think the father’s forgiveness happens even before there’s a real change of heart on the son’s part.  He ‘comes to himself’ only insofar as he figures that there’s no real future in eating husks out of the trough with the pigs, and he decides life at home would be preferable even if he does have to grovel a bit.  The story doesn’t actually tell us that he’s sorry for the way he’s treated his old dad – the story does beg the question what’s going to happen next in this most dysfunctional family - but the grovelling gets cut short because the first thing dad wants to do is celebrate.  It’s about God’s forgiveness but even more than that, it’s about God’s delight in us, about God’s foolish love for us that is so unrestrained that not only does God want to party with sinners like us, but God comes looking for us and cuts short all our explanations. 

And it’s true enough that because we all of us are sinful, because we all of us behave in selfish ways at times and in ways that reject the relationship God wants to have with us – that we can all put ourselves in the shoes of the younger son, so we all need to hear this message of God’s wasteful love.  But – and it’s a big but – let’s not forget that the people Jesus is telling this story to are the religious folk, the folk who know their Bible and who never miss going to church, the ones who are very, very serious indeed not only about following the rules but about loving and obeying God.  Folk, in other words, who have got a lot more in common with the older brother than the younger one.  We’ve been faithful, we value and respect the traditions of our religion, we base our whole understanding of who we are on the fact that we are God’s people and if we follow the Law of Moses, if we make sure we don’t associate with any of the sharp practices or the pagan lifestyles down the road, then we know we’re going to encounter God here, God is going to be with us and for us because that’s the deal.  That’s the covenant and we’ve been faithful to it, so we’ve got God right here. 

That’s the risk for religious folk –it’s the risk of being self-righteous and judgemental, the risk of being so focused on the traditions of the past that we don’t notice that God might be doing something new in the future, it’s the risk of overlooking the fact that God might be doing something new, right now, outside the narrow perspective of our own tradition.  And so the older brother refuses to go into the party which, really, is where he most needs to go in order to be reconciled, not only with his brother but with his father as well.  See what’s happened?  The insider has become the outsider, because he refuses to accept God’s shocking and inappropriate inclusiveness.

The profligacy of God who insists on giving both brothers not what they deserve, but what they need.  There’s an echo in this story, isn’t there, of the Incarnation itself, the prodigal Son of the prodigal Father who leaves his Father’s home and travels to a distant country – not in disobedience but in love and in solidarity for the broken and the lost.

And there’s a similar echo in our reading from Deuteronomy.  God’s inexplicable love for Israel is because God cares for strays and outsiders.  It’s the character of God to notice the needs of strangers, to care for those in distress and Israel, who is commanded to love God, should also notice the needs of strangers because Israel itself is the stranger who God has had compassion on.  You know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of God’s extravagant and undeserved kindness, so you, too, need to practice going out of your own way to show compassion to strays and outsiders.

What does that mean in our own context?  If the risk for religious folk is the danger of being like the grown-up son who never left home, then how do we learn to connect with the generosity of God outside the four walls of our own tradition?  How do we get into the party that God just might be having with the irreligious and the irreverent?  At the very least, I think, for the Church poised at the entrance of the 21st century, that we need to loosen up a bit.  We need to learn to blur the boundaries a bit, to work out ways of celebrating God’s delight in and God’s love for all of creation in ways that include the wider community, in ways that engage us in conversation with neighbours and strangers, with the lonely and the curious and the compassionate folk who live around us.

How we do that might take some thinking.  But the party, I suspect, is worth going to.