Well for this week’s reflection, the choice was between “rolling away the reproach of Egypt”, and the prodigal son. I gave up on the former as it was surprisingly complicated; yet, I’m aware of potential of the latter to bring out difficult memories and associations. Still, I went with the parable; but, I tried for a slightly different angle by enlisting the help of my favorite saint, Teresa of Avila. So, it’s her image that you see above, rather than that most iconic Rembrandt's embrace. Let’s see if I can make this work!
First, here’s the parable: a certain young man asks for his share inheritance, and leaves the familial home. He spends all his money all too soon, and becomes a hired hand in charge of someone’s pigs, whose very meals he envies. Recalling that his father had better working conditions than this, he resolves to beg forgiveness, and ask to be his servant, not presuming at all that he could reclaim his relationship and status. However, his father not only forgives and restores him, but does so with great joy - which the older brother finds highly objectionable. It is this oldest son with whom many of us tend to identify in his reaction: “not fair!” (as I hear my children exclaim several times daily).
Every time this parable comes up, inevitably there is someone in the congregation bracing him or herself against the memories. Someone who has suffered estrangement as a parent, child, or sibling; someone who was denounced, or who asked forgiveness, or couldn’t find the strength to forgive. We are not told what kind of family dynamics has caused the youngest son to want to leave; we simply tend to attribute it to the misguided desire for indepence which characterises young people. Nor do we know the full cause of the older son’s resentment, which we attribute only to envy. Yet, we certainly identify t some extent with either subling. But you know, there are other aspects of this parable that reflect universal experiences. For example, we have all been the recepients of resources lavished freely on us, as did both the father at home, and the son in the faraway land (albeit, on potentially unworthy causes and people). So, in this season of Lent, with its emphasis on charity, let’s examine our own attitudes to giving. Do we consider certain causes and people unworthy of our giving? Do we worry about what people do with what we give? Do we give with strings attached, refusing those who seem to “squander”? And might it all be rightly so, as we balance good stewardship with being prodigal in self-sacrificial love?
For indeed, the parable is about sacrificing and giving, as much as it is about forgiving. In Luke’s text, it concludes the trio of parables on the theme of “lost and found”. In each parable, the person actively doing the looking and finding is also the one who makes sacrifices in order to reclaim the lost items. At a minimum, it is his or her effort, time, and energy; but also, the 99 sheep are left without protection, and the cost of lamp oil, by the light of which the woman is searching, may easily amount to or exceed the value of the coin. You might say that the father wasn’t active in looking for the son, but he is certainly very dynamic in welcoming and rejoicing, and he has plenty to sacrifice – his reputation, and even other relationships and harmony within his family – and it is his love and relationship that pulls the son back and opens the possibility of the return, in a sense, always acting in the life of the son as an extension of his person. The freedom of choice he gave to the son by allowing him to leave was bought at the cost of potentially losing him. But, true love - remember hesed from last week - is never fully expended.
Jesus taught these parables to a mixed audience. So yes, the younger brother, coin, and sheep are all of us, repentant creatures returning into the fold of the Divine Creator; and yes, the older brother struggling with the notion of fairness is also everyone - the Pharisees of Jesus’ time, and the Christians who subscribe to the doctrine of hell only so that to put others in there. And yet, like you, I see at least some justification for the older brother’s anger. I, too, can hear the father’s words “all I have is yours”, at best as a weak argument, or worse, as a mockery. As such, even the best of us have been known to say to God, “If this is how You treat Your friends, no wonder You have so few!” The words are attributed to St Teresa of Avila - this is the woman who achieved an exceptional degree of mystical knowledge, who was emboldened by her sense of intimacy with God to refer to him as her lover, and who inspired us for 500 years. Yet, whether or not she truly exclaimed this on the occasion of an unplanned dismount from her horse into a particualrly muddy puddle, I am sure that she has at least thought this!
For we all have thought at some point that either God doesn’t treat his friends too well by allowing - or inflicting! - suffering, or perhaps that he isn’t so friendly to us. Of course, lots of bad things do happen. However, even more often, nothing truly bad is happening to us, but better things are happening to seemingly undeserving people. It is at those times that it may be useful to remember St Teresa’s better known words, “Only God suffices”. It may also help to consider another angle on those particularly infuriating words from our parable: not “all that I have is yours”, but rather, “all that I am, is yours”. That is, “all my qualities of mercy, grace, love, patience, forebarance, and capacity to forgive, etc., are yours – so you may find it within you to accept your brother as someone who is just like you”. We cannot control how God dispences his grace; whom he admits to heaven or blesses here earth. We cannot even fully control ourselves, our feelings and actions. So what we can give to God as an “acceptable sacrifice” is the use of the word “unfair”. And, we can give up the misery into which we put ourselves, willingly, by being envious.
According to St Teresa, two things may help us in this endeavour. The first is humour, which is, perhaps, unexpected coming from her. But, she did say, “A sad nun is a bad nun … I am more afraid of one unhappy sister than a crowd of evil spirits … Let each of us humbly use this [humour] to cheer others.” And the other is trust:
“Let nothing trouble you, let nothing frighten you. All things are passing; God never changes. Patience obtains all things. He who possesses God lacks nothing: God alone suffices.”