Thursday, March 03, 2016

For the Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year C: the Return of the Prodigal

Rembrandt's version
of the return of the Prodigal Son
"This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them!"

The older I get, the more moved I am by this parable of Jesus', the one called by most "the Return of the Prodigal Son." This depth of reaction is due in no small part to having read as a younger man Henri Nouwen's meditation on the parable. He used the painting at the left as a mandala, breaking open the story and taking us into the depths of our own brokenness and God's abject desire to bring healing and restoration to our fallen selves.

His overarching counsel is to understand the profundity arising from the reality that in a parable, we are every character in the story. As well, God (the Other) plays all the other roles. So, as the story unfolds, the imperative is to enter into the narrative not as observer but as participant. With that invitation embraced and accepted, the moment in which we are transformed and made whole in a new and Godly way is set before us.

Jesus is criticized for sitting down to eat with people who are considered base. The common and the outcast are his companions during the intimate act of taking a meal. People at with their hands in Jesus' culture, and from common vessels. If you ate with someone, you were touching things that they had touched, You were mingling yourself with them. To be associated with people that were "less than clean" was a scandal to folks who worked hard at being above the compromises the unclean, unwashed and lesser were forced to make in order to survive in the world.

These were Jesus' chosen eating companions.

Those taking exception to his choices were the people folks who knew better, who considered themselves to be better than the great horde of the unwashed and unclean. The folks who mattered looked at his actions and condemned them as being in exceptionally bad taste.

Jesus then tells the story of the Prodigal.

I could take days to break open this parable. Instead, do yourself a favor and get Nouwen's book and dig deep into the good work he has laid down before us.

For this reflection, I will dial in on the thing I find rolling over and over in my mind as we approach Sunday and the proclamation of the lessons in association with this Gospel account. What I find rising up from the muck and mutterings of my personal ruminations is this: how radical and constant is God's agency on our behalf; and yet at the same time how profound a wonder it is that we are so very blessed with the freedom to embrace that agency or reject it. The only consequence is that we are bound to harvest the fruits of those choices when they ripen. Sometimes, they are sweet and refreshing as forgiveness and reconciliation, deliverance and grace shower down on us like manna from heaven (or as wonderful as the longed for fruit of the land, as at Gilgal). Sometimes they are as bitter and devoid of sustaining nutritive value as the pods that the prodigal son is forced to long for as he tends someone else's pig sty.

Always they are moments in which God is present to us. We are broken open as we ask for forgiveness. We are undone as we work through our resentments and anger. We are blessed to be able to offer in this life forgiveness to those who have wounded or rejected us. We are lifted up and made whole again as God's love overcomes all the junk, crap and detritus covering us, all the muck that adheres to us....and washes away all stains.

Jesus is at the very pinnacle of his teaching talents as he offers this parable. It is a 360-degree vision of what the Kingdom of God really looks like, feels like and is for us. The only challenge is being willing to soften our hearts just enough to let that renewal in to do its job on us.

The prodigal returns....and guess what? That prodigal is us.....

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