Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32; 2 Corinthians 5:1-15
When you think of repentance, what immediately comes to mind? Probably not politics and economics, our recent sermon topics. When you hear repentance, you probably think of someone surrendering his pride, and in total humility, admitting he is nothing but a sinner. Some preachers out there today, holding true to the Jonathan Edwards model, will still rail for hours at a time about what prideful sinners we are; and the fact that Jesus paid our penalty on the cross ought to make us feel just what miserable sinners we are.
If you’ve been following this Lenten sermon series, it should be clear by now that I want us to repent of all that. The roots of it run deep in Christianity, and so must our thoughtful renunciation of the railing against pride. Oh, pride is still an important problem. Lots of us, like me, have trouble keeping our ego in its proper place. But sometimes our problem is a lack of pride, or the lack of the right kind of pride. More on that later. Let us just note for now that a superficial reading of the famous parable of the prodigal son, as our reading from Luke is often called, might seem to lend credence to the attack on pride: the son had to become convinced of his own worthlessness, and once he had, he could confess to his father what a horrible sinner he was. But on a more careful reading, things are much more interesting than that. After all, the son had already been utterly humiliated. He ended up working for a pig farmer, which would have made him a disgrace in front of his fellow Jews. His pride had long since been crushed.
If anything, it was his excess humiliation that prevented him from returning sooner to his father, and from realizing how merciful his father would be. Our self-loathing can very easily distort our understanding of God. And the parable makes a clear point of showing us the fruitlessness with which the son prepared a “big repentance speech”: We hear him rehearse in his own mind, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me like one of your hired hands.” It is a speech brimming with pathos: this will be the son’s grand soliloquy; this speech is going to win him the Oscar.
Well, the speech is a flop; we see it go nowhere. When the father sees his son, he forgets all the dignity that would have been expected of a patriarch, and runs to embrace the son, kissing him. The son begins his tear-jerker speech, and the father says, in effect, “That’s nice, dear. Servants, get him his robe and ring, my son is back, and let’s celebrate!” How different the story would be if the father had been hurt and angry when the son returned, and finally after hearing the tear-filled repentance of his son, relented and welcomed him back. The emphasis on the story is decidedly not on the son’s repentance and tears; it is on the father’s preemptory mercy and joy—the same note is sounded in the other two parables in his chapter: the joy of the shepherd finding the lost sheep or the woman who finds the lost coin—the festive joy of God welcoming back the lost. God doesn’t need our groveling confessions, our carefully wrought “sincere” apologies for personal failings (something our public figures have become very adept at); God doesn’t need all that to lovingly embrace us as God’s children again. God doesn’t stew in petulant anger with us until we prove that we are sorry. And apparently, God doesn’t need a sacrifice to be merciful. The fatted calf is killed out of pure celebration in this story, not as some appeasing sacrifice. After all, if God’s mercy depended on our well-worked repentance and confession, then once again we would be earning our forgiveness, wouldn’t we? And everything would still revolve around our ego: “Look at me, look how contrite I am!”
Seen in this light, the son’s rehearsed speech of repentance isn’t proof of his humility; it is his last act of pathetic pride, which the father cheerfully pushes aside as he embraces the son. And so before we denounce pride and champion humility, we should consider that within the labyrinths of the human soul it is often very difficult to distinguish humility from pride. So, furthermore, we should not assume that pride is bad and humility, good. (Just a shout-out to philosophy fans: Christians can indeed learn something from a smart atheist like Nietzsche.) It is perfectly legitimate to take pride in God’s love of us; and to defend our own dignity. In fact, doing so often takes more courage and is more painful than being forgiving; which is we should consider defending our and others’ dignity as a command of God. God commands us to call out those who would try to take our dignity away from us.
But though we call it “The Prodigal Son,” this parable is not really driven by the outer journey and inner wrestlings of the son. We can reflect on what the story says about humility and pride, but the whole story is really about the father. It presents us with an unexpected face of what our Calvinist ancestors called “God’s sovereignty.” Now for some reason, when we hear, “God is sovereign, God is Lord,” we think of a cold and stern God sitting unmoved on the throne; but God is a sovereign Lord in God’s joyful loving; God loves without regard to our humiliation and contrition, or lack thereof. It seems clear to me that the father was sovereign in this way: he stood ready at a moment’s notice to welcome back the son, regardless of whether he came with an elaborate apology, or was still prideful, or slowly walked back sullen and silent, or was just hungry and seeking a meal. And even as the flawed parent that I am, I get that. The love of your own child is fiercely immovable.
This parable shows a God who is merciful and loving without condition. We say that a lot: God loves unconditionally. But remarkably, Christianity continues to get it wrong. Too many still understand the message about Christianity to be this: God is merciful to those who demonstrate proper contrition and repentance. If you show that you are sorry, and if you’ve hit “rock bottom,” and then if you properly confess your sins and receive absolution, or if you can show a genuine born again conversion experience and perhaps even speak in tongues to confirm your rebirth, then —God will be merciful. Now that was a quick caricature of some of the views of our Catholic, evangelical, and Pentecostal sisters and brothers. I’m sure we here make similar mistakes. In so many ways, we try to create conditions to God’s mercy and love. But the parable of Jesus goes out of its way to show that the preconditions required for the father’s love are only in our heads, in the imagination of the wayward son as he plans his big repentance speech. The son stumbles home to a sovereignly loving father.
There is good reason that Christians seem uncomfortable with this unconditional love and invariable try to erect barriers to God’s mercy. One source of confusion is whether we are expected to be unconditionally loving as God is. Do I have to welcome back my abusive partner time after time, whenever he shows up and says “sorry,”—or even not? Should I go running out to greet him or her? Let me be clear: certainly not. Should the church welcome back and reinstate the minister who molests children or parishioners, showing him unconditional mercy? Absolutely not. You are not God; you aren’t even Jesus. God’s love does inspire us to love likewise, but it also declares our infinite value and dignity, and condemns unsparingly violations by others of that dignity. Notice also that the son here sins only against the father, who stands in for God in the story. It is a very different thing if we sin against our neighbors.
But that isn’t the only reason Christians are uncomfortable with the unconditional love of this story. If God is just automatically merciful, so to speak, then God feels the same way toward non-Christians as toward Christians; the father loves both his sons the same. Well, then what good does going to church do for us? Why should we go to church at all, or strive to be good people? If God’s just sitting at home lovingly waiting for us? And how can the church compel people to attend church and be good, if nothing people do can change God’s sovereign and holy love for them?
Ah, those are very revealing questions! We want to know that by coming to church and striving to do good, we are going to accrue a benefit that others will lose out on. And so here we are again, like we talked about last week, thinking about our faith life like a competition, where we want to win something and we expect others to lose. And remember the appeal to self-interest we talked about two weeks ago? “What’s in it for me?” runs constantly through our mind. Our culture actively encourages this question; it drills it into our heads, all the way into our pews and our pulpits. And so we construct a wall around our ego: there’s a kind of bank vault in here that I want to fill, and the world is there to make me a series of offers to consider. God’s unconditional love threatens and undermines this cost-benefit seeking bank vault ego.
To bring this back to the theme for this sermon series, our calculating egos are not just our fault. There is so much in our world, and specifically our consumer-driven American culture, that encourages us to see every encounter as a self-interested, cost-benefit decision. But it is not our inevitable human nature to be constantly self-seeking; you cannot raise a child, for instance, if you are constantly doing a cost-benefit analysis. We are this way in part because of what Paul calls the Rulers and Authorities, the Thrones and Dominions. I don’t mean that there is some secret cabal out there conspiring together, but neither is the way we are a pure accident. I’m sure the whole story is complex, but think about it: we are much more predictable and easy to deal with, and to control, if we act like self-seeking individuals, as opposed to being driven by passionate and “irrational” solidarity with each other. But ironically we see trumpeting our self-seeking ego as an empowering token of our freedom: “I’m looking out for number one,” “It’s my way or the highway!” I tell you, petty boasts like this do not threaten the powers that be, the thrones and dominions, one bit. God’s unconditional love, on the other hand, makes them rather nervous.
Our ego, our innermost sense of who we are, seems like our most dear possession. It is uncomfortable to think of my deepest self-awareness as something that has been shaped by invisible powers and interests in an exploitative way. It’s so much more appealing to belt out, “I did it my way.” But think about that ego deep within. Do you really want it “my way?” Is that ego really the you that you want? Is it the you that God wants, that God created, that God took on so much grief to reclaim? Is your life finally all about you? Have you blindly accepted the world’s call to instate your ego as the tiny fiefdom of a lonely sovereign? Perhaps even, perhaps most of all, in your pious acts of worship and charitable deeds of service? (More on that next week.) Does it all finally come back to you?
What if you took a good look inside and could confidently and cheerfully assert, “I have died.” You can tell reading Paul’s letters, even if he seems faulty in some ways, that it definitely does not all come back to Paul’s ego. When in our passage he talks about “we,” Paul is speaking, sure enough, about himself. He had to; he often found himself having to defend his authority to his fledgling churches. Take a look at chapter 12 where he goes just about bonkers defending himself. But in this dense passage, Paul is not displaying classic self-abasing humble repentance; quite the opposite: “We are always confident.” He is ready to face God’s judgment seat, not because God is a softie; Paul says he knows “the fear of the Lord.” He’s going to stand by his ministry against all challenges, because Paul is quite confident that its authenticity is, in his words, “well known to God.”
That makes Paul sound an awful lot like our modern day braggarts who even welcome the label, “cocky.” But they are a world apart. What stands between our modern egotists and Paul is the cross. “For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died.” In Christ God took on a human ego so he could kill it. So Paul knows that his faith in Christ is such that his ego has utterly died; but that death has brought him more life than he ever had before. “He died for all so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.” And even from 2000 years away, we can see in Paul’s letters that no one, except perhaps Christ himself, ever gave himself to the church more than Paul did.
Paul knows that we are not up to his level of faith. “Knowing the fear of the Lord, we try to persuade others,” he says. He never calls on people to be self-sacrificing. He calls on the church to be a place where people can safely lose themselves in a circle of giving, where all give and all receive and there are no bank vaults egos to break the circle. He knows that God calls us freely into this circle of giving; we are not required to give up ourselves to gain entry. Christ has done that for us. No one has the right to demand our life from us, for it is God’s sovereign gift. But while self-sacrifice is not the price of admission into the Christian life, it may very well be the goal, indeed, the highest achievement that we may be called on to undergo. And if what you are sacrificing is a bloated, pumped up, but ultimately sad and lonely ego, then maybe you don’t have much to lose.