Fathers and Sons ( Lent IV)

Image: Prodigal Son, Wayne Pascall


This week we have for the Gospel portion Luke’s parable of the Prodigal Son. Earlier in the week I was breathing a sigh of relief remembering that I had a sermon dating from 2013 on the Prodigal Son. But when I looked back I realized that I was hearing the text very differently from the way I heard it in 2013 when my focus had been more on the narcissism of the younger son. My starting point in 2020 was to reflect on the experience of parenting. Who among us does not know the experience of a wayward child? If that is too strong an expression at least we all know the pain and concerns felt when our children begin to chart courses in life very different from the ones we had anticipated for them – making decisions we would have wished they made differently.

Like all the parables of Jesus that only Luke records, this parable has always been a rich seedbed for profound mischaracterization. In the interests of full disclosure, I’m indebted to the Lutheran pastor and theologian Paul Neuchterlein – for his rich insights into this text.

We might begin with what to call this parable? Traditionally referred to as the Parable of The Prodigal Son, it’s as much about the elder son as the younger and is particularly rich in its portrayal of the father. Hence some refer to it as the Parable of the Loving Father, but it could equally be the Parable of the Envious Son.

Imagine, Jesus leaving the Synagogue after a lengthly discussion with the Pharisees following the Shabbat service. As he comes out into the street, he’s mobbed by a crowd who may have been loitering with intent to waylay the teacher outside the synagogue doors. In describing them as tax collectors and sinners, Luke is drawing our attention to the fact that these are the ritually unclean, those excluded from 1st-century Jewish worship. Unable to listen to Jesus debate with the Pharisees – they are eager to hear him, nevertheless. The Pharisees, following Jesus out of the synagogue begin to grumble behind him about the shameful way Jesus is comporting himself with the hoi poloi. Clearly aware of their grumbling Jesus begins to tell everyone a parable.

Parables were stories – the details of which were drawn from the ordinary everyday lives of the storyteller’s audience. They build a tension seemingly towards a familiar conclusion – only to at the last minute dramatically veer off into a completely unanticipated ending. This is the case in this parable. The father’s behavior towards is profligate – the meaning of prodigal – younger son is countercultural and not the conclusion anyone expected.

We can’t know with any certainty what ending the crowd outside the synagogue of Pharisees and sinners expected from this story. But we do know how subsequent interpretations have sought to reduce it to a rather simplistic morality tale about the wages of sin with strong patriarchal themes – namely, sex with prostitutes, disobedience to father and duty. The younger son in following his hedonistic desires comes -predictably – to a sticky end. He is forced to humiliate himself by going back home with his tail between his legs to beg his father’s forgiveness. You can hear the tut tutting down 2000 years of interpretation – be this a lesson for all you rebellious sons.

This rather traditional interpretation designed to support the patriarchal world view has largely remained silent on the elder son’s reactions to his brother’s return. It’s also conflicted on father’s response. The father – having daily pined for his son has kept a continual watch in the hope of his return. In this sense he seems to behave more like a mother than a father – an insight Neuchterlein suggests in one of his sermons on this text.

This parable offends against the patriarchal tradition which emphasizes the virtues of obedience and duty to strict fatherly rule and the honoring the first born over the younger. Thus it does not know what to do with Jesus’ portrayal of elder son – who is outwardly compliant but inwardly deeply contemptuous of his father’s response to his wayward brother’s return. Being dutiful and hard working on the family estate seems to have bred only envious resentment in him. In confronting his father, he refers to his brother, not as my brother but as this son of yours – aptly articulating his anger towards both.

The patriarchal reading of this story is likewise conflicted on how to picture the father – whose indulgent generosity flies in the face of conventional inheritance custom. This is bad enough, but his willingness to take his son back – holding him seemingly unaccountable for his profligate ways smacks of more than a little moral weakness on his part.

Reading this story through the filter of patriarchal relations is only one of the two main ways this parable has been misconstrued.  The other has been to read it through the filter of antisemitism. The father is God. The elder son is the Jews. The younger son the Christians. We can all see where this reading is headed.

If Jesus were standing in this pulpit, orienting himself to our 21st century mindset he might ask us:  so who do you identify with in this story? This is not simply an individual question it also has wider social-relations implication -as in – which identity do we inhabit within the social structures of 21st century American life? As middle-class white folk –dutiful, obedient, hardworking, and schooled in the virtues of delayed gratification, I imagine few of us identify with the headstrong younger son and his deeply countercultural choices – unless we do so secretly – which tells a story in itself.

It’s likely we believe that the prodigal’s decisions have been – to say the least – misguided, but how do we feel about the father’s non-judgmental and seemingly uncritical response to his son’s return? How do we account for his disinterest in holding him to account? He not only fails to call his son to account he throwing caution and financial prudence to the winds – giving completely the wrong signal he rewards him with a lavish party?

Of course, this parable is a story about God, whom Jesus portrays as an noncritical and non-judgmental father – recklessly generous; indiscriminate between worthy and unworthy recipients of his love – always keeping a watchful eye out for his wayward children’s return – and treating such return as the occasion for a celebration of new life.

Yet, I want to draw our attention to the parable’s conclusion. What do you conclude from hearing this story? Whatever you do conclude you will be wrong for this parable has no conclusion – a skillful teaching ploy on Jesus’ part.

The parable operates at two levels. In the setting of its telling – the street outside the synagogue – the Pharisees can be depicted as the sincerely religious; men of real integrity and longing to know and love God more. Yet, their ability to be sincere in their spiritual quest is a product of their privileged social and economic status. In debate with Jesus, they are intrigued but remain cautious for they feel that they have much to lose by the wrong decision. They want to know what the right path is before they commit to following it. Contrastingly, it’s those whose occupation or lack of one excludes them from the promise who have nothing to lose and who seem open to, and excited by, the invitation implicit in this parable.

In the context of our receiving this parable we need to sit with its open-endedness – its lack of firm conclusion.

We don’t know if the elder son did eventually swallow his hurt pride and join the feast – the parable leaves this both unclear and also a possibility for the father’s invitation remains open ended.

Although the parable does not have a clear concluding moral message, it nevertheless has a rub that chafes. The rub is – grace is never free. Oh, it’s offered freely by God and there is no pre qualification required to receive its invitation. The offer is free, the acceptance is costly. As elder son – what would it cost us to relinquish our resentment and go in to the feast? As the younger son – what has it cost us to return home, humiliated?

The younger son knows that the grace of the father’s undying love is costly. Like him, the crowds outside the synagogue know that grace is costly. As the socially marginalized and religiously excluded they’ve already paid its price.

Like the father in this parable, which among us does not know the cost of unconditional, nonjudgmental love? Which among us has not suffered the pain of watching our children chart different life trajectories that inevitably lead to painful and unsuccessful outcomes? We know that like grace, love is not free, it exacts its own cost.

The Death of Inevitability (Lent III)

There is a difference between memory – the impressions we are given and history – the connections that we work to make if we wish.

Timothy Snyder

Thinking of Snyder’s distinction between history as given impressions -what we might call collective memory fragments – and history as connections made (actions taken in the present) is helpful to us as we seek to unravel the complexities between collective memory and Biblical text – that is, between a story’s projected setting and the context of the written text that purports to remember back in time.  

originating among disparate and unrelated communities – later woven together into a written narrative to provide a coherent story of origins in support a later issue of national identity.

The O.T. lesson for Lent 3 2022 drops us into the scene of Moses minding his own shepherding business, leading his father-in-law’s flocks through a landscape – interestingly described as a place beyond the wilderness. It’s here, that Moses has his first encounter with God revealed through the phenomenon of a burning bush.

Moses’ curiosity is aroused, and he takes a detour from familiar route so that he can get a better view of this amazing sight he’s spotted in his peripheral vision. Moses, hearing  the sound of his name is immediately stopped in his tracks as God calls to him to come no further for first, he must remove his sandals, for he is about to tread on holy ground. This is the narrator’s way of alerting us to the fact that something really big is about to happen.

Reading between the lines we can note that Moses does not seem to know this God – requiring God to self-identify as the God of his fathers: Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph. Perhaps we can see here the skillful pen of 5th century writers reconnecting a break in the fragments of oral memory between Joseph and Moses to bridge a period during which because of their enslavement the Hebrews seem to have forgotten their God.

God asks Moses to reintroduce God to the Hebrews by carrying a message of hope to them. Moses tries to avoid God’s request. He anxiously asks God  – why will they believe me even if I take them your message?

God does something very interesting at this point. He gives Moses a new name to take to use – instructing him to tell the Hebrews that –I am who I am– has sent me to you. The God of their fathers resurfaces into Hebrew consciousness – not as a God of distant memories revived but  henceforth to be known as YHWHYahweh, a God of future hope and promise.

We often miss the distinction between the wilderness and a place beyond the wilderness. The wilderness is the place of lost dreams and broken hopes. The place beyond the wilderness is a new place of hope. This is where the work of history is done, not in the wilderness of memory, but beyond the wilderness where new connections are made – ones we wish for a different future.

Beyond the wilderness is a metaphor for a place that is no-longer-familiar to us – in which experience is no longer imprisoned within our familiar expectations. As we listen carefully, we can’t avoid the question: are we willing to enter a new landscape, one beyond the familiar, to encounter a God – no longer defined by fading memory – but a God of vibrant present-time hope and future possibility?

2019, the last time I preached on Exodus 3:1-15. 2019 was a very different world. It was a world in which we were still captive to what Timothy Snyder refers to as the belief in inevitability – which is the political propaganda promise of endless prosperity and well being.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union we entered upon a set of assumptions that liberal democracy would inevitably spread prosperity well being. Through the engine of global capitalism the values of individualism and prosperity would advance through economic mutual self-interest.

Following upon the disruption of the pandemic, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has up ended this phase of history.

In a matter of weeks our long-cherished belief in the inevitability of democracy’s onward march fueled by economic progress has collapsed.

We are shocked to awaken to find that Vladimir Putin does not share our belief in inevitability. We now suspect him of having lost his marbles simply because it’s finally dawned on us that he actually sees the world quite differently from us. How is that even possible, we ask? He must be irrational, we respond.

Putting suggestions about his mental state to one side, the situation we waken to presents us with the uncomfortable question: was our belief in inevitability mistaken – blinding us to the reality of the world as it is rather than as we wanted to see it?

The answer to the question seems to be a resounding yes. We thought Putin shared his own version of our concepts of the importance of geopolitical advantage and the economic security as the basis for a stable society. It’s a shock to find he doesn’t care about either of these things. His invasion is not about pushing back against NATO no matter what he says. He doesn’t care about the economic pain of sanctions on ordinary Russians. Ordinary economic realities are distorted when your own net wealth is in excess of one hundred billion dollars, and you are surrounded by a small sycophantic kleptocracy who owe their survival to you.

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is fueled by his mystical belief in an enduring Russian imperium. To this end he seems to believe that Russia cannot be Russia without the colonization of Ukraine. Like all mystical delusions – his belief is impervious to inconvenient facts. On this subject, Timothy Snyder’s analysis of Putin’s motivating beliefs in his conversation with Ezra Klein is well worth listening to.

All of this is by way of reflecting upon how differently we hear the story of the call of Moses in 2022 from how we heard it in 2019. The blinkers of inevitability falling from our eyes invites us away from spiritually individualistic interpretations of scripture in favor of Biblical commentary as a spiritual reflection on the nature of society -as in – what kind of society are we committed to building for the future?

The I am name God reveals to Moses pulsates with ambiguity. Ambiguity of meaning is a wonderful characteristic of Hebrew – one completely lost to us in translation. The Hebrew I am who I am, suggests two ambiguous readings shimmering and oscillating between I am who I have been, and I am who I will be.  Freed from inherited memories passing a history we are invited to forge connections that open us to who God might now become for us. More importantly, who might we become if we allow ourselves to be shaped by a God beckoning us into future hope and possibility?

God declares his new name to Moses as a promise of hope for a beleaguered people – hope for a future different from their past.

There is a difference between memory – the impressions we are given and history – the connections that we work to make if we wish.

Timothy Snyder

The resistance of the Ukrainian people in the face of the Russian onslaught is not a defense of their impressions from past memory. They seem remarkably unburdened by impressions of the past. They are forging history through connections they are choosing to make in the present – to take them into a new future. In this sense Ukraine has a future in a way that Russia does not. Would that such energy and imagination revitalize our own jaded sense of national identity – all to vulnerable to manipulation by impressions from our past that distract us from choosing the connections necessary that will build hope in the future.

The call of Moses in 2022 is heard as an encounter with God beyond the wilderness of the recently known. In this new place like Moses, we hear God’s new name. No longer a God of inevitability -as in- I am who I have always been, but as I am who I am now becoming, a God of promised hope.

Who might we become if we allow ourselves to be shaped by a God beckoning us into future possibility? To God’s new name he attaches an invitation: will you come with me?

Who might we become if we allow ourselves to be shaped by a God beckoning us into future possibility? To God’s new name he attaches an invitation: will you come with me?

Destiny’s Choice (Lent II)

Photo: Volodymyr Zelensky “I need ammunition not a ride”

In Courage and Vulnerability,  David Lose in 2016, reflecting on Luke 13:31-35, the gospel portion to be read this Sunday, highlighted two different kinds of courage.

The first kind is the unthinking spur of the moment reaction in the face of threat. This kind of courage says something about a person’s underlying character, their personal traits shaped by beliefs, training, and patterns of behavior developed over a lifetime.

The second kind of courage is also an expression of character formed by  

a lifetime of facing fears and shouldering burdens.

For me, there’s a significant element distinguishing the two kinds of courage, however. The second kind of courage involves an exercise of choice. In moments of spontaneous acts of courage – the first kind of courage – choice is absent, because choice is a matter of deliberation. When facing an immediate threat there is not time for deliberation.

The presence of choice means the second kind of courage is always an avoidable response. We know we could just walk away. After all who doesn’t want a quiet life. The choice is ours.

I know I can be courageous if I have no time to think about whether to get involved or not. But if given the opportunity for deliberation, I’m more than likely to shy away from the courageous gesture if the choice to do so is available to me. This kind of caution is a quality I least admire in myself – the reluctance to get involved when the option of walking away presents an alternative for action.

I suspect most of us are like this in that the second kind of courage is an exception to the rule. Therefore, we so admire it in others when we see it – and we know it when we see it. We see it in Alexei Navalny – someone taking a very costly stand and refusing to feel afraid – a quality for which Navalny earns our undying admiration.

In the last two weeks, the hitherto unlikely figure of Volodymyr Zelensky has become our number one poster boy for the second kind of courage. Like Navalny, Zelensky refuses to be cowered. When offered the chance to avoid leading Ukraine’s courageous defiance in the face of the other Vlad’s (Volodymyr and Vladimir are the Ukrainian and Russian equivalents of the same name) –vindictive blood lust, he responded to the US offer of evacuation with: The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride … I am staying in the government quarters together with others. The enemy has designated me as target number one, and my family as target number two.

He has subsequently safely evacuated his family, but Kyiv’s administrative center is where he remains – marshalling all his communication skills and savvy media knowhow to continue to inspire his nation and the rest of the free world with his brand of Churchillian courage.

Speaking of Churchillian, I can’t let the opportunity go by for a comparison between Zelensky and Boris J. The standing joke about Boris j is that he thinks he’s Churchill, but he’s really Steve Coogan (a well-known British comedian). Despite his aspirations to statesmanlike grandeur, a comparison with Zelensky exposes Boris J as a mere Churchillian wannabe. The contrast between the character of the two men is an instruction in the second kind of courage.

Zelensky’s sense of moral courage is displayed in his strong sense of purpose. He’s a man who knows he’s in the defining moment of his life. He grasps his sense of destiny. In this he emulates the Jesus kind of courage.

After coming down from the mount of Transfiguration in Chapter 9, Luke takes us on Jesus’ head spinning whirlwind tour as he moves rapidly throughout Galilee healing in some places, exorcising in others, and everywhere confronting his critics. In 13:31-35, Luke reports an exchange between Jesus and a group of Pharisees. They attempt to warn Jesus he’d better high tail it out of town to avoid Herod’s threats to silence him.

Luke doesn’t hint at the motive behind the Pharisees warning. It could be genuine concern – after all while Jesus is often in confrontation with Pharisee groups, he’s also continuing to accept dinner invitations from them – indicating the Jesus-Pharisee relationship is not black and white. Perhaps the warning is self-serving? After all, Herod’s probably not the only one who wants this agitator of the crowds gone from the local scene. We just don’t know – Luke provides no hint as to motive.

Like Zelensky, Jesus is no stranger to threats on his life. After having survived several attempts to kill him – the most notorious being his fellow Nazarethites attempt to throw him off a cliff – Jesus is not going to allow the machinations of Herod to alter his timeline. Describing Herod with a stunning image of that fox, Jesus asks the Pharisees to tell Herod that he’s casting out demons and performing cures today, tomorrow, and on the third day – and not before then will his work finish. Today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because prophets don’t die in Galilee, they are killed in Jerusalem. Jesus already appears to have some sense of a timeline for events – probably dictated by the Passover dates – he’s not going to allow anyone, let alone that fox Herod to derail him from his destined confrontation with sacred violence.

Comparison between Jesus’ mission and Ukrainian resistance personified in Volodymyr Zelensky invites not only a reflection on the nature of courage but also on the nature of violence.

Violence takes several different forms depending on the situation and context. There is random as well as orchestrated violence – that is, ordinary violence whether spontaneous or personal. Then there is sacred violence – that is, communal – collective violence as an instinctive response in defense of a perceived higher cause – be it religious, ethnic, racial, or gender motivated in nature.

Jesus’ path to the cross is the journey to his courageous confrontation with sacred violence. Consistent with the second kind of courage for Jesus this confrontation with sacred violence was a deliberate choice. A choice it’s not hard to imagine he had numerous opportunities to avoid making or once made to still walk away from. In Luke 13 we see him refusing to walk away from his sense of destiny.

Sacred violence is as old as humanity. It’s so instinctively programmed in us that we cannot imagine any alternative to its cycles of endless repetition. Our propensity to remake God in our own image leads us to believe it’s our job to protect God with our sacred violence. Caught in its repetitive grip we are blind to the ironic paradox that it’s our sacred violence that killed Jesus – and each time continues to strike at the heart of God.

It’s counter intuitive for us to believe in a God whose protection of us is to die to our enemy’s violence – even when the ultimate promise is resurrection. The last thing we need is a God encapsulated by Jesus’ image of the mother hen protecting her chicks by offering her breast to the fox – giving her chicks time to scatter.

To break the instinctive grip of sacred violence upon the human psyche Jesus knew that he – as God’s agent – must first demonstrate that it could be done. O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it. It’s only by going to the very source of sacred violence – that God, in Jesus, finally and for all time broke its power over us.

Zelensky is inspiring a Ukrainian resistance to Putin’s sacred violence being unleashed upon his nation. Kyiv is the birthplace of the Russian people. It has a higher claim to define the Russian soul than Moscow can muster.

This explains the ferocity of Putin’s unleashing of sacred violence. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is nothing short of a struggle over the essential characteristics of the Russian soul.

One of the hallmarks of sacred violence is its brutality – a brutality more shocking to us because this time it’s unleashed on people recognizably like-us. Ukraine is not the first time Putin has unleashed his sacred violence as the tool of his imperial dreams, but Ukrainians are more like us that his previous victims – Muslim Chechens and Syrians. We identify with Ukrainian suffering because their suffering could – if Putin has his way -so easily , and may inevitably, become ours.

Volodymyr Zelensky is not Jesus – and here any comparison breaks down. But in thinking about the nature of his courageous leadership, his refusal to be turned aside from his moral sense of destiny, he is enacting the image Jesus offers of the mother hen and her chicks. While gathering them under the protection of her wings she distracts the predator by exposing the vulnerability of her breast – which in the larger sense is the very image of God’s actions on the cross.

We all hope and pray that the courage of the Ukrainian people to confront the sacred violence being visited upon them will result in their victory – yet the odds remain stacked against them.  But the more important truth here is that Zelensky’s embodiment of Ukrainian fierce courage – a courage that also courts a terrible vulnerability – has already won a significant moral victory for humanity whatever the military outcome.

On the cross, God broke the power of sacred violence’s grip on the human heart. Jesus demonstrated that the repetition in the cycle of sacred violence is no longer inevitable – being now a matter of human choice. Something to bear in mind as we journey with him on his way to Jerusalem.

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