One of my all-time favorite cartoons is one by George Booth that appeared in The New Yorker several years ago. What you see when you first look at it is a preacher being chased from a church by an angry mob—men, women, children, even nice old ladies are pursuing the minister with obvious intent to do bodily harm. Then, when you look on the church sign board, you see what has made them so angry. The sign reads, “Today’s Sermon: Are We All Prostitutes?”
Today’s Gospel, the Prodigal Son [Luke 15. 1-2, 11-32] story, is kind of like that. It’s one of those Bible passages that can really “burn your biscuits” as Yosemite Sam used to say. When I have talked about this parable in a classroom setting, I’ve often said to seminary students that you haven’t really preached well on it unless you leave church with everybody angry at you. The whole point of this story seems manifestly unfair. In response to the complaint that he “welcomes sinners and eats with them," Jesus tells the now familiar story of a young man who squandered his inheritance, lived a licentious and wasteful life, and was then welcomed back home with open arms, including the festival dinner on the fatted calf. The older son is, understandably, enraged. “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” What reward is there for living life by the rules? As a well-intentioned, rule-obeying good guy, the older son seems entitled to his anger.
And the father doesn’t help things much with his answer: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” How can Jesus defend a cosmic system where God seems to take the rule-abiders for granted and pays special attention to the ne’er-do-wells? What kind of fairness, justice, is that? Because of this story’s primal nature, it’s not hard for each of us to identify with the older brother here, and from his point of view the father’s rejoicing at the younger son’s return seems like a raw deal. Of course, if you identify with the younger, prodigal, brother, it might look a bit different. How you see it depends on where you stand when you’re looking at it. As Reinhold Niebuhr once remarked, “We tend to want mercy for ourselves and justice for others.”
Lent is a time when we are asked to think about repentance—turning around, changing our direction, walking away from hurtful behavior—and forgiveness—God’s reconciliation with us, our reconciliation with others. We talk about all this so abstractly, though, that often it’s hard to get a clear sense of it in your mind. Jesus’s parables help us do that. And so, sometimes, do events from contemporary life.
One early morning last week I was driving back home from the YMCA when I heard a story on NPR’s Morning Edition about the escalating violence in the region around the city of Jos in Nigeria. [“Religious Violence Heats Up In Nigeria”, Morning Edition, Tuesday, March 9, 2010] Early last Sunday morning, a group of Muslims slaughtered almost 500 Christian villagers in reprisal for a similar attack last January in which Christians killed a like number of Muslims. Because the area around Jos is good for farming, there has been an influx of Muslim settlers who now compete with the indigenous Christians for farmland and economic opportunity. In both massacres, people were murdered with machine guns and machetes, and their properties burned to the ground. This is a cycle of violence that appears to have no end in sight.
When I first heard this story all I took in at first was that a group of Muslims had slaughtered a group of Christians. In an instant, all my internalized cultural stereotypes about "Jihadism” and “Islamic Fundamentalism” flared up in my consciousness. It was only as I continued to listen that I realized that the Christians had started the whole thing with their original slaughter of the Muslim newcomers. And so we see how conflicts escalate and refuse to die. You can transplant this story to the Holy Land, Afghanistan, or the gang wars in our cities. Our natural human tendency is to want to even the score.
And it is that tendency which you and I share with Nigerian Christians, Nigerian Muslims, and with everyone else on the planet that we see embodied in the person of the older brother in Jesus’s story of the Prodigal Son. We want to insist on our rights. We want the universe to be rational, to be an economy organized on our “eye for an eye” values. But what Jesus lives and preaches is a different kind of economy, one not of eye for an eye values or of rights but of an almost foolish, crazy divine generosity. God cares so much about each one of us that God is willing to tilt the scales radically in our favor. We are all, all of us, the beneficiaries of divine generosity and blessing which is almost absurdly unfair. We have no problem accepting these gifts for ourselves. But we do blanch when they are extended to others.
What the older brother (and you and I in our older brother mode) conveniently forgets is that what looks like an affirmative action program for his younger sibling is just a version of the same affirmative action program he has benefited from all along. What the Christian Nigerians and the Muslim Nigerians conveniently forget is that each of them is farming and working in a region whose bounty is ascribable to God and not themselves. What you and I conveniently forget is that when people make claims on us for forgiveness we have already been forgiven for much ourselves. When Jesus talks about radical forgiveness he isn’t talking theoretically or abstractly. He’s talking as one who will be betrayed, tried, mocked, scourged, and crucified and who still will be able to say, at the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” As Desmond Tutu proclaimed, there is no future without forgiveness. You cannot move forward in life when stuck in a cycle of reprisal. And we know that because, when we’re honest with ourselves, we know the extent we have been forgiven for what we have done. We naturally want mercy for ourselves and justice for others. But if we turned that equation around, we all know we would be finished before we started.
I was once in an extremely tense conversation where I was trying to help resolve an interpersonal dispute between two colleagues. One of them believed that she had been offended and disrespected by the other, and though the other had apologized, he persisted in the offending behavior. In the middle of this back and forth rehearsal of grudges, the second turned to the first and said, “You know, I believe you have made a shrine of your wound.” It was such a startling remark that it opened the logjam of our conversation and allowed us to move forward to a new way of being with each other. I have never forgotten it.
“You have made a shrine of your wound.” I can’t speak for you, but I know that there are many times in my life where I have made not only a shrine of my wounds. I’ve built a temple for them and regularly worshipped at them and checked to be sure that my grievances are maintained in top working order. In today’s Gospel, the older brother has made a shrine of his wound. In Nigeria, both the Christians and the Muslims have made shrines of their wounds. And the resulting death and destruction there are only a more extreme version of the poison that we spread when we worship at the shrine of our wounds as we work night and day to keep our grudges alive.
The story of the Prodigal Son will always make us all angry because it confronts our sense of divine justice and fairness at the place where each of us is most vulnerable. You can’t be a grown-up human without having been wounded by parents, spouses, colleagues, children, lovers, friends, even life itself. By the same token, you can’t have gotten very far in life without having spread a fair amount of damage yourself. Getting along in life is not about evening the score. It is about spreading the blessing. We can never even the score in the first place because, as Emerson said, “The benefit overran the merit the first day, and has overrun the merit ever since.” [“Experience”] We are all recipients of so much divine generosity, that it is extreme stinginess on our part when we demand the scales to balance in our dealings with others. God has already forgiven you more than you will ever be asked to pardon in others. Coming to terms with that imbalance is what Lent (indeed the Christian life) is all about.
Here is how Paul puts it in today’s Epistle: “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” [2 Corinthians 5.17] In the Prodigal Son story, the younger brother opened himself to being that new creation, and when he did all was forgiven him. God continually makes that same offer to you. Since you are in Christ, you are a new creation. Everything old has passed away. Everything has become new. The refreshing news this Fourth Sunday in Lent is that God has forgiven you everything. All those sins and hurts and things you are most ashamed of, they are all gone and forgotten by God, and they should be by you. Now that you have been forgiven everything, you are free to extend forgiveness yourself, even to that person who has hurt you so deeply. Because you are a new creation, you may now tear down the shrine of your wound. “The benefit overran the merit the first day, and has overrun the merit ever since.” Give thanks that God has set you free with God’s liberating gift of forgiveness. Now go set someone else free by extending just a sliver of the forgiveness you have received to them so you can both end the cycle of reprisal and rejoice that what was lost has now been found. Amen.