March 09, 2010
Luke 15: 1-3, 11-32
To see as God sees.
I have had the delight this Lent to have always before me the picture of Charles McCollough’s sculpture, “The Return of the Prodigal.” (pictured*)
It has led me to contemplate not only the joy of heaven over one sinner who repents but also the suffering of God over the lost, the dead, the unrepentant. Perhaps it is parents who best glimpse this pain as we ache, grieve and pray for our children, at times tempted to shout out, as in Psalm 32, “Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding, whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle, else it will not stay near you.” As loving parent to the whole world and all its messy brokenness, oh, how God must suffer. Frederick Buechner in Wishful Thinking reflects that “…Christ’s love sees us with terrible clarity and sees us whole…The worst sentence Love can pass is that we behold the suffering which Love endured for our sake, and that is also our acquittal. The justice and mercy of the judge are ultimately one.”
To see as God sees is the calling of the church that we might too join heaven in celebrating what God celebrates.
In Lent we focus on the journey of Jesus to Jerusalem to reconcile heaven and earth. Reconcile comes from the Latin ‘reconcilare’ meaning “to bring together again” or, literally, “again make friendly”. During the transfiguration, back in chapter 9 in the gospel of Luke, we hear the voice of God reconfirming Jesus’ anointed status and commanding that we “listen to him!” After coming down from the mountain, Jesus sets his face towards Jerusalem. By chapter 15, we find him determinedly on his way, teaching and healing. Large crowds are traveling with him. His teachings include calls to humility and compassion. And chapter 15 opens with the statement, “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.” All of them! To listen to him. See God’s arms beginning to open wide in welcome, the throngs of angels readying their cheers. And then the keepers of correctness pop the balloon.
The Pharisees and scribes, the trained theologians, are grumbling again about the company Jesus keeps. In response, Jesus rattles off three parables in quick succession, the longest one about the man and his two sons being the last told, before turning again to address his disciples. If the first two parables have been surprising, the last no doubt elicits open shock. The behavior of the youngest son violates so much correctness that the knickers of the Pharisees and scribes “listening” must be in knots. Asking for his inheritance before his father has died, selling the property given to him, traveling to a foreign country, wasting his ill gotten gain on women and wine. Perhaps they even laugh upon hearing that when the youngest son’s fortunes take a turn for the worse, he ends up alone with the pigs, unclean animals that further deservedly cement the young son’s very own uncleanness. Ahhh, justice.
And then the turn. Having gone as low as a young Jew might, he “comes to himself”. In humility and repentance and in order to save his life, he decides to return home, confess and appeal to his father’s compassion for a job as a hired hand.
And then the welcome. Even before the repentance of the son is known, while he is still far off, there is the undeserved, over the top, arms wide welcome of the father. For it is not only the youngest son who has suffered.
And it is this that the eldest son does not see. The eldest son sees what he has always done for his father and he sees what he does not have. He sees the sin of his brother and he sees the rightness of his position on the matter. He sees from where his vested interests are. He does not see the suffering of his father and therefore does not understand his joy, even though the reason for it is repeated to him three times: ‘because he has got him back safe and sound’, ‘because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’ One wonders if the Pharisees and scribes, so like the elder brother, are able to see now that Jesus has told them three parables.
To see as God sees requires our willingness to enter into God’s suffering for the world so loved. It is not that hard to find. As Gordon Harland in Christian Faith and Society insightfully states, “there is enough pain and sorrow in any city block to crack the heart of the world.” Harder perhaps is the willingness to be present enough with one another that we are able to enter into one another’s suffering. To be present to God is how we are able to enter into God’s suffering. It is in part what the Sabbath is for, time to be present to God and to one another, to let go of the vested interests that blind us to what God sees.
But it is potentially overwhelming, exhausting, painful work. This is why, I think, God in God’s wisdom, calls us into community with one another. The church as the Body of Christ is better able to bear the weight of this cross than what we might be capable of as individuals, for the ministry of reconciliation has been given to the church (2 Cor. 5:18). But we have also been given the message of reconciliation (5:19) – of Jesus’ reconciliation of heaven and earth. The hardest and most impossible reconciliation has already been accomplished and we are a new creation in Christ. Hear the angels’ cheers? Now that’s worth celebrating!
(*Pictured: "The Return of the Prodigal", terra cotta by Charles McCollough, 2006; “The Salt of the Earth: A Christian Seasons Calendar 2009/2010, www.sculpturebymccollough.com)