27 March – On being a child of God

View or print as a PDF

Lent 4

Psalm 32
Luke 15:11b-32

In a sentence:
As, properly, a child cannot earn but already has her parents’ unconditional love, so we already have the love of God.

Today’s gospel text is so well known to nearly everyone here that we might wonder why we need to hear again what is so thoroughly familiar to us.

Just as familiar as the story itself is the standard – and undoubtedly correct – reading: that the prodigal child is unworthy of reception back into his father’s house, yet is received. And that the older brother lacks the grace of their father. From this is drawn the standard lesson – don’t be the prodigal child but, if you have been, it does not matter how far you have strayed; God awaits your return. And once you have returned, don’t become the grumpy and self-righteous older brother.

Those among us today who are prodigals and old grumpies, listen if you have ears. And God have mercy on your souls – which, this very parable suggests, God surely will. Here endeth the standard – and important lesson.

Knowing all that, let’s dig around a bit by changing the parable, introducing a daughter into the family. And let it be that, having received her portion from her father, the conscientious daughter heads out into the world to do the best she can with what she has inherited. She convenes planning meetings, develops a mission statement and a set of guiding values, constructs forward-estimate budgets across innumerable spreadsheets, checks with all the right consultants, and makes sure the communication about what she is doing is regular and clear. She tests preliminary proposals, takes further advice, keeps in touch with her Presbytery and Synod, and after all that, everything just falls apart. It doesn’t work. There’s nothing to be done but to liquidate the remaining assets and see what is left.

Knowing how her prodigal and grumpy brothers relate to their father, what now is her relationship to him? What will her judge-and-jury older brother have to say about her failure to launch? “Well, yes, Dad, she can come home. But no party. Let’s not draw attention to it all, but just quietly put her back to work. Of course, it doesn’t really matter what he thinks because we already know, from his take on his young brother, that he’s probably going to be wrong here, too.

But what do we think? Should she consider herself to have a better standing before her father than her prodigal brother thought he had? Should she expect to return home as child, whereas he could only imagine returning as servant? Is doing your best and failing better than just not caring and failing?

Well, yes. And no. It depends on what we’re asking after. Morally – and morals matter – trying for the best is better than simply not caring. Yet, in the end, the tried-hard-and-did-well older brother is reminded that this was not the basis of his inheritance – this was not his true “success”. All the father had to give was already his son’s, and so also for the young prodigal. Reading the parable allegorically now, trying hard does not earn us the love of God. God does not reward us for being “sincere”.

To bring this home now to the work of this congregation: what we are doing in our hard work towards a new future is not about earning divine favour. Perhaps this is obvious, but “earn” is not just about reward. What we are seeking is not “more” God, not a rosier outlook than we might have had here. Neither are we seeking to carry God with us into some new future – the God we have known here, in the way we have known God here. We are not “doing our best” at this point for fear that – if we don’t do our best – we will lose God.

Mark the Evangelist – the conscientious daughter – already has her father, who loves her as much as he does her younger lazy-prodigal and older grumpy-self-righteous brothers.

As she leaves behind what did not work, she looks ahead to what might yet work. But she keeps in mind that a fresh start is no guarantee of success. And she keeps in mind that she will not be lost if it doesn’t succeed. This is because the “work” which really matters has already been done: the loving father has claimed his children. Because “success” begins and ends with God’s claim on us, we have already succeeded if we believe this.

Soon a future will be proposed, although it’s still not clear what it will be. This future will seem to some of us to be prodigally novel – a squandering of our inheritance. It will seem to others to be grumpily conservative – a failure to rise to the moment and make the most of our generous inheritance. It will seem to yet others to be conscientiously boring – the worst of both worlds.

But whichever it actually is will not matter if, whatever our hopes and fears, we can hear what the love of this father calls for from us: joy.

Rejoice, says the love at the heart of this story, for what finds itself lost will be found, and what is dead will be made alive. And this applies not only now out of what we did yesterday, but also the day after our uncertain tomorrow. This is the mystery at the heart of Jesus’ parable: that, whoever, whatever, we are, this God spans our success and our failure, our strengths and weaknesses, our richness and our poverty.

And so, as we do our best or less-than-best – whether as uncertain individual souls from day to day or as an uncertain church from age to age – it is with a growing confidence.

We grow more confident that not our efforts to find the source of life, but God’s efforts to pull us to that source, will be revealed to be the mystery of who we are, the mystery of what we do, the mystery of where we are going.

With this God, what happens for us next is mystery, not problem.

And in this, we have freedom and peace.