Sunday, March 31, 2019

Fourth Sunday of Lent

Luke 15
22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
31 “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”

Our parable begins in the belly of the whale.

(Just now you’re thinking that perhaps I dropped my Bible, maybe some pages came loose, and maybe I put them back in the wrong place.) It didn’t happen—not this time at least. Hear me out as I try to understand how Jesus came upon the parable of the prodigal son, because I’m certain it began in the belly of a whale.

Jonah lists his occupation as prophet, but you would hardly know it from the beginning of the story. He receives a call from God—a command really—to go to Nineveh and prophesy against them. God has taken note of their great wickedness, and prophet’s job is to give them one last chance.

Jonah gets this call, and even as he’s hanging up the phone, he’s already slipping on his coat and running out the door. But it’s not toward Nineveh, the great city overcome by great wickedness—it’s in the exact opposite direction. Our Jonah’s on his way to Jaffa, to catch a ship, with a one-way ticket to Tarshish, which I’m told is lovely this time of year.

But I don’t think Jonah was really interested in Tarshish, he was only interested in getting away, and so must have breathed a deep sigh of relief once on board, sailing west, away from trouble—until trouble found him. A great storm came up, maybe the perfect storm, and the crew begin to panic. They cast lots to determine who was to blame, but they could simply have noted a rather sheepish looking prophet hiding away. You see, God was now angry at Jonah too, squandering his prophetic inheritance, and you could see it in the wind and the waves.

Obviously the lot fell to Jonah, but the crew did something unexpected: they resisted throwing this fugitive overboard. Even today, you can be disqualified for throwing someone overboard, evidence that suggests they were racing on a yacht. So whether it was racing rules or just common decency, they continued to resist until they could continue no more. And over Jonah went.

But the story doesn’t end there, because God still had plans for Jonah. And like that day you realize that the pigs are having a happier time—eating their pig pods—Jonah come to see the same thing, or rather feel the same thing, in the darkness, in the belly of the whale. It’s a well-known fact that prophets cause indigestion, so Jonah is regurgitated on to a beach, to mend his ways, and finally go to Nineveh.

Now Nineveh is big—three days across—and Jonah spent those three days doing what prophets do, saying “Forty days more, and Nineveh will be destroyed.” Obviously he did something right, because everyone in Nineveh put on sackcloth, and sat in ashes, from the king in his regal sackcloth and this throne of ashes, to the ordinary folk, and the children, and even family dog.

God is overjoyed. So overjoyed that God forgave the people of Nineveh, trading their sackcloth robes for some finer robes, celebrating with them the repentance they so thoroughly embraced.

But Jonah was not celebrating. He stood at a distance and refused to celebrate the good fortune of Nineveh. “This!” he prayed to God, this is why I ran to the coast! I knew that you’re a compassionate God, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love...a God who relents from sending calamity. When this wicked city shows a little remorse, and puts the beagle in sackcloth, you throw a forgiveness party instead of smoting them as you ought!”

And then the Lord said to Jonah: “Is it right for you to be angry? We should celebrate with all these people, foolish as they are, because they were lost, and now they are found!”

Do you see that Jesus did there? How did Jonah and the Whale become a parable, a window on the Kingdom? Jesus did it the only way that makes sense: turn Jonah into two people, two brothers, and set the story on dry land, which is always safer. And so he did:

Early Jonah, maritime Jonah, is profligate with his prophetic gift, and the younger brother is profligate (note that word) with half his inheritance. Jonah discovers the error of his ways in the belly of a whale, and the younger brother makes this same discovery in a pigpen, I’m not sure which would smell worse. Then we meet later Jonah, born-again prophetic Jonah, who judges Nineveh harshly and hopes they get what they deserve. He can’t stomach all this forgiveness and understanding, all this slow anger and steadfast love. He came for the smoting, and all he got was a lousy sackcloth t-shirt.

Funny word, profligate. I used it once to describe my own son, and he pretended that he didn’t know what it means. “You know, profligate, like one more broken cell phone, smashed to bits or soaked in water.” Why does everyone under 30 have a cracked screen, or a cell phone drying out in a bag of rice? But I digress.

Profligate means “recklessly extravagant or wasteful in the use of resources.” And who might that be? Running across the field to greet his lost son, fitting him with the finest robe, killing the fatted calf, forgiving 120,000 Ninevites (God is very precise about this number), and generally being profligate with all that grace. Forgiveness would seem to be a finite resource, at least it is in human terms, but God is profligate—recklessly extravagant with forgiveness and steadfast love.

So why does Jesus remake the story, making one prophet into two brothers? Well, maybe the answer is vocational, found in the role of the prophet, the role Jesus knew well. Take Isaiah for example. In chapter 39 he’s saying to the old king, “look around at everything you have, because one day it will all be carried off to Babylon,” and just a few verses later it’s all “Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people...He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms, and carries them close to his heart.”

In other words, prophets—people of faith—need to tell forth, “Forty days more, and Weston-Mount Dennis may be destroyed,” AND forgive, as God forgives. But Jesus gave a thought to his audience, primarily his disciples, and knew that a simple telling was better. One prophet becomes two brothers, dividing one conflicted person into two stereotypical siblings, with a forgiving father, profligate with his love.

Of course, Jesus had another motive, beyond adapting this story for landlubbers: Jesus wanted to highlight what happens to the righteous when they cross over into self-righteousness. You don’t need to have an older brother to know the older brother because churches are filled with them—except this church, of course. In fact, we all have a little older brother in us, imaging that our younger siblings-in-the-faith have it easier than we did, and generally resenting that fact that everyone is equal in God’s eyes, lifelong members and the people here for the first time today.

May you know this profligate God, reckless in mercy and steadfast in love. And may you be profligate in your love for others, Amen.


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