Sunday, June 12, 2022

New Covenant Baptist, June 12, 2022

 Luke 15.11-32

Strange place, Florida.  Coming from the frozen north, we are unaccustomed to such unusual flora and fauna, that never disappears under a blanket of snow.  When I told my father that there are cranes that stand four feet tall, he refused to believe it.  Then I learned (after carelessly swimming in the ocean) that we live in the sharkbite capital of the world.  Then I further learned that every puddle, ditch, or drain might harbour an alligator!  Letting that sink in, I opened the menu at a rather lovely riverside pub and saw gator bites, clearly a case of eat them before they eat you.  Finally, I’ve noticed that lizards seem weirdly attracted to our new “Florida car,” maybe they find the colour white somehow soothing?  I’m already underway and then I see one on the hood of the car, clinging on for dear life!  First we make eye contact, and he gives me that pleading look that says “you gonna stop or what?  You still see me, right?  If you stop here, I’d get off, seriously.”  Then I stop making eye contact, and pretend the whole thing is a bad dream.  How many accidents are caused by these talkative lizards?  Forget gators and sharks, maybe the lizards are the most dangerous creatures in Florida?

How appropriate then, that our parable begins with another frightening creature in another dangerous place: the belly of the whale.  Yes, the lesson is the prodigal son, and no, there were no whales in the Sea of Galilee where Jesus loved to teach and preach.  But I’m fairly convinced that one story casts light on the other.  My question is how did Jesus come upon the parable of the prodigal son, and 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 the 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 hear 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 he 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 began to panic.  They cast lots to determine who was to blame, but they could simply have noted a rather sheepish looking prophet hiding away below.  You see, God was now angry at Jonah too, squandering his prophetic inheritance—and you could see it in the wind and the waves.  

(My mother loved to tell the story of my early days as a mariner, aged 2, and my sudden disappearance every time the wind or waves came up.  Seems I would go below and hide in the head, making me a member of the Jonah school of prophets.)

Obviously the lot fell to Jonah, but the crew did something unexpected: they resisted throwing this fugitive overboard.  Maybe they were following the international rules of yacht racing.  These days you can be disqualified for throwing someone overboard, the rule being that you need to finish the race with the same number of crew members you began with.  Why such a rule is needed is a matter of speculation, but perhaps it has something to do with the temperament of skippers.  So whether it was racing rules or just common decency, they continued to resist, and resist,  until they could resist 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 realise that the pigs are having a happier time—eating their tasty pig pods—Jonah comes to see the same thing, or rather feel the same thing, in the darkness, in the belly of the whale.  Now, it’s a well-known fact that prophets cause indigestion, so Jonah is regurgitated onto 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 the family dog.  Even before the invention of Instagram, household pets were wearing sackcloth, looking sad and adorable.

Now 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 wasn’t 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 tiny Spot 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 made 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, as 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, never 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 meant.  “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 just over 120,000 Ninevites (God is pretty precise about this number), and generally being profligate with 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, saying things like, “Forty days more, and DeLand may be destroyed.  And maybe Orange City for good measure!”  AND, prophets—people of faith—need to forgive, as God forgives.  So Jesus gave a thought to his audience, primarily his not-so-clever 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.  And it’s easy to do!  Within minutes of announcing that we were moving to Florida, someone said “hey, have you done the Florida man birthday challenge?”  I’m sure you’ve done this: you google the words “Florida man” and your birthday, usually giving you a newspaper headline.  Mine, appropriately enough, produces the headline “Florida Man Confesses to Cops, Says ‘Jesus Told Me To Drive My Ferrari Off a Pier.’” (I expect the hood was covered in lizards) Or Carmen’s entry, “Florida Man Attacked By Neighbourhood Squirrel Who Has Residents On High Alert.”  Obviously our dangerous wildlife theme persists, but I’m more concerned about our innate capacity to judge Florida man, googled on every day of the year.  

It’s a short street from righteous to self-righteous, surrounded as we are by the foolish, the deluded, and seemingly unrepentant.  It’s a hard pill to swallow, knowing that this profligate God we serve has a limitless desire to forgive.  And even as we ponder this hard pill to swallow, we enter a sort of funhouse mirror to become the older brother ourselves.  Remember, the moment you think you have nothing to confess you suddenly have something to confess.  And on it goes.

In the end, parables are like personality tests, the challenge being ‘find yourself in this story.’  Are we younger brothers, hoping against hope that there will be redemption in the end?  Are we older brothers, so certain in our position that we’re willing to challenge grace itself?  Are we Jonah 1.0, running from our call, willing to risk everything, even life itself?  Or are we Jonah 2.0, so caught up in being prophetic that he can’t see when he’s succeeded?  Scripture gives us the opportunity to try all these roles on, and see what fits.  And over all this, we meet the God who saves us, mostly from ourselves.

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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