2004—Fourth Sunday of Lent—C
Whenever I proclaim today's gospel, I am tempted to just sit down and be quiet. The story is so obvious, so clear, so touching in so many different ways, that it seems to need little commentary—f rom me or from anyone else for that matter.
Now usually I follow the Oscar Wilde school of asceticism: the only sure way to deal with a temptation is to yield to it. But as is even more usual with me, I cannot resist saying at least a word or two.
I recently had the opportunity to view again the film version of Peter Shaffer's play Equus. Perhaps some of you remember it. It is an extraordinarily powerful play about, among other things, how gods are born and die. It is the story of a young man who worships his god with a ferocious passion; who, as the play tells us at one point, "hangs on the sweaty neck of his god and howls in the misty moonlight." But his god, oddly enough, is incarnated in horses, hence the name Equus, the Latin word for horse.
The young man's psychiatrist is almost overwhelmed by the challenge to make this boy "normal" again, to return him to the world of "normal" gods, and "normal passions." The psychiatrist becomes terrified, because he knows what the "normal" gods really look like. He describes the normal at one point "as the dead stare in a million adults, the average made lethal." Gods become pets.
This young boy adores, worships, and follows a real god, a god of passion, and mystery, and, yes, even a god of danger. But "normal" people know that even that god can be killed by simply domesticating him. (There's a wonderful, brief scene where the psychiatrist is talking to the young boy about one of his favorite places in Greece near Mount Olympus. And he says it's near where "the old gods used to live, before they died." The boy says: "Gods don't die." And the psychiatrist, played by a mellow Richard Burton in the film, replies: "Oh yes they do." ) And that is exactly what happens in the rest of the play. God is domesticated and made "normal." God is "understood."
I think of the play today because I think this is precisely the same risk we face. We can hear today's parable and rush to domesticate it, interpret it, theologize about it, and think we understand it. Or we can just be scared by it. The choice is ours.
You and I also relate to a god whom we say is passion, and mystery, and who should be danger. I think of the now well-worn description of Jesus as "the dangerous memory." Maybe he can be dangerous—but he, too, can run the risk of becoming domesticated, and he too can die—just like the old gods.
Would you like to know why this Jesus can be so dangerous? Just listen to him, listen to him today, listen to his story of two brothers and a father. And just realize he probably really meant the story to be taken quite seriously, quite literally. Did I just use the past tense? Maybe he really still means it to be taken literally. Now that's dangerous and it's going to pose a problem for some of us, isn't it? Who do you usually think you are—or are supposed to be—in the parable?
There's no problem identifying with one or another of the sons, is there? I know I have always found it particularly easy to empathize with the older son out in the fields. "Jezz, all I'm asking is what's fair. What's coming to me? Why am I being treated so unfairly? Why me? What did I ever do to you"? "No, I won't go into the party. So There!" It's really quite painfully reasonable, no? If I had a nickel for every time I've felt that way....
There might be a few in this congregation who can probably identify more easily with the younger son—squandering his energies on loose...whatever.
But what do we do with the Father? How many of us can take the Father figure seriously? How many really feel he's treating his sons "fairly"? For many in our culture today, our sense of justice, and equal opportunity for all, precludes the possibility of hearing the real point of the story.
There are lots of distractions in the story, distractions that blind many of us to the truly extraordinary, and very dangerous point of it all. Our very personal feelings become one of the primary distractions. One of my favorite theologians, Charles Shultz illustrates the problem well in his commentary on today's gospel (yes, he actually has one). After Lucy and Charlie have read the parable together, the final frame has Snoopy musing in some anger and indignation: "What did the fatted calf ever do to anyone?"
Beware of the personal distractions that mute the reality. This is a frightening and dangerous story. What if we really let it stand as the truth about our God? That our God exists to reconcile everyone and everything: all creation—even you and me. St. Paul tells us: "there is a new creation: everything old has already passed away: see, everything has become new." God has not only already reconciled everything; "God has given us that same ministry of reconciliation." God entrusts you and me with that same ministry: to accept, and reconcile, and make whole again everything in our lives together: male-female, gay-straight, sick or healthy, rich or poor, black, white, red, or yellow. All!
What if God really means it? You want to talk passion, and freedom, and dangerous gods? What really happens if you live the bumper sticker and really "let God be God"? The God that will not easily be domesticated. The God that will not easily die. What scary thing might that look like? Listen.
"All the tax collectors and public sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying: "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them." So he tells them a parable....Peace!