Coming to ourselves
March 6, Fourth Sunday in Lent:
Happy are those whose transgressions are forgiven. Be glad and rejoice…The disgrace of the past has been rolled away…the fatted calf has been killed…the feast is prepared and ready. Let’s celebrate!
But wait a minute? Aren’t we still in Lent? Isn’t Lent supposed to be all fasting and giving up stuff?
Well, we’re more than halfway through Lent…and today is traditionally known as Laetare (or “be joyful”) Sunday. In some places rose colored hangings and vestments are used today. It’s a reminder that Lent is not about rejection. It’s about transformation. It’s less about giving up things, and more about returning to, and focusing on, and embracing the things that truly matter.
Lent is about repenting—or metanoia in the Greek—which really means something like “a change of mind,” or a “change of life.” It’s a turning…or a returning…returning to the core…to the source…returning to ourselves and to our true loving parent…who is always eager to run and embrace us. It’s also about reconciling; finding ways of moving forward together even when (maybe especially when) things don’t go the way we think they should.
The word “repent” doesn’t appear in this gospel story. It does in the other “lost” parables that precede this story: the lost sheep, the lost coin. “There is joy in heaven over one sinner who repents,” Luke says. But not here. So we might have to ask: is this really a story about repentance? Or is it rather a story of recognition.
Jesus never says the younger son repents, what he says at the moment of crisis is—“he came to himself.”
Isn’t that an interesting phrase? “But when he came to himself.” Have you ever had an experience of “coming to yourself?” One of those moments when you suddenly see yourself in a much brighter light? On a much larger canvas?
It happens to me a lot. Particularly when I’m getting stressed around my kids and I hear my mother or father’s voice come out of my mouth. You know all those things I SWORE I would never say if I ever had kids.
A teacher in seminary told a story about teaching reflective listening techniques. That’s when you try to mirror emotionally what someone else is saying. It’s a skill that takes quite a bit of practice. During one particularly tense session, the student was getting gradually more and more visibly frustrated, and the teacher kept gently saying to them, “you sound angry.” About the third time they said it the student slammed their hand down on the table and growled, “I’m NOT angry!”
And then they came to themselves…and realized that they were indeed angry.
Coming to ourselves can be quite painful…AND it can also be pretty funny. Laughter is very much a part of “coming to ourselves,”and returning to God. I believe laughter is absolutely essential to God’s dream of a world reconciled.
Part of the reasons gargoyles were placed on ancient cathedrals was to mock our pretensions at grandeur…to cackle at our seemingly endless ability to see only our own awesomeness…they’re a reminder not to take ourselves too seriously. (David Dark, Everyday Apocalypse, The Sacred Revealed in Radiohead, The Simpsons, and Other Pop Culture Icons. 2002)
The Pharisees and scribes who are grumbling…The elder brother out in the field…The younger brother before he “comes to himself”…None of them are laughing. They’re too far down in that reptilian part of their brains…down where we get into survival mode and the world starts looking black and white, right and wrong, my way or the highway…
That’s maybe what Paul is talking about when talks about “regarding things from a human point of view.” Not seeing the world as it is…but through our own preconceived notions…our fears, our anxieties…”I’ve really messed up and no one will help me.” “Dad loves my brother more than me.” “Why is he eating with sinners?” We very rarely see the world as it really is…let alone as God sees it…and very rarely do we see ourselves as we really are, let alone as God sees us.
Lent is a time to come to ourselves, to really try and see ourselves as we are, and as God sees us. We need reminders that all of our limitations are not deficits to defend against, but are instead blessings that draw us into needed relationships with each other…We have been given the ministry of reconciliation not because we’re so awesome…but because we’re so broken…so very, very vulnerable.
This parable has a way of doing that. Jesus is a trickster. A master nudging us out of our reptilian brains and helping us see who we really are by telling these stories that never turn out the way that you expect. “A man had two sons…” “Ok. We know where this is going.” [This reading of the parable owes much to the work of Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus
The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi, 2015]
Ishmael & Isaac…Esau & Jacob…Joseph & his brothers…We know that throughout the bible it’s the younger brother who always ends up being the favored one. Isaac, Jacob, Joseph.
So we all know where this is going…The younger brother is going to suffer some setbacks, but eventually he’s going to triumph…Except he doesn’t. The younger brother doesn’t succeed at all…by his own wits, or by trickery, or any other means. In fact, he fails…spectacularly. He gets taken back in and there’s this feast, but in the end it appears it’s the elder brother who inherits everything, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”
Again, the way the story is supposed to go…the two brothers are supposed to reconcile. Isaac and Ishmael do, so do Jacob and Esau…But these two?
And what about the father? He gives up one son, and then upon welcoming him back he realizes that he might have actually lost both his sons. One by being far to indulgent, and one by being too stingy. One to dissolute living, one to seething resentment.
This is one of those parables that leaves us with more questions than answers. Did the younger brother truly have a change of heart? Or is he just making the best of a bad situation? Will the elder brother come into the feast? Or is he still out in the field bitter and resentful?
It invites us to consider: What would you do, if you were one of the brothers? If you were the father? Would you have acted differently? Why? Could you have acted differently? How?
Because this is us. This parable…This is how we behave. All. The. Time. This is how we act when seeing from a human point of view. The Scribes and the Pharisees are grumbling and Jesus says: let me tell you a story, and then he holds up a mirror…This is you. This is us. We make bad decisions, we have fleeting moments of clarity, we hold onto resentment, we struggle with reconciliation. We can at the same time, take ourselves far too seriously, and not nearly seriously enough.
Jesus holds up a mirror in this parable, so that we can come to ourselves. But it’s also a window—a glimpse of how God sees us. Seeing ourselves in this way—if we can really see ourselves this way—I think engenders compassion in us. Because in the end, it’s not so much about them, as it is about us.
I disagree with a lot of the choices all the characters make. I like to think I would do it SO much better! But really? I’m just as flawed and broken and human as all of them. And I want them to reconcile. I want things to work out for them. And so the questions about repentance and reconciliation (do they ever repent, will they ever reconcile?) actually shifts and becomes: will I repent—make a change? will I keep grumbling and stand a part, or will I take a risk, and step up to participate in the work—the work God? The work of reconciliation.
The whole Christian journey is about transformation…about coming to ourselves…learning how to see no longer from a human point of view…but seeing ourselves as we really are…as broken yet lovable; as lacking yet enough; as finite yet effulgent…learning to see our selves and our world as God sees it, blessed, and beautiful, and yes, a little comic.
Lent is about returning to the source…Returning to the one who stands ready to embrace and welcome us no matter what we have done and no matter how ridiculous we may feel.
It’s is about remembering that, in the words of Richard Rohr, “God doesn’t love us because we’re so good. God loves us because God is good.”
And THAT is some thing to celebrate.