Tuesday, March 16, 2010

C: Lent IV

Luke 15:11-32, Joshua 5:9-12, II Corinthians 5:17-21

If there’s one piece of scripture that most Americans—even unchurched Americans—can cite chapter and verse on, it’s John 3:16. They might not know what it says, but they can cite chapter and verse, because, for a while there, it was almost impossible to attend a public sporting event, or watch one on television, without seeing someone holding a poster board in the air with “John 3:16” written on it. Those who hold up the sign, of course, are hoping that someone who sees it will get curious and find a bible and look it up. (It seems to me that if someone knows how to find John 3:16 in a bible, that person probably already knows what it says, but be that as it may.) It’s generally agreed that John 3:16 is perhaps the purest distillation of the Christian gospel—the good news—to be found anywhere in scripture: “God loved the world so much that he gave his only-begotten son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but have everlasting life.” It would be difficult to get any clearer or more succinct than that. It establishes the fundamental Christian conviction that God loves the human race that he created.

That’s a simple statement but it’s a complex reality. There are two vital characteristics of God’s love as the church has discerned it that are essential to keep in mind here. First, God’s love is not based on feeling, but on will. If we think back on all the people we have loved—those we have fallen or grown “in love” with, and those we have fallen or grown out of love with—we’ll be duly thankful that God’s love is not grounded in the fickle whims of emotion. Second, God’s love is not a debt. He doesn’t owe us love, or anything else, for that matter.

The jealous older brother in this parable of the prodigal son made the mistake of understanding love —both his father’s love for him and his for his father—as a debt, an obligation, something morally due. God, however, chooses to love us, freely and without reservation.

As I said, this is a simple statement, but a complex reality. It’s difficult for us to accept and understand, because we have very little in our concrete experience of life that reveals and models for us this kind of love. The great majority of our experience of love, love that we give and love that we receive, is in some way conditional, predicated ultimately on the object of love fulfilling some expectation. This is true of the love that others have for us. Even the love of a mother for her newborn infant, which is perhaps the purest form of human love that there is, is wrapped up tightly, even if sub-consciously, with the expectation of that child growing to maturity and gratefully returning the love of his or her mother. But this quality of conditionality, of expectation, is also true of the love we have for ourselves. We don’t value ourselves. We don’t like ourselves. Our self-love is conditioned, conditioned on meeting a list of expectations, the precise contents of which varies from person to person, but which all have one thing in common, and that is that they’re impossible to fulfill! Jesus told us the second-greatest commandment, after loving God, is to love our neighbors as ourselves. The assumption is that our self-love provides the model and the wellspring for our love of our neighbors. If this is true, then our neighbors are in a world of hurt!

So the bulk of our experience of love—others’ love for us and our love for ourselves—is of conditional love. It’s not a very long leap, then, to make the same assumption about God’s love. It is altogether easy for us to fall into the notion that God’s love requires our meeting some minimum standard of goodness or worthiness before it takes effect. We might think that if we can just get rid of a particular bad habit—smoking, gossiping, sniping, swearing, you name it—then we’ll be fit for God’s love. Or we may think that if we can mend a particular broken relationship, or be healed of a painful memory, or own up to a major sin that we’ve never really dealt with, then we’ll be in a position to accept God’s love. Or, we may think that if we can just make ourselves start coming to church more regularly, or hear a voice from heaven, or just start feeling in some way more “religious”, then God will really want to love us.

Of course, all these conditions that we put on God’s love are silly, because they don’t exist—they certainly don’t come from God! But they’re more than silly, they’re dangerous. They’re dangerous because each of us, in our heart of hearts, knows that we’ll never be able to meet those conditions. The way things are currently headed, we’re not going to kick that bad habit or fix that relationship or confess that sin or start feeling more religious. The whole thing becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Every teacher knows that if you think a child is stupid, and tell him he’s stupid, and treat him as though you expect him to be stupid, his academic performance is going to be below par, no matter what his I.Q. actually is. So if we tell ourselves we’re not worthy of God’s love, and act as though we’re not worthy of God’s love by depriving ourselves of his grace available in the sacraments, in the word, and in the fellowship of the church, guess what??!! That’s right—we’re going to effectively cut ourselves off from God’s love. The transmitter will still be broadcasting the signal on 50,000-watt clear channel power, but we’ll have sabotaged our receivers. We’ll have succumbed to the deadliest of the deadly sins, the sin of despair, the sin of hopelessness, the sin of putting conditions on God’s love that God himself doesn’t put on it.

This parable, the one we call the parable of the prodigal son, is a parable of God’s unconditional love. It’s a parable of God’s love that is present for us and with us and to us and at us even while we are yet in our sins. St John tells us that “we love him”—how does it finish?—“because he first loved us.” St Paul tells us that God “commends his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

While we were yet sinners.

The father in the story loved his younger son, the son who thoughtlessly demanded his share of the estate before his father was even on his deathbed, and then squandered his inheritance, as the King James version puts it so quaintly, in “riotous living”. The story focuses on the father’s love for that son at the moment of his penitent return. But it is essential to understand that the father also loved that son before he left home; why else would he have agreed to prematurely divide his estate? And the father also loved that son while he was gone; why else would he have been looking for the son’s return? The father was overjoyed at his son’s return, but he wasn’t surprised. In fact, it was the prodigal son’s experience and knowledge of his father’s love that enabled him to come to his senses. Even after behaving as offensively as he had, the young man trusted his father’s love enough to return home and say, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am not worthy to be called your son—treat me as one of your hired servants.” The son’s repentance enabled him to enjoy the benefits of his father’s love, but the father’s love was not dependent on the son’s repentance. The young man was accepted unconditionally, not on probation. Most of us would think it entirely appropriate if the father had said, “Son, you have really offended me! You can have a room in the attic, but you’re going to be on probation around here until you’ve demonstrated that I can trust you again.” But the father didn’t do that. He said, “Bring this boy a robe and a ring and a pair of shoes —he’s being restored to all the rights and privileges of being my son. Kill the fatted calf; we’re going to have a party, for this my son who was lost is now found, and this my son who was dead is alive again!”

As we know, there’s another son in the story, one who had served his father faithfully while his brother had been living riotously, and now he was in a jealous rage at the gracious reception his penitent brother had received. Over a lifetime of hearing this story, I’ve generally felt pretty sympathetic toward this older son. But the father comes out to meet him in the field—notice how the father went out to meet both sons, taking the initiative in love—the father goes out to meet the older son in the field and says, in effect, “You have been a faithful son to me, one that I am very proud of. I am grateful for all you’ve done for me, but you have not earned my love! I love you not for what you’ve done, but just because I love you!”

“We love him because he first loved us.”

Our sins cannot keep God from loving us, and our righteousness cannot make him love us. God loves us just because he loves us! Just as the prodigal son’s trust in his father’s love enabled him to come to his senses in the pigpen and return home, our trust in our Father’s love for us enables us to come to our senses and turn to him in repentance and participate in the “new creation” and the “ministry of reconciliation” that Paul talks about in Second Corinthians. God’s love precedes us, accompanies us, waits for us, and follows us, just as it did the people of Israel in their journey toward the promised land, and on that day when they finally crossed the Jordan River into their inheritance. Today, as we enter the home stretch of our Lenten pilgrimage, and begin to catch a glimpse of our promised land, we lift up our hearts to our Heavenly Father in joy and thanksgiving for his love that is absolutely unconditional, love that is just because it is. Praise God!


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