How many of us here grew up thinking that religion was primarily about heaven and hell? Getting to one and avoiding the other? That world view is slightly older than Rome, so Jesus had to deal with it too.
I grew up in a family of what the press today refers to as ‘Evangelical Christians.’ You had to accept Jesus into your heart, confess your sins, say a prayer that Jesus was your savior, get baptized which was a full body dunk. We used to get these sermons that depicted the judgement of the afterlife and then they asked you ‘the question’. If you were to die tonight, do you know where you would spend your eternity?
I heard one of those sermons, like aged 7 or 8, and walked down the aisle by myself and asked Jesus to come into my life. Set aside the fact that we let children hear sermons like that in the deep South. I think today I’d call that spiritual malpractice, at aged 7, I already figured I could use some help.
I cursed a lot from the time of infancy onward, for starters. And, as I had to tactfully explain to my children when they were first recoiling at how bad my grandsons could be, “I spent a lot of time as a child in ‘time out’. I knew the principal’s well and they knew me by name. By 2nd grade, I already figured I could use some help.
And they send you to these new Christian classes where they teach you ‘the gospel’ of how we are all lost and need a savior, so we can go evangelize the rest of the world that is lost. I was terribly bored and not interested, so I raised my hand and asked the teacher. “I’ve already done all of this. What are we going to do for the rest of our lives?”
And that is how I got sent to the Pastor’s office in addition to the Principal’s office. Over fifty years later, looking back, I was right. If you had intellectual problems with the religion I just described, let me just say, you are not alone.
And the problem is not just that it is too much- all the description of the afterlife that sounds a lot more definite than we should be. The problem is that it is also, just not enough.
Our life is about a complex spiritual evolution as one phase of life morphs into the next and we become more deeply involved in love, justice, beauty, compassion. As we become more sophisticated in forgiveness and reconciliation, as we understand the nuance of our character and what it means to become a moral human being, as we zoom out and grasp the awe inspiring profundity of the wider universe around us and get a sense of our place in it. As we lean into becoming substantive souls that can share a deeper meaning with our people.
The real spiritual life is so much more than a ticket to heaven. It is suggested in the passage that Jesus teaches us about today. Spirituality is not primarily about the after-life. It is about our life here and now.
We call our passage, the parable of the Prodigal Son. It is a poor title, reflective of the simplistic approach to religion that I was taught as a child. That title suggests that this story is about sinner’s repenting of their sin and coming back to God.
But that is only part of the story. We have another son and he has his own story too. And then we have the Patient Father and the patient Father gives us God’s story- a story that transcends their stories.
Let’s start with one observation right off. Hell is not something out there in the afterlife. We create our own versions of Hell here in this life. The prodigal son, in our story, starts off in a solid family with plenty to develop an integrated life.
But he has his own ideas. He comes to his Father and asks for his inheritance in advance. He is already blessed by his Father, but that is not enough. He has to find out on his own. Every generation does.
We don’t know what the Father’s reaction to this “fresh” request. But the Father gives it to him. Extravagantly generous as the parental generation can be trying to help pave the way for the rising generation.
The Son goes to a far country, blows all of his money on lavish parties and a good time, runs out of money, has to go to work. Other bad times follow and he is reduced to menial labor, not just menial labor- remember this is a Jewish kid- but he is feeding pigs, so he is working for a foreigner. So his work is causing him moral compromise with his family spiritual tradition.
And he is miserable, so miserable, that he wakes up hungry enough that he just might eat the slop that they feed the pigs… He is living a Hell of his own creating in this case.
This version is told like an AA story, like an addict who has ‘hit bottom’. I’ve known a lot of addicts and I’ve heard hundreds of versions of people who made an absolute mess of their lives- alienated their family, their friends, their spouses leading to divorce. No money, no dignity left.
Of course, there are many, many other versions too. From the headlines this week, we have the sad specter of Harvey Weinstein, Hollywood mogul, New York socialite A lister, now a pariah, having to listen to his victim’s recount in exacting, painful detail just what a pig he really was. His children are listening. Not only is he a pariah, his children are subject to ridicule no doubt, screaming at him if they talk to him at all. It is a version of Hell that Dante could have described in the Inferno.
Jeffery Epstein… died alone in a cell.
Bernie Madoff… the fake investor, upper East Side socialite, defrauded the rich and beautiful of New York. Didn’t just lose his homes and his beautiful lifestyle. So much bigger than that. He ruined his wife’s life. He ruined his children’s life. One of them killed themselves in embarrassment and despair. He’s dying alone in a cell with a terminal disease, alienated from his family and friends. He is living a different version of hell.
And socially, we humans have created so many experiments that have caused each other such unimaginable suffering and hell. Communism, the great new society without God that created the experiment of the Gulag where we were going to rewire human motivation only to develop inhumanity on an epic scale. 14 million people subjected to that Hell, over a million that died without ever getting out. 25 million people starved in China under Mao’s ‘re-education camps.’
The Nazi death factories, the Cambodian labor camps under Pol Pot. So many civil wars like Syria, Rwanda, Libya- all in our lifetime. These social experiments that have created a living hell for others on an unimaginable scale. Apartheid, Jim Crow lynching. All versions of hell for those that suffered under them.
We don’t have to make up Hell. Humans collectively have already created it and lived it.
The Prodigal Son, like so many of us, tells himself a story that he is not worthy. He beats himself up like we do when no one is around and we are left to reflect our shortcomings. He says, “I’ll return to my Father and say ‘I’m not worthy to be your son’. I’ve screwed this up so bad.
He’s internalized the shame, sometimes that shame can be so great that you just decide to cut yourself off from people that you love. I’m not good enough. This is not going to work out. I just need to hide, start over in a new place, new people. I punted this chapter. I’m done.
That is the son’s story that he tells himself when no one is around. Probably never says it to anyone else but that is what he says to himself in idle moments in the early morning, driving by himself.
But the Prodigal son’s story is transcended by the story of the Father.
In our parable, God is depicted as an anxious parent that looks down the road each and every day waiting, hoping that this guilt filled child, this shame filled child will just come home.
And one day, in the far distance, he sees his son. He doesn’t wait for the child to get home. He doesn’t wait to hear the sad story. He doesn’t lecture the kid with moralism’s about investing, planning ahead, getting some direction in your life- all the lectures I got from my Dad and you probably got from yours.
This Father who is actively searching the horizon for any sign that the child might be near, jumps off the porch, runs down the road, hugs the boy, welcomes him home. And when they get to the porch the Dad puts a robe on him symbolizing his authority to lead. His Dad puts a ring on his finger that you used to sign contracts on behalf of the family. The Dad puts shoes on his feet, symbolizing that he’s a manager for the ranch rather than a hired hand.
This Father doesn’t ask for the money back. He is elated with compassionate love. The Father turns to the hired hands and orders a feast to invite the whole village to come over, eat, have a big party, and welcome the boy home.
God isn’t about judgment. God is compassionate love. God wants the best for us. We may not be able to live with ourselves because we have screwed this up so bad. We may be filled with regret or guilt. But not God. God is about joy, not guilt.
And one other note, this joy doesn’t come later. It is not in the afterlife. This joy is in this life. It is about reconciliation right here and now. It is about putting the spiritual family back together again. I don’t care what you have done. I don’t care how regretful you have become, how much guilt you have. You are still a child of God. God wants to bless you. God wants you to come home- not some time way off in the future, not in the afterlife. But now, here and now.
And then we have the other brother. He sees all of this party going on in the distance. He can smell the barbecue. He can hear the laughter.
And he’s not happy. He’s angry and indignant. He has his own story. “He says to his father “All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never even gave me a a baby goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But then this son of yours… (he can’t even say his name) who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home and you kill the fattened calf for him.”
So much bitterness in so few words. Sounds realistic… like he has been saving up this speech for years and now it comes out with venom.
Wow… He’s been slaving. That contradicts the few details we have been given about the father, who appears to be anything but a slave driver.
Second, he says that the Father has never given him so much as a goat. It’s meager, lean, lame. So he really thinks his Father is cheap.
Third, he thinks his Father has used two different standards. He thinks the father is unfair. He thinks he has been shorted, shafted. And he is furious about it.
That is the older brothers story, as the music is blaring in the midst of the party”. Kind of like those of us that follow all the rules and expect to be singled out for our obedience. A little resentful, a little entitled. You owe me. What about me? You aren’t taking care of me. I don’t feel the love. I don’t feel special.
I’m not getting… Such a family story and we humans are embedded creatures. This is our emotional dynamic.
But the Father doesn’t accept this son’s version of the story either. The Father transcends this son’s story with the Father’s story about the way the world works.
“The father isn’t rattled or provoked. He simply responds, “My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.”
One sentence, completely different story.
The son has not been a slave. He’s had it the whole time. There has been no need to work to prove himself; no need to obey orders to earn anything. He’s already accepted.
Second, the father hasn’t been cheap. Everything the father owns has always been the sons, including fatted calves. All the son had to do was receive.
Third, this is not about fairness. The father never set out to be fair.” Grace and generosity aren’t fair; they transcend fair in their very essence. They radiate positivity in a way that goes beyond mere fairness. “The younger brother doesn’t deserve a party- that is the whole point of the party. So in one sense, it is profoundly unfair.
God’s story, like the Father’s story, transcends our whining and our carping too. And the difference is, symbolically, the difference between hell and heaven.
We are all invited to the party. Some of us just won’t come in. We don’t need these people. We’d rather hold a grudge. We’d rather be alienated.
What is it that God wants in this story? What is it that the Father wants? He wants us to be reconciled with each other. He wants his kids to accept each other. He wants his kids to know that they are loved, accepted, part of one family.
Heaven on earth is when we become reconciled with each other. Heaven on earth is when we redeem what was lost, what was broken. Heaven is when we put things back together.
God is the positive force in the universe, not judging, but merciful. God doesn’t cut us off; God accepts all of us. God loves us and wants us to live as one huge family and get along. God wants us to be joyful for one another.
And if God is forgiving. If God goes beyond what is fair and waits and prays for us to come home and be reconciled, why can’t we pray for each other? Why can’t we invoke our positivity, our humanity, and our joy with each other?
One path leads to anger, bitterness, alienation. It is the way of death. This way, we make our lives hell.
The other path leads to acceptance, joy, and community. It is the way of life. This way, we make our lives heaven.
Our God is a bi-partisan God. Where we see only rivalry, God sees reconciliation. It is a perennial issue, just like our families.
Despite our very real differences, God reminds us we are all God’s children, we are all a spiritual extended family of families:
Men and women, despite our gender differences, all children of God.
Later today, we have a special presentation on Frederick Douglass, reminding us of our American history of white and black, but all children of God.
Straight and LGBTQ, very different and all children of God.
And just now, in our political life, Republican and Democrat, however different, all children of God.
God reminds us, like a good Father, a good Mother, we are all one family. God invites you to find your place at the table. God asks you to find it in your heart to come to God’s party with all your relatives.
Not just in the bye and bye, way out there in some future out yonder. Actually, we can open heaven on earth right here and now. As Moses said at the end of his life to the Israelites, kind of summing up everything he had tried to teach them, “This day, I put before you the way of life and the way of death. My brothers and sisters, choose life.” Amen.