“I Once Was Lost”: Rethinking Jesus’ Most Beloved Parable

Alexander Sokurov, “Lc. 15:11-32” (Prodigal Son installation, 2019). Sculptures by Vladimir Brodarsky & Katya Pilnikova.

 Life is a dialectic of dwelling and wayfaring, in the world yet not of it.

––– Erazim Kohák

I once was lost, but now I’m found.

––– John Newton

 

Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son is the Bible’s preeminent tale of forgiveness and reconciliation. The welcoming father’s embrace of his foolish and errant son is a vividly concise summary of the gospel message: We can never be so lost that we cannot be found. We can never be so wrong that we cannot be loved.

Rembrandt’s celebrated painting, The Return of the Prodigal Son, would be one of his final works. He was bankrupt, his style no longer in vogue. His wife and three of their children were long dead, and he would have to sell his wife’s grave to pay his debts. His only surviving son Titus, age 27, died of the plague even as the parable’s “lost son” was taking form on canvas. As Rembrandt struggled with his own sadness and despair, he created the most indelible image of mercy in the history of art.

Rembrandt van Rijn, “The Return of the Prodigal Son” (c. 1167-1669).

Father and son emerge from a world of shadows, for compassion is the light of the world which no darkness can comprehend. The arch formed by the father’s welcoming arms is echoed by the arched doorway in the background, showing love to be the true way home. And unlike most other artistic depictions of this scene, there is no happy glance between the reunited pair. The prodigal’s repentant posture delays the moment when their eyes will meet.

Kierkegaard wrote at length about the “infinite qualitative abyss” between God and humanity, a condition due not only to the uncrossable difference between finite and infinite, but also to the profound estrangement from the holy wrought by human sin. Given the magnitude of the gulf between ourselves and the divine, how could we ever be in relation with One who is so totally other? “The danger,” said Kierkegaard, “is that God becomes so dreadfully and irreconcilably Other to the self that one is swallowed up by the horror of this infinite qualitative abyss.” [1]

The modern solution to the gulf between human and divine has been to ignore (or forget entirely) the Holy Other and concentrate on the human situation in solely human terms, permanently severing the problem of earthly existence from the problem of God. How well that works is a matter of some debate, but for the faithful, such a strategy omits far too much of value. Exiling God from the world is not a solution for our own condition of exile.

The Prodigal Son under the melancholy gaze of Rembrandt’s “Portrait of an Old Woman” (1654) in Sokurov’s installation.

We all long to go home, to find the place where we are loved and known and welcomed, the place where all wanderings cease, and we can finally know what it means to dwell. But with the longing comes doubt. Is there such a place? Can we ever get there? And how will the journey change us?

For the unbeliever, human life concludes with annihilation. After our last breath––nothing. But the future of the believer may also be described as a kind of annihilation. As we draw near the absolute center of all that is, the egocentric self can no longer maintain its pretentious fictions. The really Real exposes our own unreality. The gaze of God is fatal to our illusions.

When Moses asked to see God’s face, God told him that “no human may look upon Me and live” (Exodus 33:20). This crucial Hebrew text reflects an ancient fear of direct contact with the divine, whose infinite voltage could fry the circuits of finite beings. But the biblical God posed an additional, even greater threat: the penetrating gaze which sees us for what we are.

Day of wrath! . . .
What a great tremor there will be,
when the Judge is to come,
who will examine all things strictly  . . .
I groan, as if accused;
my face blushes because of my fault . . . [2]

Who among us is ready to have every story told, every failure examined, every blemish known? Therapeutic honesty is hard and painful work. Kierkegaard wrote in his Journal that “to see yourself is to die, to die to all illusions and all hypocrisy––it takes great courage to look at yourself.” And, he added, this “can only take place in the mirror of the Word.” [3]

The Christian goals of illumination and divine union must be preceded by confession and purgation. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (I John 1:8). Even the saints are not exempt; the best of them are brutally honest about their own incompleteness. St. John of the Cross, speaking from personal experience, said that the journey of faith “does not consist in consolations, delights, and spiritual feelings, but in the living death of the cross, sensory and spiritual, exterior and interior.” [4]

This annihilation of self––“the living death of the cross”––is not morbid self-hatred (fixating on my sin is just another form of ego), but the abandonment of everything false or misshapen as the necessary prelude to profound transformation. The death of self becomes the beginning of Self.

I abandoned and forgot myself,
laying my face on my Beloved;
all things ceased;
I went out from myself,
leaving my cares
forgotten among the lilies. [5]

In Rembrandt’s painting, the Prodigal Son presses his face against his father’s comforting body. He is still in the confessional stage, kneeling with downcast eyes, not yet daring to stand face-to-face with the one he has hurt so deeply. But consciousness of his fault is overcome by grace––the leap of faith which accepts the “impossible possibility” of being forgiven. Only by knowing ourselves as sinners needing mercy can we become aware of forgiveness. The eyes which were cast down by shame will soon be raised up to see the welcoming father face-to-face. “By surrendering its despair before God, the self becomes open to forgiveness: the gift from the divine which is the impossible possibility of coming to know oneself as one is known by God.” [6]

The Kierkegaardian surrender of existential despair in order to receive the gift of mercy applies perfectly to Rembrandt’s painting:

“Justice looks judgingly at a person, and the sinner cannot endure its gaze; but love, when it looks at him––yes, even if he avoids its gaze, looks down, he nevertheless does perceive that it is looking at him, because love penetrates far more inwardly into life, deep inside life, in there where life emanates, than justice does, which repellingly establishes a chiasmic abyss between the sinner and itself, whereas love is on his side, does not accuse, does not judge, but pardons and forgives.” [7]

The Return of the Prodigal Son, acquired by St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum over 250 years ago, has long haunted the imagination of Russian visual artists. In his metaphysical sci-fi film Solaris (1972), Andrei Tarkovsky returns his cosmonaut protagonist from the “far country” of outer space to the door of his childhood house, where he is embraced like Rembrandt’s prodigal. But his father, we have learned, is deceased, and his son remains somewhere out in space, light years from earth. Tarkovsky’s moving image of ultimate reunion with both parent and planet earth turns out to be only memory or dream. It is in fact “impossible”––which only deepens the desire to make it so.

The son returns home (in his imagination), from the closing scene of Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Solaris” (1972).

Another Russian filmmaker, Alexander Sokurov, included Rembrandt’s actual painting in Russian Ark (2002), a meditation on Russia’s troubled history filmed entirely inside the Hermitage in a single 87-minute shot, with the camera moving through the galleries to encounter both paintings and people from different centuries. The pensive French aristocrat we follow from room to room stops for a long time in front of Rembrandt’s great canvas, silently paying homage to its power. For the Russian Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale, Sokurov himself returns to the painting, rethinking its themes with sculpture, video, music, lighting, a mirror, and various objects from an artist’s studio. His installation is called “Lc. 15:11-32,” after the biblical citation for Luke’s telling of the parable.

The sorrowful father in the first room of Alexander Sokurov’s installation, “Lc. 15:11-32.”

In the first of two dark rooms, father and son stand far apart in the gloom. It is not clear whether they even see each other across the black abyss that separates them. Behind the father are two large video projections representing a world gone wrong. One shows a blurred image of a city dissolving in flames, like an apocalypse by Hieronymus Bosch. The other shows Christ sitting in a desert as soldiers enter with flame throwers to fill the screen with fire and smoke. We realize that not just the son, but the whole world has gone astray. Not even a divine father can fix it. Grace and redemption remain an impossibility in this terrifying darkness.

Ivan Nikolaevich Kromskoy, “Christ in the Wilderness” (1872).

The Christ in the video image is taken from a nineteenth-century Russian painting, Christ in the Wilderness (1872), by Ivan Nikolaevich Kromskoy, whose humanized Jesus, unlike the serenely transcendent Savior of Orthodox iconography, reflected the revolutionary and questioning mood of the painter’s generation. In an age of religious doubt, traditional understandings seemed out of touch with experience. For Kromskoy, a self-assured Christ radiant with divinity was too detached from human suffering. “My God––Christ––is the greatest of atheists,” he said, “a person who has destroyed God in the universe and shifted him directly to the center of the human spirit and who, therefore, goes calmly to his death.” [8]

One of the video projections in the first room of Alexander Sokurov’s installation, “Lc. 15:11-32.”.

But how calm can such a Christ really be, sitting now, according to Sokurov, amid the flames and smoke of our endless desert wars? He may be the “fellow sufferer who understands,”[9] but he appears to be as lost as the Prodigal Son, exiled to the far country of human sin. His inheritance of divine power has been squandered by incarnation. He may share our griefs––does he also share our helplessness?

In the vast first room of Sokurov’s installation, estrangement is absolute and unchanging. But beyond it lies a second room, like a small cave, where the abyss of sin and separation is overcome at last. In a sculpted restaging of Rembrandt’s painting, the lost son comes home to the father’s compassionate embrace.

In the second room of Sokurov’s installation, father and son are reunited.

Behind the figures there is a large mirror, whose reflected image repeats the scene, reminding us that every retelling of the parable is but a version of an original which cannot be grasped directly, but only experienced in the second-hand reflections of Luke, Rembrandt, Sokurov, and all the rest of us who engage Jesus’ story. The mirror’s surface is slightly wavy, and it sways slowly back and forth, producing a continuously distorted image, suggesting the instability and uncertainty of every interpretation.

The figures are reflected in a distorting mirror.

The mirror also includes the viewer, allowing each of us to know ourselves as witnesses to the impossible mystery of divine mercy. But such seeing does not always come naturally. While I stood transfixed in this cave of revelation, two young women entered. After a brief glance at the sculpture, they became absorbed with photographing their own misshapen reflections in the mirror, giggling at the funhouse gag.

In my mind, I judged their heedless frivolity, and the moment I did so I became equally blind to the meaning of The Return. I forgot my own prodigal culpability, my own need to kneel with downcast eyes. I forgot the unconditional nature of the father’s embrace. I had become the elder brother.

No matter, says the parable. The prodigal, the proud, the penitent, the foolish––we’ll all be gathered in eventually. And the conclusion of all our wandering stories will be a home of abiding welcome. The door is open. The feast is ready. Love is waiting. Come.

 

 

 

Related Posts:

The Return of the Prodigal Son

Venice Biennale 2019: “A wound in a dance with love”

 

[1] Søren Kierkegaard, Without Authority, cited in Simon D. Podmore, Kierkegaard and the Self Before God: Anatomy of the Abyss (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2011), 8.

[2] Dies Irae (“Day of Wrath”), a thirteenth-century Latin poem about the Last Judgment and our collective plea for forgiveness. It became a traditional part of requiem masses, but its vivid images of doom and “wrath” sound jarring to modern ears accustomed to a kinder and gentler eschatology. However, when we consider the moral and apocalyptic implications of climate change, the notion of a “day of reckoning” when “nothing will remain unpunished” and “even the just can scarcely be secure” seems uncomfortably apt, as does the poem’s anguished cry for rescue and “the gift of forgiveness.”

[3] Kierkegaard Journal, cited in Podmore, 155.

[4] John of the Cross, cited in Hans Boersma, The Beatific Vision in Christian Tradition (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2018), 184.

[5] John of the Cross, “The Dark Night,” cited in Boersma, 178.

[6] Podmore, 179.

[7] Kierkegaard, Without Authority, cited in Podmore, 173-174.

[8] Ivan Kromskoy in a letter to a friend, quoted in Walther K. Lang, “The ‘Atheism’ of Jesus in Russian Art: Representations of Christ by Ivan Kromskoy, Vasily Polenov, and Nikolai Ghe,” I recommend the entire article for those interested in art and faith. It is found on the website Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide: http://www.19thc-artworldwide.org/autumn03/272-the-qatheismq-of-jesus-in-russian-art-representations-of-christ-by-ivan-nikolevich-kramskoy-vasily-polenov-and-nikolai-ghe

[9] Alfred North Whitehead’s famous description of God has provided a moving and influential image of a divinity deeply affected by human suffering, a God who takes our pain into Godself. Critics of such theology wonder whether too much divine power has been relinquished. Can a vulnerable God still save us?

Bushy the Squirrel: A Justice Parable

My father, an Episcopal priest and producer of Christian media, made a series of filmstrips called Parables from Nature in the 1950s. Based on a children’s book by John Calvin Reid, they retold the parables of Jesus using characters from the natural world. One of these was “Bushy the Squirrel,” inspired by Luke 12:13-21 (the Lectionary gospel for Proper 13, 8th Sunday after Pentecost). The illustrations were painted by Hollywood animation artists, and some of them are included here.

Once upon a time there was a squirrel named Bushy. He was a fine little squirrel, but as he grew older everyone began to notice a change in him. All he cared about was gathering nuts. Every day you could hear his voice ringing through the forest: “Gotta get more nuts! Gotta get more nuts!”

As soon as he stored the nuts he had found, he’d run off to find some more. “This is not enough. Gotta get more! Gotta get more!” Bushy was so obsessed with getting more nuts, he drove all his friends away. And when anyone came to his door collecting for the needy, he just said, “Aw, don’t bother me now. I’m too busy getting nuts.”

After a while, he had so many nuts, he needed a bigger place to put them. And one day he saw an old hickory tree with a big hole in it. It was perfect. But some woodpeckers had made their home in that tree. That didn’t stop Bushy. He kicked the woodpeckers out, and filled the tree with nuts.

Bushy’s neighbors had a hard time finding any nuts left for them to eat. But Bushy didn’t care. He had what he needed. The other squirrels were not his problem.

When winter came, Bushy relaxed in his tree, the happy owner of all those nuts. He didn’t have a care in the world.

Then one night, when he was fast asleep, a wind began to blow, and the wind was so powerful, it broke his tree in half and sent Bushy tumbling into the lake.

“Help me! Help me!” Bushy cried. Mr. Bear heard the shouts, and called the other animals of the forest to the rescue. Suddenly Bushy found that he was not the only person in the world – luckily for him! He needed the others and they needed him.

Bushy’s heart was changed by his experience, and he became a new squirrel, sharing everything he had with anyone who needed it.

The story of Bushy is like a parable Jesus told: There was once a rich man who had a problem. He had too much stuff and didn’t know where to put it all. So he built bigger and bigger storage units. But that didn’t solve his problem, because his appetite for acquisition could never be satisfied. “Gotta get more nuts, gotta get more nuts!”

So is Jesus trying to be Marie Kondo here? Is he offering a useful method of self-help so we can reduce our clutter and make our lives more beautiful and satisfying? Is that why he tells this story––to foster self-improvement? Or is he doing something more radical, more demanding?

What if Jesus had said, “This story is not about you––it’s about us. It’s a story about the foolishness of trying to live as though ‘I’ am the only person in the world. It’s a story about the foolishness of being oblivious to community.” Well, he didn’t say those words, of course. He just told the story, trusting us to have ears that hear.

A certain rich man’s lands brought forth bountiful crops. And he deliberated within himself, saying, “What shall I do, since I do not have a place where I may gather my fruit?”

He deliberated within himself” is a telling image of isolation, suggesting a self utterly cut off from other voices, other perspectives. And notice how he seems surprised by the size of the harvest. As a rich man, he would already possess considerable storage space. But this harvest is bigger than he ever expected or imagined. And when the Bible talks about abundance that is excessive and surprising, that usually means one thing: God is involved, showering down blessings.

A first century listener, steeped in the stories of God’s miracles of generosity, would have picked up on this. And they would have noticed that the rich man’s first response is not one of gratitude or wonder. Does the rich man thank the Creator for the miraculous harvest? Does he laugh in wonder at such a gift? No. His first thought is, “I’ve got a problem. Where am I going to put it all?”

Then he gets an idea:

“I will do this: I will tear down my granaries and build larger ones, and I will gather there all my grain and all my goods and I will say to my self, ‘Self, you have many good things stored up for many a year. Eat, drink, and be merry!’”

In a world full of hungry people, here’s a man who has more than he knows what to do with, and it never occurs to him that he could feed all those hungry people.

As hunger experts point out, hunger is not a problem of supply; it’s a problem of distribution. But distribution is the last thing on this man’s mind. He isn’t just ignoring other people. He seems oblivious to their existence. He is the perfect expression of rampant individualism – untroubled by any sense of interdependent community.

The story makes fun of his isolationism, by having him talk only to himself.

“I will say to myself, ‘Self, you have many good things…”

A narrator would say something like: “Then the man said to himself, ‘Self, you have many good things…’” Instead, the rich man takes over his own narration: “I will say to myself, ‘Self …” and so on. Do you see the difference? This guy doesn’t need anyone, even a narrator. He takes over the telling of his own story. He’s in control, totally self-sufficient.

Whatever the future may bring, he can deal with it, no problem. Just kick back and “eat, drink, and be merry.”

Isn’t this the ideal to which consumerism aspires? Those of us with enough money can acquire everything we need to be self-sufficient. The fundamental unit of our culture is not the tribe or the village, but the single family home. We each have our own rooms, our own food supply, our own car, our own entertainment center, our own set of tools and appliances, our own insurance policies.

The only reason we need to leave the house is to earn the cash in order to maintain the autonomy of our domestic units. If we get rich enough, we don’t even have to do that.

The whole trajectory of the consumerist dream is to declare our independence from the traditional supportive networks of extended family and neighborhood community.

Vincent Miller, a Catholic ethicist, points out that the cash demands of the single family home encourage people to act selfishly:

“Social isolation and the burdens of maintaining a family in this system make it unlikely that other people’s needs will ever present themselves. If and when we do encounter them, we are likely to be so preoccupied with the tasks of maintaining our immediate families that we will have little time and resources to offer. The geography of the single-family home makes it very likely that we will care more about the feeding of our pets that about the millions of children who go to bed hungry around us.” [i]

When we live in isolation from one another, when we fail to nurture the vital aspects of interdependent community, we minimize the ways in which we can either offer help or receive it. Even if we have all the goodwill in the world, we remain trapped within the cash-intensive demands of the consumerist dream. “Gotta get more nuts!”

Ideally, a local church can function as a support system for its members. If someone gets sick or has a family emergency, others in the community step up to provide meals and other forms of assistance. But this kind of support system is exceptional in a society based largely upon isolated autonomous households.

If you don’t have the cash to keep a roof over your head, there is no village to take you in. Maybe you have some relatives somewhere, but they’re probably scattered around the country. And they’re probably running on a tight budget themselves, and don’t have any spare rooms. We’re a long way from the traditional support systems of former times and simpler cultures. Just ask the homeless to tell you their stories.

In American mythology, this is the country of the Lone Ranger, the self-made entrepreneur, the hard-boiled detective with no attachments, or the trucker rolling down that endless highway, free as a bird––and lonesome as hell.

When vast numbers of Vietnamese refugees settled in southern California in the 1970s, they found American culture to be fatal for something they had always taken for granted: the supportive network of extended family. They had to learn, as one writer puts it, that the land of the free means “the perfect freedom of strangers.” [ii]

So Bushy the Squirrel, and the rich man with the storage problem, might be seen as the products of a consumer culture. They don’t need neighbors. They don’t need community. They’ve got everything they need close at hand. There’s nothing for them to do but eat, drink and be merry.

But then what happens? Just when Bushy settles in for a long sleep, a storm breaks open his tree and casts him into the raging waters. In the Bible, whenever something breaks open your neat little world, you can be pretty sure that God is in that storm.

But in Jesus’ parable of the rich man, God intervenes even more explicitly, not with a storm but with words. God speaks to the rich man. In fact, this is the only one of Jesus’ stories where God appears as a character within the story.

And what does God say to the rich man? “Fool!” God says. “Fool!” Now that’s something to wake up your prayer life––to hear God calling you a fool.

Do you remember the most famous use of the word “fool” in the Bible? It’s in the first verse of Psalm 14: The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’  The fool is the one who denies God’s presence, who thinks he or she can grab the gift without acknowledging the Giver––or the Giver’s way, which is not the self-possession of me/myself/and I, but rather a ceaseless pouring out of self.

“Fool, on this night they will demand your life from you.
And all the stuff you have stored up, to whom will it belong?”

In an instant––“this very night”––the rich fool discovers that his autonomous life is not only unstable––it is unsustainable.

He had thought that life was a commodity that could be owned and held onto. But he discovers that God operates a very different kind of economy. God’s economy, which we call the Kingdom of God, is a gift economy, where everything is received and nothing can be held onto.

Everything is like the air we breathe. We take it in, we receive the life it gives us, and then we give it back again. Breathe in, breathe out; receive, give back.

A commodity-based economy is an attempt to hold your breath. You take possession of God’s gifts, you take them out of circulation, you lock them away where others can’t use them.

Whereas a gift always keeps moving from hand to hand, a commodity is grasped and hoarded. And to grasp and to hoard is to live outside of God’s economy, where the gifts are always in circulation, always being given away as fast as they are received. If you reject God’s gift economy, and try to live apart from the interdependent circulation of life’s gifts, you are in effect denying the Trinitarian reality––the eternal self-offering, the ceaseless circulation of gifts, that comprises the heart of God.

That is why the Bible insists that if you try to live as though you were the only person in the room, if you try to exempt yourself from interconnectedness and interdependence, from the need to both give and receive, then you are indeed a fool, trying to live against the way we are made to be as images of the divine reality.

The divine reality is a circulation of gifts. When you are oblivious to the presence of your neighbor, you are oblivious to God as well. When you deny communion, you deny God.

On this night they will demand your life from you.

Most translations use the passive voice: “your life will be demanded of you.” But the original Greek verb is in the active third person plural: “They will demand your life from you.” So who might “they” be? The plural language could be a remnant of archaic mythological imagery, a way of speaking about death as the operation of avenging spiritual powers. But this is not really that kind of story. It’s not steeped in old-fashioned apocalyptic imagery like the Book of Revelation. For all we know the rich man dies in his sleep, without any thunder from heaven.

But what if the “they” who demand his life refers to everyone else in the world, all those neighbors whose existence has been ignored by the rich fool? Other people didn’t exist for him. He took what belonged to his fellow beings and kept it for himself. Now they want it back. As the story puts it, they “demand” his life. Is this punishment, or just a realistic understanding of how God’s universe works?

The story does not have God say, “I will demand your life…” The man’s fate is not an apocalyptic intervention from heaven. It’s simply the way things are in an interdependent reality.

The rich man tried to live outside the way of things, outside the economy of God, and in the end it all caught up with him. In the gift economy in which we live and move and have our being, he discovered that you have to keep the gift moving. You have to give everything away, even your very life.

The parable ends with a question:

What will become of everything that you have stored up?
To whom will it belong?

The question is being posed to the rich man in the parable. But it is also being posed to us. To whom does our wealth belong? Not just our money and our stuff, but every good gift we have been given since God put us on this earth, including our souls and bodies, and every breath we take––to whom does all this belong?

In a country plagued with obscene economic inequality, where the rich and powerful will even take food from the mouths of children to gather more wealth for themselves, how shall we respond to this parable? How do we answer its disturbing question?

Maybe greed is normal now. Maybe selfishness is normal now. Maybe crushing the poor and killing the planet for profit are normal now. But Jesus came to tell us that such things are decidedly not normal––not in God’s world. And we would be fools to think otherwise.

In my father’s filmstrip, Bushy learns his lesson and repents of his selfish ways. Its happy ending was meant to encourage the children who watched it in Sunday School. But Jesus concludes the original parable more ambiguously. He leaves us hanging, without knowing the ultimate fate of the rich man.

I suspect that Jesus is inviting us to finish the story ourselves, to construct a happy ending out of our own actions, as we work together to create a world whose blessings are not hoarded, but freely shared; a world where no need goes unmet, and all God’s children can flourish and thrive.

God, bring that day closer!

 

 

 

[i] Vincent J. Miller, Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture(New York, Continuum, 2004), 50.

[ii] Lewis Hyde, The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World(New York: Vintage Books, 1979), 88.

This homily for Proper 13, Year C, will be preached August 4, 2019, at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, Bainbridge Island, Washington.

The Rich Man and Lazarus

Medieval illumination, The Rich Man and Lazarus

Medieval illumination, The Rich Man and Lazarus

For when we first believed in Christ we did not immediately acquire an exact understanding of what we should be doing, nor was it clear to us what we should stop doing and what we should continue doing.

— Diodore, Bishop of Tarsus (d. 394) [i]

You see, God who lives in heaven kept quiet about the rich man’s name, because he did not find it written in heaven. He spoke the poor man’s name, because he found it written there… [ii]

— St. Augustine

This Sunday’s gospel tells the parable of the nameless rich man, living the high life in his mansion, and Lazarus the poor man, who is starving just outside his gate. When they both die about the same time, their situations are reversed. The poor man, suffering the torments of Hades, gets a distant glimpse of Lazarus enjoying the blessings of heaven “in the bosom of Abraham.” (Luke 16:19-31)

Where do we find ourselves in this gospel parable? At the gate, or at the rich man’s table? When Jesus tells this story, he doesn’t seem to allow us the option of remaining a spectator, detached and uninvolved.

Jesus is calling us to make a decision.
What would you do in the circumstances of the story?

There’s a 19th century song based on this gospel. I learned to sing it 50 years ago from the legendary Ramblin’ Jack Elliott:

 Only a tramp was Lazarus’ sad fate
When he lay down by the rich man’s gate
To beg for some crumbs from the rich man to eat
But he left him to die like a tramp on the street…

 If Jesus should come and knock at your door
Would you let him come in and take from your store
Or would you turn him away with nothing to eat
Would you leave him to die like a tramp on the street?

What would you do?
In our world of extreme economic inequality, it’s not a hypothetical question.

That’s the thing about the lectionary. We come to church to be illumined, fed, inspired, and renewed; to praise our Maker and Redeemer in the company of God’s friends. But sometimes we’re slammed with a question that’s really hard to answer.

In this case, what’s hard isn’t mustering the good will to do the right thing. If you’re a friend of Jesus, you know what is right. What’s hard is figuring out exactly how to implement our good will in complicated long-term situations.

We could empty our wallets for the homeless on a walk through downtown, but homelessness would remain. We could vote for candidates who put the needs of the poor ahead of the billionaires. But we would still remain entwined in a system driven more by greed and consumption than by the nurture of human flourishing and the health of God’s creation.

So where do we start? Does the parable itself provide any clues? It’s not really a story, but more of a snapshot. On one side there is Lazarus the beggar lying outside the rich man’s gate, covered with sores, dreaming of the scraps of food that fall from the rich man’s table. On the other is the rich man, behind locked doors, dressed in purple and fine linen, eating to his heart’s content – with a clear conscience as far as we know.

And the story seems to imply that he is unaware of Lazarus’ very existence. He doesn’t send his servants out to drive the poor man away. He doesn’t callously pass him by, pretending not to see him.

In the story, the rich man remains inside, Lazarus remains outside, and the two worlds are completely sealed off from each other—until a catastrophe shakes the rich man out of his complacency, and opens his eyes to the suffering he has ignored for so long.

The catastrophe is his own death. This not only plunges him into the fires of Hades but also—even more painful!—it opens his eyes to his lifelong indifference to the suffering of Lazarus, a suffering he could have alleviated, had he been more aware.

So now he must gaze up at Lazarus, safe in the bosom of Abraham, tormented by the knowledge of things done and left undone. It turns out that his blindness to suffering was not the same thing as innocence. The words of the prophet Amos could have been addressed to him:

Woe to those who are at ease in Zion,
and for those who are complacent on the mount of Samaria…
Woe to those who lie on beds of ivory,
and sprawl on their couches,
stuffing themselves with lamb and veal,
singing idle songs and drinking wine by the bowlful,
who anoint themselves with the finest oils,
but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph. (Amos 6: 1, 4-6)

It’s not that the rich man didn’t care about Lazarus. He didn’t even see him. Lazarus did not exist for him, until he was compelled to see reality through God’s eyes:

And what the rich man is shown by God in the end is this: Lazarus, rocking his soul in the bosom of Abraham, turns out to be very precious to God. But he (the rich man) is a prisoner of his own self-regard, the loveless and isolating condition otherwise known as hell.

And then this parable, as parables often do, turns to us expectantly. So, it wonders, is there anything you are not seeing in the places where you live and move and have your being?

Last week I attended a meeting of the Interfaith Economic Justice Coalition in Seattle. The subject was the situation of the workers at the airport, the ones who clean and load the passenger cabins, who push the wheelchairs and guide the planes to their gates, who prepare and serve the food in the facility’s many restaurants and coffee shops, who rent the cars and staff the parking lots.

When we pass through the airport as travelers, we are served by many of these workers. But how often do we really see them as people or understand their situation?

Are we aware that the Seattle airport, the third largest economic producer in the state, has been a notoriously low-wage pocket within the greater urban area? Other West Coast airports, such as LAX, are way ahead of our own in addressing wage and justice issues.

The employment structure at Sea-Tac Airport is complicated. A variety of corporate contractors apply to the Port Commission and the airlines for the right to provide specific services. Individual airlines can choose to work with their own preferred contractors, so there is a bewildering variety of arrangements in which individual workers may fall through the cracks, as their employers play musical chairs in the bidding and renewal process. Without a guarantee that you will keep your job regardless of which corporation wins the next contract for the service you provide, you could be out of a job with little warning.

The process of bidding and contract renewals has sometimes been used, by both airlines and the Port Commission, to shut out union workers and reduce the job security and benefits of airport employees in general.

When Seattle passed the nation’s first $15 minimum wage law in 2014, some contractors complied, some chose to fight the law in the courts, and some simply ignored the law and continued to pay only $9.45 an hour, until lawsuits forced them to comply.

Some of the contractors are still in court, but this month several of them agreed to pay retroactively the full minimum wage, which amounts to about $10,000 per worker for each of the two years in which they were underpaid. This will make a huge difference for those workers, their families, and the communities in which they live.

This ongoing struggle for a living wage is about the workers’ dignity and well-being as equal participants in an interdependent society. And, as people of faith would insist, it is about their inestimable value as the beloved children of God. But until my eyes were opened by what I learned at that meeting last week, they were almost as invisible to me as Lazarus at the gate.

And now that I see them a little more clearly, what shall I do? When I take a flight next Saturday, I will certainly be asking myself this question. I can pray for the workers, I can thank them for their service. This Tuesday I’ll be joining with workers and faith leaders at a Port Commission meeting to exert continuing pressure for economic justice. But what else?

I may not have a lot of answers yet, but the question is not going away as long as we keep replaying the unsustainable story of the rich man and Lazarus in our economics, our politics, and our social order. It will not go away, in fact, until that promised day when we will all sit together at one table, sharing our essential communion as grateful brothers and sisters in the feast of God.

Holy One, Lover of Justice, bring that day closer.

 

Related Post: Why Do We Work?

 

[i] q. in Thomas C. Oden, The Good Works Reader (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmann’s Publishing, 2007), 333

[ii] Sermon 33a.4, q. in Oden, 54

The Return of the Prodigal Son

Rembrandt van Rijn, The Return of the Prodigal Son, c. 1661–1669 (Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg)

Rembrandt van Rijn, The Return of the Prodigal Son, c. 1661–1669 (Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg)

Sometimes I lead retreats to explore correlations between biblical narratives and our own stories. It’s not just a matter of putting ourselves in a given Bible story as a method of interpreting it. We also need to let it interpret us, as we discover the biblical motifs which are playing out in the particular circumstances of our own lives. What is my creation story, what is your exodus story, what is each one’s death and resurrection story?

At one such retreat, we considered Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son. After studying the text, we tried out various ways of retelling it in our own words. Then we divided into three groups: Fathers, prodigal sons, and elder brothers. Membership in each group was determined by chance, although it turned out that the “elder brothers” consisted mostly of firstborn children.

Each group was asked to wrestle with their assigned character. What do you feel about this character? What does the story tell you about him? What does the story leave unsaid? Then they were invited to share a related story from their own lives. Tell about the struggles of being a parent, a child, or a sibling. Tell about a time you were forgiven, or needed to forgive. Tell about a time you felt neglected or ignored, envious or resentful.

One man said he had been disappointed at first to draw the father’s group, because he always related more strongly to the elder brother. As the oldest child in his family, he had some of the issues common to that role. He knew the burden of wanting to live up to his parents’ expectations, to be “perfect,” obedient, one who pleases by getting everything right. He had also experienced some envy and resentment of younger siblings who seemed more carefree and less responsible.

But as he listened to others in the group engage with the father’s side of the story, it occurred to him that he himself had actually been a father for as long as he had been only a son and brother. Maybe, he said, it was time to rethink his own story and who he was in it.

In the early nineties, Henri Nouwen wrote “a meditation on fathers, brothers, and sons” using the parable of the Prodigal Son along with Rembrandt’s famous painting of the moment when the errant child is welcomed home. Like the people in my retreat, he found critical insights into his own life in each of the characters. And in doing so, he realized that there were two sons, not just one, who went astray from their father’s will, into “a distant country,” the place of alienation.[i]

The younger son’s sins may have been more dramatic and colorful, but the elder brother’s bitter and jealous heart grieved his father just as much. Both sons are lost. Both need to be welcomed “home.” As Rembrandt’s painting shows, the elder stands in the shadows, separated from the radiant light surrounding the father and his youngest child.

“There is not only the light-filled reconciliation between the father and the younger son, but also the dark, resentful distance of the elder son. There is repentance, but also anger. There is communion, but also alienation. There is the warm glow of healing, but also the cooling of the critical eye; there is the offer of mercy, but also the enormous resistance against receiving it.”[ii]

Whether the elder brother will be able to step out of his darkness into love’s radiance remains unknown in both the painting and the original parable. But the father has made it clear that his parental love will never be withdrawn. Like the loving mercy of God, his welcoming arms remain ever extended and expectant, now and forever. As Nouwen writes, “The heart of the father burns with an immense desire to bring his children home.”[iii]

Nouwen describes the differences between the father’s hands in Rembrandt’s painting. His left hand is strong, masculine, gripping his son encouragingly. His right hand seems more refined, almost feminine, offering the caress of consolation. The father’s red cloak also conveys shelter and protection, like the enfolding wings of a mother bird.

Love so amazing, so divine, has a cost. It does not always produce happy endings. In the “fathers” group at the retreat, one woman told us about her own prodigal son, a forty-year old man who had struggled for years with his own lostness. “I welcomed him home every time,” she said, “and then he would just break my heart all over again.” Six months before our retreat, he had committed suicide.

When we hear the parable, it is natural to focus on the prodigal’s experience of unconditional, unmerited welcome. We all long to hear the word of mercy for ourselves: weary pilgrim welcome home. But Nouwen won’t let us stay there. Although we each need to make our way on the difficult journey home, in the end we are called to claim the role of the father as well. Forgiven so much, may we also become the ones who forgive, whatever it costs.

“His outstretched hands are not begging, grasping, demanding, warning, judging, or condemning. They are hands that only bless, giving all and expecting nothing … As I look at my own aging hands, I know that they have been given to me to stretch out toward all who suffer, to rest upon the shoulders of all who come, and to offer the blessing that emerges from the immensity of God’s love.”[iv]

 

 

 

[i] Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Meditation on Fathers, Brothers, and Sons (New York: Doubleday, 1992)

[ii] ibid., 126-7

[iii] ibid., 89

[iv] ibid., 127-8, 130