Monday, July 12, 2010

Meditations on the General Confession III: Mercy, Mercy Me

Almighty and most merciful Father . . .
The General Confession from The Book of Common Prayer.

I ended the last post with a hanging felt paradox: that the power of God is a comfort to sinners, and the mercy of God can have a terribly sharp edge. The paradox was too simple -- no attribute of any person, God included, exists independently of that person's other attributes. And our intuition -- that without mercy, the might of God is an unmitigated threat to us and leaves us no hope through confession -- is absolutely correct. The point was this: if we ask God for mercy, it helps to begin by reminding ourselves of the extent of the mercy available to us. And a necessary side effect of that reminder is that we'd better brace ourselves to be consistent in our response to his mercy, wherever it breaks out.

So just who is this one the General Confession calls "most merciful Father"? How ready is he to hear and respond with pity to a true confession? You probably know a story* that begins this way:
There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, 'Father, give me my share of the estate.' So he divided his property between them.
The poorly named "parable of the prodigal son" is commonly oversimplified in general memory to the following, which is true as far as it goes: the younger son goes off, squanders everything sowing his wild oats, and then comes back and is mercifully received by his father. But there is more to it, much more. The parable, which Jesus primarily addresses to experts in law, reads like a law school exam question: packed into almost every phrase is some monstrous injustice, or some unthinkable mercy, that raises some issue which must be dealt with. Both sons grievously offend their father, heaping insult upon insult. And the father meets every last insult with extravagant grace.

Estates don't descend to heirs until someone dies. So the younger son's request, "give me my share of the estate," means, in effect, "I wish you were dead. I have no affection for you, no filial respect for you. I don't want to be part of your family. I just want your stuff -- my stuff -- right now." The younger son's circumstances may get worse. But his behavior hits rock bottom right out of the gate. This is a spoken kill shot.

But his father, again right out of the gate, meets the kill shot with mercy. Far from taking the expected action -- throwing his ungrateful son out bodily -- he endures, ungrudgingly, the anguish of dividing his life with his son. The usual English translation, that the father "divided his property," is too weak; the Greek (bios) that Luke uses to capture Jesus's parable more literally says the father "divided his life" between himself and his son. The father will drink from the cup of death to accommodate his son.
Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
The younger son, being a proud, stiff-necked, pity-spurning fool, doesn't come away from his rebellion unscathed. To the original Jewish hearers of this story, feeding pigs and longing to be fed with pods the pigs ate was hitting rock bottom and starting to drill. It took circumstances that desperate to wake the son up. Only when he had no alternatives did he think of home:

When he came to his senses, he said, 'How many of my father's hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.' So he got up and went to his father.

But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
It's noteworthy that the son resolves to pay his father the compliment of calling him "Father," but will not presume to ask to be treated as a son again. And that his planned confession lists the offended parties in the right order -- "I sinned against heaven and against you." But he has not yet totally surrendered: the son wants to be a hired servant; to do his father the justice of making restitution. Now restitution is a good thing as far as it goes, but the son's plan overlooks that he cannot put a price tag on his father's agony. To that extent he still doesn't see the full gravity of his offense; he knows he has wronged his father, but he still thinks himself competent to judge his wrong and his father's loss, and to sentence himself to repayment of squandered property. In short, he's still attached to some idea of right, and the desire to captain his own ship. With these things in mind he goes home.

Plainly the father hasn't been seething in the meantime, reciting to himself the things his son ought to say it he dares show his face around town again. And here as everywhere else, the father casts aside anything like dignity and convention. He runs -- as women and children, but not fathers, did back then. The father dramatically "falls on his son's neck" and kisses him. Stunning as that is, he's just getting warmed up.
And the son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.'
In response to his father's astonishingly affectionate greeting, the younger son begins his prepared remarks, but, significantly, stops before getting to the restitution part. He only acknowledges the sad truth about himself, and leaves it at that. He finally relinquishes any pretense that he is able of his own strength to make things right. How could anyone who has callously wounded such a generous father speak of repayment? He makes his confession, and leaves judgment to his father.
But the father said to his servants, 'Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let's have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' So they began to celebrate.
For the son's bare feet, a sign of his poverty, the father gives sandals; and the best robe and ring (the family signet ring, probably) signify the father's full acceptance of his son back into the family as an honored member. Killing the fatted calf means that this is to be the party of parties, with the whole village to be invited. The villagers would have wondered at this, since the father was basically taking upon himself the dishonor the son brought upon the family. But the father does not stand on ceremony: how can things be otherwise, since my son has come back from the dead?
Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 'Your brother has come,' he replied, 'and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.'

The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him.
Having welcomed his prodigal son home, the father now takes an unkinder cut from his firstborn, which is worse than the younger son's because it's given in public. The family would have been expected to greet the guests from the village; for the firstborn to refuse is for him to publicly disown the family.

The father is nothing if not consistent: instead of having the elder son bound and brought in to face judgment, he again goes out to meet a rebellious son. And not to command his son, but to plead with him.
But he answered his father, 'Look! All these years I've been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!'
Just as his initial cut was unkinder than his younger brother's, so is the firstborn's response to his father's grace, which is the unkindest cut of all to this point. He acknowledges neither his father nor his brother (contemptuously called "this son of yours"), and prefaces his complaint with the word "look." He has not come to his senses; he does not see himself or his father or his situation clearly. He is blinded by his own bitterness at having worked with apparent diligence and faithfulness but not received the advances -- one third of the father's estate, and now the fatted calf -- that his brother had received. He cannot see his father's generosity to him, or what his speech makes plain: that he, just as his younger brother once did, loves his father's property but not his father.

Again, this speech was not a back room deal; many of the guests would have followed the father out of the house and would have heard the son's words. So the father, again publicly lowering himself, overlooks his son's insult and labors patiently to bring his outwardly obedient but utterly wayward firstborn to his senses.
'My son,' the father said, 'you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.'
Don't miss the opening words: "My son." There are a couple of Greek words for son: one is "huios," the more formal, legal term, the other "teknon," a term of tender affection. Luke uses "teknon" to capture our Lord's meaning. The father does not accept his firstborn's rash disowning of the family; he loves his son starting from his address. Then he speaks of the grace of companionship: "You are always with me." And he labors on: "my property, my living, my very life, is yours for the sharing, and -- isn't this great! -- that includes your found brother." The father scorns all shame and will not be thwarted from seeking above all the restoration and peace of his family.

So how does the elder son respond to this last entreaty? We don't know. The cliffhanger ending here is masterful, with Jesus in effect saying to the Pharisees and lawyers to whom he told the parable, and by extension to we who overhear today, "the doors of the kingdom of God are thrown open. Tax collectors and prostitutes and all manner of those who squandered the inheritance are coming to their senses, and going in to dine at the feast. Your God and Father is glad to welcome them. So are you going to stand outside and grouse about, indeed publicly decry, his generosity? Or will you go in to your Father's party with your brothers and sisters and be happy?"

Jesus understood his Father to be "most merciful" -- indeed, reading the parable through, we might say that it is "his property always to have mercy."** This relentless mercy tends to produce one of two responses: wonder and gratitude on the one hand, a bad case of the sulks on the other. The General Confession begins by calling us to recognize the mercy of God as an inexhaustible wonder, in light of which we can admit plainly, without guile or rationalization, every bit of dirty dirt we carry, from our unshod feet to our tangled hair. ***

* Luke 15:11-32 (ESV)
** From the Book of Common Prayer Communion liturgy
*** The above look at the parable of the two sons and their compassionate father traces, almost to but hopefully not to the point of plagiarism, the respective analyses of Kenneth Bailey and Timothy Keller. I haven't quoted either, and do not think I have borrowed any of their words, but their expositions have so impacted my thinking about this parable that my thoughts on it are closely intertwined with theirs. If anyone spots unattributed quotes, it's because they were that well-lodged in my brain. I will gladly credit their words anywhere the credit may be due.

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