The Fourth Sunday in Lent
I’m an only child. I know nothing of sibling rivalry and family jealousy. Yet, I do know what it’s like to feel a sense of jealousy when something doesn’t go the way I thought it should go. Only children are pretty notorious at not knowing how to share, and I definitely had to figure out how to give gifts without expecting something special for me, too. Like, when getting a gift for a friend’s birthday when I was little, I would say, “is this for me? One for me, too?” It took a while to realize everyone gets their special moment of celebration, and gets that time
I’ve also never had the opportunity to “squander an inheritance,” but I’ve definitely had a moment here or there where maybe I don’t have enough cash on hand, or I’m a bit too boastful and say I’m fine on my own, without the support of a friend, or family. As a 23 year old living in Manhattan, watching the world around me and my fellow young people squandering their inheritances, there’s a level where I want to be a little more reckless and free, and sometimes I might convince myself I know better than a friend, a family member, or even than God. Wouldn’t it be exciting to eat out more, maybe reject the conforms or norms of school or community? Then, of course, I overbook myself or run out of money on my subway card while trying to get through the turnstile with a minute to spare to get somewhere I simply can’t be late for, and I find myself apologizing to God for being a bit too prideful and oh please can you just get me there on time, I promise I’ll be good and say my prayers if you just make sure I don’t pay this late fee or miss this train?
Oftentimes, somehow, things work out. I try to thank God for those moments, but how often do I take that moment to practice thanks? Do I have to put myself in dire straits to offer these thanksgivings? Do I let it change my life, and does God use it as some big direct lesson to remind me to fill my card when it’s empty or triple check my calendar so I don’t miss those meetings? No, it’s up to me to have that learning. Sometimes, it takes these stressful times or a
realization of how much I’ve ignored God’s plans for me to apologize, to repent. God knows our pride and our humanness, and knows us before we can even jump into that apology. God’s simply walking alongside me while I navigate these situations and come to these conclusions, much like the Father seeing the Prodigal Son.
The Prodigal Son wants his money, freedom, and independence from his family, and his father agrees. Perhaps his father knows what’s to come, and makes room for this change and experience within his son. The Son convinces himself he’s totally fine and great, despite the way he’s wasting his fortune to the point of ruin, as his Brother dramatically notes. He doesn’t plan for a famine and convinces himself he’s fine in the midst of his riotous affairs. He could’ve been too prideful to return, and even tries to “hack it” by working for someone else, and struggling to the point of a willingness to eat pig food. So then, when he’s finally ready to return because he can’t live on his own and wants to apologize, his Father forgives him without a doubt in his act or mind.
How often might we say we don’t need God when we’re doing well, yet count on God to get us out of a tricky situation? God is there for us in the mess of our lives before we can even ask for that forgiveness, just as the father did before seeing his prodigal son. We count on God to comfort us when we’re in that distress, and God doesn’t hold a grudge the same way we humans always do to one another. In fact, the Father in this story offers his best robe, rings, and sandals, and wants the best calf slaughtered for his son’s return. That isn’t simply a common celebratory feast and a couple nice tokens of affection; it’s more like if you squandered your trust fund or budget while living abroad trying to “make it” then come home from the airport gross and smelly, and then your family still took you to Le Bernadin for a full course meal before you
could even take a shower. There’s something of a spectacle to the Father’s decision, a symbol of how deeply he makes room for grace for his son in the midst of his self-made misfortune.
The Brother is also upset, but is not chastised by the Father, simply told to celebrate the Son, his brother’s, return. How often do we complain to God because the person who’s been on our nerves the most is somehow doing better than we are? Remember what I said about birthday gifts? Sharing is hard, and sometimes it’s a letdown because their raise or sacrificed calf seems so much better than ours when we’re the ones who put in the work! Yet, Jesus reminds us in this parable to celebrate what gifts our siblings in Christ receive in God’s grace – that act of forgiveness and reconciliation to oneness with the Spirit and our holy family. We might know for ourselves that we’re working hard, but do we really know the struggles of our neighbors and their inner prayers?
The psalm describes the same kind of sensation – that we must remember to forgive one another and ourselves in order for God to forgive us, and that God forgives us before we even realize it. Psalm 32 is one of seven penitential psalms, or psalms of confession, and its focus is on the past sins of the speaker. The psalm itself is not a prayer of repentance, but does include a confession of sin. It’s also part of a series of psalms of thanksgiving from an individual. It can be read as a form of instruction on how to repent & seek forgiveness, but also constructs language on how to rejoice and give thanks to God.
Verse 1 gives us a commitment to repentance, then Verses 3-5 detail the psalmist’s distress & anguish caused by their transgressions, of which we do not know the severity or reasonings. By Verse 6, we see the shift into forgiveness, and we learn about the psalmist’s God given grace & subsequent rejoicing. In reading their message, the psalmist seeks to understand where this pain and God’s grace comes from, because at the time, and often in our own
experiences today, misfortune was and is understood as a consequence of the sins we’ve committed. But instead of being an opportunity to revolt or give up on God or ourselves, this misfortune and apology leads the Psalmist to experience and embrace God’s forgiveness.
We have to remember not only to repent or to allow God’s grace to come into our lives and hearts, but to practice thanksgiving for the repentance and chances we have been given. This can be especially difficult when we feel like our neighbor, friend, or sibling “have it easier,” but that’s part of God’s reminder to us – for those of us here in church who are devoted to the Christian life and family, we’re a bit more “tuned in” – we should not only rejoice in thanksgiving for our own rewards, but especially for those who return to the fold or seek out the justice & support of our community.
Both have themes of how God forgives us, and how we need to remember that God knows us better and before we know ourselves, especially when we’ve made mistakes or acted out of a place of human selfishness. How often do we give into greed or temptation, then try to apologize for it later? We’re imperfect people, yet God sees us in that imperfection and wants us to return, to embrace God & our neighbor with the warmth of reconciliation, resurrection, & the creation of the heavenly kingdom.