Raising the dead, waking the lifeless

Text: Luke 15 (the Parable of the Prodigal Son)

Like the other parables told by Jesus, the Parable of the Prodigal Son can be viewed from different angles. One person might identify with the younger son in his riotous living in a far-off land. Another may resonate with the dutiful older son who resents the welcome their father gives to the younger one when the latter repents and returns. Still others may view the parable through the father’s eyes, who in his merciful attitude is usually seen as a stand-in for God.

For me, what stands out most in the parable is a phrase repeated by the father. Twice he says, “This son of mine was dead and has come back to life. He was lost and now he’s found!”

In this phrase, death is used as a metaphor. The younger son is alive in body but dead in spirit. When the son repents, he is reborn into a new life of the Spirit. The parable is about resurrection.

By telling the parable, Jesus suggests that sin leads to a kind of death within life and that new life is possible in the here and now. Resurrection occurs when we die to addictions or selfishness and come to our senses. Further, the parable assures us that when we do return, God welcomes us home.

The story takes us to the heart of Good Friday and Easter. The death we remember at Good Friday is not just the execution of Jesus but also the death of our own spirits. The new life we experience at Easter is not just about the re-appearance of Jesus to his friends, but also about a born-again love that is available to us in any moment of repentance.

And so today, I reflect on the word resurrection.

Words are central to ministry. As a minister, I write sermons, offer prayers, listen to heartfelt stories of pain or joy, read books and essays, and spend time in meetings. But words can both facilitate and bedevil communication.

This week, I listened to a CBC podcast about an award-winning 2015 novel called “Fifteen Dogs” by André Alexis. The novel tells of a wager between two Greek gods, Apollo and Hermes. They bet that if dogs are given language, they will be no happier than humans. So Apollo and Hermes give 15 dogs the gifts of language, and soon the dogs become embroiled in disputes about mortality, love, and whether there is a master of masters, or a god.

I haven’t yet read this short novel, but I loved listening to this podcast. It highlighted our fate as humans, animals who are caught between natural instinct and awesome speculations about mortality, love, and ultimate meaning.

In the church, one of our ongoing discussions is about the word “resurrection.” Does it mean the physical resuscitation of Jesus as found in the post-crucifixion appearance stories of three of the four Gospels?

The Easter stories of Jesus are obviously central to the church. But there are other stories about resurrection in the Bible.

In Matthew, Jesus commands his friends to “heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, and cast out demons” (Matthew 10:8). But what on earth could Jesus possibly mean when he directs his followers to raise the dead?

Thomas Moore writes that he translates the Greek phrase usually rendered in English as “raise the dead” into the phrase “wake the lifeless” instead . This makes it clear that the phrase is a metaphor, just as the phrase “come back to life” is in today’s parable.

In the Old Testament, the prophets Elijah and Elisha each raise a dead boy back to life. The Gospel of John tells the story of Jesus reviving the corpse of his friend Lazarus. Matthew, Mark and Luke tell a story in which Jesus revives the daughter of a religious leader. Luke tells a story where Jesus revives a widow’s son during his funeral. And in the book of Acts, Peter and Paul each revive a dead person.

But do we care about such strange stories? My guess is that many people in the church never think about them.

Jesus’ resurrection is different, of course.

It is now almost 19 years since former United Church of Canada Moderator, Bill Phipps, caused a minor firestorm in the Canadian media when he said in an interview that he questioned the resurrection of Jesus as a scientific fact.

[By the way, I was pleased to hear that now-retired Moderator Bill Phipps, who lives in Calgary, worshipped here on January 31 and saw the “Reconciling Edmonton” art exhibit that Mary-Anne Janewski spearheaded.]

I agree with Moderator Phipps. The miracle of bodily resuscitation raises more questions than it answers. For one, if such miracles are possible, why does God not resort to them more frequently, or always?

Second, in an intercultural world where all of the world’s sacred stories jostle beside one another in every school and workplace, it seems silly to maintain the uniqueness of the miracles of each set of stories.

Finally, I consider the various stories of physical resuscitation in the Bible as a barrier to faith. The spiritual path exists to help us rise above the fears and attachments of our egos and to enter an ocean of love that unites all of life. This is our task on this side of the grave. Why would it be any different after death?

In today’s Parable, Jesus provides us with an example of resurrection. It is the new life that the younger son enters when he repents.

Of course, the resurrection of Jesus is a more significant story than the one about the prodigal son. Jesus is our symbol of God in human form. As such, Jesus’ new life at Easter is about the regeneration of the power of God’s Love for the entire world, and not just the story of one person’s new life in Christ.

Nevertheless, I am pleased that Luke includes today’s parable. In this Holy Season of Lent in which we walk to the cross and beyond to new life at Easter, it reminds me that Easter does not have to be about unbelievable miracles. For me, Easter is about the joy of being welcomed home again by God’s Amazing Grace.

And for this I say, “Thanks be to God.”


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