The Rise and Fall of the Prodigal Empire

Text: Luke 15: 11-31 (the Parable of the Prodigal Son)

During Lent, we journey to Jerusalem with Jesus. This can feel like a dark season because it ends in Jesus’ death. But the path is illuminated by the light of Easter, which shines back at us. This light is the promise of resurrection.

The Parable of the Prodigal Son views death and resurrection as metaphors. Twice the father says that his errant younger son – the Prodigal – has died but is now alive. He was lost but is now found. Death may be inevitable. But new life often arises from it. The parable is one for both Lent and Easter.

This parable has often been viewed as a precis of life’s spiritual journey. In our foolish youth, many of us chafe at parental traditions and head off into a far country to seek our fortune. Unfortunately, we often stumble. We may fail in career or marriage. We may find ourselves involved in unjust social movements. We may be caught in oppressive social structures that can feel as restrictive as the family traditions we have left behind.

The parable suggests that these failures or disappointments can be so painful that they feel like death. The Good News is that such moments of failure and pain are also opportunities for grief, conversion and repentance. After hitting rock bottom, sometimes we return home chastened, but with hope still alive.

The extravagant welcome of the father in the parable illustrates the gracious possibility of new life. The younger son may or may not be sincere in his words of repentance to his father. The older son may be right to be skeptical. Regardless, the father rushes to greet his son with open arms and plans a party even before the Prodigal says a word.

The parable says that those who have died can live again; and that those who are lost can be found.

But if death and resurrection refer to spiritual crises and spiritual rebirth, why does the church put so much emphasis on the death of Jesus?

This week, I engaged in a Facebook thread of United Church ministers. A minister in Toronto raised the age-old question of why Jesus died on the cross on Good Friday. In my comments, I stated that for me Good Friday is not about an historical event. It is a metaphor for humiliation. Nor is Easter about an historical event. It is a metaphor for rising to a new way of life following ‘death’ as on a cross.

As the apostle Paul wrote, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). Paul had experienced the painful death of illusions in the possibility of new tribal king like David (the Christ) and a new tribal god like YHWH (Jesus) and the mystical joy of finding that both sovereignty (the Christ) and divinity (Jesus) lived in the space where his ego used to be.

Regardless of what happened to Jesus of Nazareth in Jerusalem almost 2,000 years ago, Paul experienced his own Good Friday and his Easter, and that meant everything to him. Regardless of whether the Prodigal ever knew of the death and resurrection of Jesus, he had his own Good Friday and Easter, which is why the story may matter to us.

The key moment in the Parable for me is when the Prodigal realizes that he could go home again. There is no inevitability to this moment. In the ups and downs of life, it is possible to ignore one’s predicament and misery indefinitely. But I hope that all us can remember moments when grief has helped us to accept reality and therefore to realize that we can return home.

Unfortunately, the ability to deny painful realities seems almost unlimited. To illustrate, I now turn briefly to the Brexit debacle in the United Kingdom.

This past Friday was supposed to the date that the UK left the European Union. But in vote after vote, the UK Parliament finds itself unable to agree on any of the many available options.

In my opinion, Britain is ripping itself apart because it is former empire living in denial of its own death.

My ancestral homelands of Northern Ireland and Scotland voted to remain in Europe and as did most young people. But overwhelming majorities against Europe in rural England led to the narrow victory of Brexit in a referendum three years ago.

This 2016 vote on Brexit allowed many people in England to vent racist sentiments with little understanding of what leaving the EU would actually mean.

Britain was on the “winning” side of the First World War and so many people in England still feel about Britain the way their ancestors did when its Empire ruled the world.

Thankfully, the British Empire is a pale shadow of its former self, but many people in England live in denial of how the world has evolved over the past 100 years. This is one reason, I believe, why none of Britain’s leaders have been able to create a consensus that would allow Britain to either remain in the EU or leave in a way that isn’t terribly destructive.

As Brexit continues to stumble towards who-knows-what end this spring, it may take even greater humiliation for Britain before people in England finally grieve the end of Empire and to move towards new life as citizens of the world.

Each Lent, the church invites us to experience Good Friday and Easter. This involves examining our illusions, painfully shedding some of them, and preparing the way for new life. Participating in Lent and Easter doesn’t necessitate belief in what happened in Jerusalem almost 2,000 years ago. Nor does it rely on whether the parable of the Prodigal is based on an “actual” story. It relies on the reality of the human condition and how we might cope and thrive in any moment of wonder and awe.

Pretty much every life has moments that feel like crucifixion. And happily, pretty much every life has gracious moments that feel like resurrection.

The Parable reminds us that we are spiritual beings who are struggling in lives marked by a particular family, a particular moment in time, and a particular society.

As mortal humans trying to manage our fears and desires and trying to pursue our sacred values, we often stumble. But as many times as we stumble, the arms of Love’s Mercy open to us and offer to bring us back home; and as many times as we die, we can rise to new life that is closer to the God who is Love.

My prayer is that this Lent we will feel our hearts being shaped by stories of prodigals and disciples and be reminded that out of defeat, disappointment, and death, God’s Grace can help us to rise to a resurrected life that is one of reunion, joy, and the eternal Easter of light.

May it be so. Amen.

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