Readings for 4th Sunday of Lent: Jos. 5:9A, 10-12; Ps. 34:2-7; 2 Cor. 5: 17-21; Lk. 15: 1-3, 11-32
The rise of Donald Trump has a lot of people worried. Jerry Falwell Jr. and Pat Robertson however are not among them. Rev. Falwell, the president of Liberty University, has called Mr. Trump “one of the greatest visionaries of our time.” Pat Robertson, the founder and chairman of the Christian Broadcasting Network, finds the billionaire universally inspirational.
As New York Times columnist, Peter Wehner, has pointed out, such endorsements are surprising. After all, Mr. Trump seems to be the antithesis of what Evangelicals claim to endorse. If they hated Bill Clinton for his lack of moral probity, they have in Donald Trump a Bill Clinton in spades. Trump’s been married three times, owns gambling casinos and strip clubs, and hasn’t consistently darkened the door of a church for many years – although he does claim to have “eaten my little cracker,” and “drunk my little wine” in liturgical context more than once in the recent past. Moreover, he has supported what Evangelicals call “partial-birth abortion.” Besides, his personal character seems boastful, self-centered and ruthless. None of those qualities seems particularly Christ-like.
What’s up with all that?
Wehner explains it in terms of scapegoating. White evangelicals, he says, “feel increasingly powerless, beaten down, aggrieved and under attack.” They’ve been left out of any “recovery” since the Great Recession of ’07. And demographics seem to be against them. They sense that whites are falling into minority status – a feeling only aggravated by eight years of having an African-American in the White House. They need an Alpha Male like Trump to “take our country back” from “those people” regardless of their champion’s moral deficits.
Despite such rationalizations, the whole dynamic smacks of a certain hypocrisy fueled by resentment – jealousy stemming from loss of status before others seen as less deserving.
This morning’s gospel “Parable of the Prodigal Son” addresses resentment of that kind. It is one of the most beautiful and well-known stories in World Literature. However, standard readings of the parable domesticate it. They turn the parable into an allegory and in so doing rob it of the cutting edge which connects with today’s Angry White Christians. Please think about that with me.
Standard readings of “The Prodigal Son” make it a thinly veiled allegory about God and us. God is the father in the story, non-judgmental, full of compassion, willing to overlook faults and sins. Meanwhile, each of us is the wayward son who temporarily wanders away from home only to return after realizing the emptiness of life without God. The older brother represents the few who have never wandered, but who are judgmental towards those who have.
Such reading never fails to touch our hearts and fill us with hope, since the story presents such a loving image of God so different from the threatening Judge of traditional Christian preaching. And besides, since most of us identify with the prodigal rather than with the older brother, we’re drawn to the image of a God who seems more loving towards the sinner than towards the saint.
Though beautiful and inspiring, such allegorical reading distorts Jesus’ message, because it makes us comfortable rather than shaking us up. At least that’s what modern scripture scholarship tells us. Those studies remind us that Jesus’ stories were parables not allegories. Allegories, of course, are general tales in which each character stands for something else.
Parables on the other hand are very particular rather than general stories about the human condition. Parables are addressed to particular people – to make them uncomfortable with their preconceptions and cause them to think more deeply about the central focus of Jesus’ teaching, the Kingdom of God. In the gospels, Jesus’ parables are usually aimed at his opponents who ask him questions with an eye to trapping or discrediting him. Jesus’ parables turn the tables on his opponents and call them to repentance.
That’s the case with the “Parable of the Prodigal Son.” It contrasts two very particular historical groups absolutely central to the teaching career of Jesus of Nazareth. On the one hand, there is Jesus’ inner circle, “tax collectors and sinners.” These included sex workers, lepers, beggars, poor peasants, fishermen, shepherds, day-laborers, insurgents, and non-Jews, all of whom were especially receptive to Jesus’ teaching. On the other there are the Pharisees and Scribes. They along with the rabbis and temple priesthood were responsible for safeguarding the purity of the Jewish religion. They were Jesus’ antagonists.
Today’s gospel tells us that the sinners were “coming near to Jesus and listening to him.” For their part the Pharisees and Scribes stood afar and were observing Jesus’ interaction with the unwashed and shaking their heads in disapproval. They were “grumbling,” the gospel says, and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” That’s a key point in the reading – Jesus was eating with the hungry, poor, and unclean.
The gospel goes on, “So he told them this parable” – the parable of the prodigal son. In other words, the parable was addressed to the Pharisees and Scribes. And the story not about God and humans in general. It’s simply about a father and two sons and the way things work in the Kingdom of God, which (to repeat) was consistently the focus of Jesus’ preaching.
According to Jesus, that New Order will be a Great Party to which everyone is invited. The party will go on and on. There will be laughter, singing and dancing and the wine will never run out. The “fatted calf” will be slaughtered and there will be an overabundance of food. That’s the future willed by the one Jesus called “Father.”
Jesus was anticipating that order by practicing the table fellowship with sinners and outcasts referenced at the beginning of today’s reading. At the kingdom’s banquet, the sinners gathered around Jesus in this morning’s gospel will be the first to accept the invitation. And though the Scribes and Pharisees are invited as well, they freely choose to exclude themselves. Like the older brother, they are “angry and refuse to go in.”
What I’m saying is that the lesson of today’s gospel (read as a parable rather than an allegory) is: Join the Party! Anticipate the New Order of the Kingdom in the here and now. Follow Jesus’ example, sit down with the unwashed, poor and despised. After all, the kingdom of God belongs to them – and to anyone (even the priests, scribes, rabbis, Pharisees, and any of us) who can overcome our reluctance to descend to Jesus’ level and to that of the kind of people he counted as his special friends.
What can that possible mean for us in the age of Angry White Christians? If we keep Jesus’ original meaning in mind, we’ll see “the Prodigal Son” as a call to change attitudes towards those belittled and feared by Mr. Trump’s followers — Muslims, Mexicans, immigrants in general, Black Lives Matters protestors, the families of terrorists the billionaire would “go after,” and those he would torture by means worse than water-boarding.
That’s a hard message for most middle-to-upper class white people to hear. Like the culture of the professionally religious of Jesus’ day, ours despises those with whom Jesus ate and drank. In fact, it teaches us to dislike people resembling Jesus himself. Our culture sees those in Jesus’ class as lazy, dishonest, and undeserving. That’s the vision exploited by politicians like Donald Trump.
So today’s parable should make us squirm just as Jesus’ original words must have embarrassed the scribes and Pharisees. They should make would-be Christian supporters of Donald Trump squirm as well. Being a follower of Jesus has nothing to do with resentment, jealousy or exclusion. Quite the opposite.
But Jesus’ parable shouldn’t just embarrass. His words should be hopeful too. Like the father in the parable, he’s telling angry whites, his self-righteous sons and daughters, “We’re having a party. Why don’t you join us? Come in and share what you have, adopt God’s political program which creates a world with room for everyone – even the ‘undeserving’.”
In other words, it’s not God who excludes us from the Kingdom’s feast. It’s our own prejudice and choice.
It’s following politicians like Donald Trump rather than Jesus of Nazareth.