Anglican Church of Canada
March 31st, 2019 Lent IV
Sin, repentance, guilt, mercy – these are Lenten words. They are words that name a whole area of Christian experience, of religious experience in general, I suppose. They have proved serviceable in the past, at times have been even central ways of talking about the faith. They are also words that have largely gone out of favour, in part because of the way they have been used in the past. They are difficult words, because we’re not always sure exactly what we mean by them, and yet we sense we can’t do without them.
So let me tell you about my dog Phoebe. Phoebe is what is sometimes called a Valley bulldog – in other words, a mutt. A lot of boxer, bit of pitbull, maybe a bit of greyhound, a bit of who knows what. A lithe, agile, incredibly fast little thing, with unbounded energy and zest for life combined with a wrinkled, comically worried face. Watching her tear around in the woods makes the heart sing. That is why we called her Phoebe – the bright one, the shining one.
Phoebe has one major vice. When she is left alone, she gets anxious, and when she gets anxious, she needs to chew something. Whatever she can get her teeth into. Mostly plastic bags, paper, hydro bills, occasionally a shoe, an old sofa – we come home to find it shredded all over the floor.
And what we also find – this is why I’m telling you this – is a very sorry dog. Even before we find the mess, we know it’s there by the way she behaves. Cowering down on the floor, trembling, face averted, tail slowly wagging in an ingratiating sort of way, sometimes even cringing under the table. If the Animal Welfare people ever saw it, they would assume this dog was savagely beaten, which I assure you is not the case.
This is the picture that was in my mind last week when Lynn was talking about the way we often hear words like sin and repentance, how we are often tempted to live out the call to repentance. It is a combination of intense shame, a pervading sense of worthlessness, a fear of punishment, an attempt to ingratiate oneself with the angry, punitive God by making ourselves small, a desperate plea that one will not do it again, and the inevitability that one will do it again, that next week the whole charade will be acted out again.
That, I think, in an admittedly extreme and caricatured form, is the range of associations that words like sin and repentance call up in most of us. That is why so many people want nothing to do with words like this any more – they sense what has been so unhealthy in the way we use them.
This idea that repentance is a kind of cringing self-abasement is not healthy for us, for the human dignity and responsibility we are called to. But it’s also not healthy for our relationship to God. Our guilty conscience paints a picture of a vindictive, punishing God, just as surely and unjustly as Phoebe seems to assume I am about to beat her and reject her forever. When you think about it, you realize this is an act of idolatry – we are just projecting of our own sense of guilt and unworthiness onto God.
Now our faith assures us that God will not reject us forever – as I hope my dog knows in her heart of hearts that she will not be sent back to the kennel. What we do is we replace this primary fear of being driven away – just like our forebears were for their first transgression, in the old story of the garden of Eden – with a secondary ritual: we know that we will be forgiven, if and when we have shown sufficient contrition for our wrongdoing. And thus our rituals of penance: they are based in grace, they are designed for renewal – and yet they are haunted too by some of that ancient need to propitiate an angry deity.
All of this is the baggage we bring to such a familiar story as the one we just heard, Jesus’s parable of the son who strayed, and the father who welcomed him home. It is a classic tale – perhaps the classic tale – of sin and forgiveness. We fill out the account of the son’s wilful pride, his humiliation and contrition, and the father’s forgiveness, placing the son’s transgressions behind him and allowing a new start. We think about the story in terms of a clear, set script: first sin, then condemnation, then repentance, and finally, only then, forgiveness, a step-by-step process.
And yet, I would suggest, when we listen carefully to what Jesus is telling us, it doesn’t quite fit. Certainly the prodigal son plays his part well, even rehearsing his lines on the way home to his father. Certainly his elder brother is enthusiastic about the first steps in the drama, the sin and condemnation. And if he balks at the forgiveness, I would suggest because he considers it off script. It is not so much forgiveness itself he is objecting to, but the fact that the third step, repentance, seems to have been skipped.
But the Father, well the Father doesn’t seem to want to play at all. As the son approaches, ready to enact his ritual penance, his lines in which he trots out his unworthiness and plea for mercy all straight in his head, the father sees him afar off, he runs out to embrace him; when the son begins his spiel anyway, the father cuts him off, and brings him in to celebrate. He doesn’t want to hear his repentance and contrition. He doesn’t need it. He doesn’t need it because he is not in a state of righteous anger that needs to be placated by contrition and self-abasement. The father is not moved, doesn’t need to be moved, because he is firm and steady in the same place. He loves his son – he loved him before he left, he loved him during his time away, he loves him as he returns. The father has not changed: it is only the son who has changed.
The father does not speak, and does not allow others to speak, the narrative of sin, repentance, propitiation, and restoration. The words he uses are different: “this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” We have confused this story with our guilt-ridden story of repentance leading to forgiveness, but it is not the same story at all. It is a narrative of resurrection, of new life, of finding. On the cusp between the lostness and the restoration is not the ritual of contrition, but the gift, the discovery, the renewal, the awakening. The words in which Jesus describes it are remarkably simple: “when he came to himself.” Seen through Jesus’s eyes, then, it seems the son has not changed, either, not fundamentally. His mistakes have not defined him, made him a different person. He has simply, as it were, gone away from himself for a bit. And now he has found himself again, even as he has been found.
One more key phrase in the passage points to the nature of the father: he was filled with compassion. And the Greek here is that wonderful earthy word that is used so often in the gospels to speak of Jesus’s reaction to human suffering: esplanchnisthe – he was moved in his guts, in his bowels. He was moved spontaneously, moved by the love that he has within him. Compassion, we see, is not quite the same as mercy or forgiveness. It is not that he has been convinced to stand back from his anger and his vindictive justice. The father, too, comes to himself – he is touched simply by that love which is within him, that fundamental fact in his relationship to his son that nothing can change.
Sin, repentance, forgiveness – basic Lenten words, words we can’t, it seems, live without; but words we have difficulty living with. This is the lesson my dog taught me: that repentance cannot be a matter of guilt, shame, self-abasement, propitiation of an angry master. That surely cannot be our highest calling, our best response to human sin – because frankly dogs are much better at it than we are! It is the same lesson that my Saviour teaches me. He is speaking to a religious tradition that knows all about contrition and propitiation. They wrote the book on it. And here too, Jesus is holding up a rival, minority account of sin and repentance and the nature of God. He speaks of a God who does not need to be won over to our side, because he is already there, calling us not to abase ourselves, but simply to come to ourselves, to be the beloved children we are called to be.
Let’s ask the question this way: when we are repentant, where does our energy go? Do we put our energy into trying to placate an angry father, just like poor little Phoebe? Because Jesus is suggesting to us that that is not necessary, that is a waste of energy. We don’t need to change God’s attitude towards us: that is already and always love. The person we need to change, of course, is ourselves. We know that is not easy. It takes hard work, it takes perseverance in the face of failure, it takes compassion towards ourselves, and it takes the grace of God helping us come to ourselves, to believe we can be the person God believes we can. In the end, that is probably a lot harder than our regular spells of guilt and contrition. But it is so much more productive, so much more healing. The Father stands with open arms. Let us let him put the robe on us, and let us take our place at the feast.