Hey, What About Me?
February 22, 2004
The Lord longs to be gracious to you; he rises to show you compassion. For the Lord is a God of justice. Blessed are all who wait for him! O people of Zion, who live in Jerusalem, you will weep no more. How gracious he will be when you cry for help! As soon as he hears, he will answer you. Although the Lord gives you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, your teachers will be hidden no more; with your own eyes you will see them. Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you saying, "This is the way; walk in it."
Jesus continued: "There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, 'Father, give me my share of the estate.' So he divided his property between them.
"Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country, and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
"When he came to his senses, he said, 'How many of my father's hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.' So he got up and went to his father.
"But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. The son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired men.'
"But the father said to his servants, 'Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let's have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' So they began to celebrate.
"Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 'Your brother has come,' he replied, 'and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.'
"The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, 'Look! All these years I've been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!'
"'My son,' the father said, 'you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.'"
Reading from Swedenborg
People who do good for the sake of reward do perform useful services, and act as servants. Yet they are among those in the Lord's kingdom who occupy the lowest position. The good they receive they pass on only to those who can repay them. They overlook all others, who may be in the greatest need. If they do help them, it is so that the Lord will reward them. They think that what they do earns them merit, and that they therefore deserve the Lord's mercy. So they depart from humility; and as much as they depart from it, they depart from a state in which they can receive blessing and happiness from the Lord through heaven. So we can see that in the next life such people are engaged in useful services, but they are the lowest ranking servants. (Arcana Coelestia #6389)
The Lord longs to be gracious to you; he rises to show you compassion. (Isaiah 30:18)
We might wonder about the parenting skills of a father who, when his younger son says, "Hey, what about me?" simply hands over the kid's inheritance. The son proceeds to demonstrate that he does not have the wisdom or maturity to handle it, as the money burns a hole in his pocket. What kind of parent would supply such a knucklehead with wealth he couldn't manage? The son takes these gifts, separates himself from his home, and runs himself directly into trouble. His new lifestyle runs dry, and pigs eat better than he does.
He looks at himself, looks at the pigs, remembers his father's servants, and he once again has the inspiration to say, "Hey, what about me?" His hunger drives him back to his father's house in humiliation, willing to settle for being a slave as long as that means being housed and fed.
Well, maybe we should wonder about the parenting skills of a Creator who bestows wondrous spiritual gifts on people too immature to appreciate what we have. The son in the story is not the only human being to demonstrate that he does not understand the wealth he's been given by the Father. He could be the poster boy for humanity--squandering love, intelligence, usefulness, and natural resources for our own "what about me?" goals.
But most of us probably do not identify strongly with the younger brother in this story. We can, of course. We have all had the opportunity to waste our gifts. And even though we might want to sit in judgment of the older brother (he is, after all, a caricature of a Pharisee, and none of us would admit to being one of them!) the truth is that most of us probably sympathize more than a little bit when the hard-working, loyal, law-abiding, obedient, stay-at-home sibling says, "Hey, what about me?"
Indeed, there is something about this story that makes us sit up and say "That's not fair!" when the father throws a wild wingding for the lost son, and the older son isn't even invited!
The father surprises us all--reader and sons alike. The younger son came home with his tail between his legs. Repentant, he expects to have a different status than before. And he does! But it is not the state of a slave--which is what he thought he would have to settle for--but the status of an honored person. When we come home to heaven, we find our divine inheritance is still there, and we are welcome to it!
The older son is not only surprised by the same turn of events, but is told he never really was responsible with his share of the inheritance, either. He claims that he "works like slave." And indeed, "slave" is an apt term for this son, who thinks in terms of rewards. Swedenborg tells us that in heaven, people who do good for the sake of reward are still useful, but they occupy the lowest place. The son protests that all his obedience and hard work never earned him a party. But the father counters with, "All that I have is yours." The older son had far more than he realized--and not because he worked like a slave, but because it was his father's good pleasure to give it to him. "All who are in the Lord's kingdom are heirs; for they live from the Lord's life" (Arcana Coelestia #1799). Living a heavenly life is its own party!
Like most of us, the older son wants justice--and "justice" means that a good life earns reward, and an irresponsible life earns punishment. Think of someone you find truly despicable--my favorites right now are the executives of Enron, who gave themselves several more million dollars in "bonuses" while driving their company into bankruptcy and ruining thousands of employees' incomes and retirement funds. If Ken Lay ends up in heaven, am I going to celebrate and say, "Oh, look who's home!"? No way! I am going to shake my fist at the Lord and yell, "What's he doing here? No fair!" I know how the older son feels; you do, too.
But the father surprises us: heaven doesn't think in terms of reward and punishment (see Luke 17:9-10). Heavenly justice is based on love and wisdom. Besides, it is more fulfilling to run, embrace, and throw a party than it is to mope in the dooryard.
In the face of one son who says, "let me live as a slave in your household" and the other who refuses to even recognize the younger son as his brother, let alone to celebrate his return, the father says to both, "Hey, what about me? What about my way? What about a better way?" The word "prodigal" can mean "wasteful," but it also means "to spend lavishly." This is a story of a prodigal father, who is lavish with spiritual gifts, and then lavish with mercy. We are reminded once again that, "'Your thoughts are not my thoughts, nor are your ways my ways,' says the Lord" (Isaiah 55:8). God is merciful because God is just.
Jesus tells this story to Pharisees to illustrate that there will be rejoicing in heaven over the return of the lost sinner. The irony is that both sons were lost. One got so lost that he knew it, repented, and aimed himself at his father's house. His father saw him coming, and ran to meet him. God is perfectly happy to meet us where we are--especially if we are headed in the right direction. The younger son has a reunion. It is his humility that puts him "a state in which he can receive blessing and happiness from the Lord."
The older son, though, has stalled out in the front yard, having choked on a sense of justice that is simply not spiritually advanced enough to allow him to see what his father sees. Even though he lives with him, the son does not understand the father's ways. Indeed, the son asks a servant to help him understand this odd occurrence. The father comes to this son, too, meeting him where he is. The father pleads with his son to come in. The Lord misses us when we separate ourselves--whether we run off to waste our gifts or stay home and waste them in loveless acts of obedience. Just as Jesus wants tax collectors and prostitutes to turn their lives around, he also wants Pharisees to do the same. There will be rejoicing in heaven for either.
Friends, let's be honest about our lives and the way we live them. It is easy to look down on the younger brother and see him as a wretch. It is not so easy to see the son who stayed home, kept his nose clean, met his responsibilities, went to synagogue every week, paid his taxes, drove the speed limit, worked conscientiously, and was a good citizen--just like us--as a wretch. None of us is perfect; we all have room to grow. And I believe that all people are redeemable, so I have hope for the older brother. I have hope for me; I have hope for you.
It is possible to be squeaky clean by society's standards and still be a wretch and get stalled out in heaven's front yard. It is possible to be squeaky clean and still need to repent.
Captain John Newton could tell us about that. One day he woke up and realized that although it was legal to be a slave trader, it was immoral. Maybe he heard his cargo saying, "Hey, what about me?" He identified this realization as grace, turned his life around, and matured spiritually. I'd like to invite you all to finish this sermon with your own voices by singing "Amazing Grace."
May we help each other to find our lost sheep. May we light our lamps and join in the sweeping to find our lost coins. May we run, embracing, to each other when we see a repentant heart. May we not forget to party. And may we act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. Amen.