“Jesus Paints God” Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Delivered to Church for the Highlands
Sunday, March 10, 2013
Millions of people tuned in this past week to watch the History Channel’s new hit TV show, The Bible. I watched the first episode and learned a lot. There were no dinosaurs on Noah’s ark, everyone in the Bible (except the angels) was white, and that God (as well as everyone else) sounds like Adele. It was interesting to watch and I will likely keep tuning in, but I did have some concerns about some things that were out of place. One thing I think they did get right was how the people of the time viewed God. With each character highlighted–Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah, Abraham, Sara, Issac, Joshua, Pharaoh, and Moses–there was a particular portrayal of God. God to them was a god of wrath, anger, and violence. Adam and Eve discovered this while being shown the exit to the Garden, Noah saw it while watching his neighbors drown outside his boat, Abraham saw it as he watched Sodom get zapped by God, Lot’s wife experienced it while turning to salt, the parents of firstborn children in Egypt witnessed it as God took them out all at once, and the story goes on. The History Channel did not embellish these stories. They actually left out much of the gory details. I have tried to put myself in the shoes of someone not familiar with the Bible, someone like most of the people in our world these days, perhaps even most Christians. I imagine their questions are along the lines of, “Is this really the God of the Bible? Is this what God is like? Would God really cause countless innocent little boys and girls around the world to drown in the wrath of his anger? Is this the correct picture of God?” Tough questions. I’m hoping they get to Jesus soon.
The reading from Luke’s Gospel does a great job of getting us to Jesus this morning. The story Jesus told is without question one of the most famous stories ever told and retold. And who better to tell it than Jesus, the master storyteller, the one who knows best what God is like. What Jesus does here in this short story is to use words, a plot, and just three characters to paint a realistic picture of God. If we really want to see what God is like, according to Jesus, we must look at the portrait he is painting.
Now with all stories, there is some context, some familiar scene or setting with which the audience hearing it can identify. This was so with Jesus and his audience that day. Our reading today starts with the first three verses of chapter 15, but then skips to verse 11b. What we miss in that skip is the other two stories Jesus told before the one about the prodigal son, which is a third part in a trilogy about lost things. The first one is about a lost sheep and the second is about a lost coin. Then comes the lost son. By the time Jesus gets to the end of the lost son story, it had to be obvious that the theme was about lost things. That’s where we preachers tend to go with it. And that’s not a wrong direction. But, could it also be that the emphasis in the stories is not as much about what was lost, but the one who finds? In this season of Lent, I believe we would do well to spend some time looking at the One who finds; at what Jesus wants the world to know about the Father.
The people Jesus told the story to were well versed in the stories in the first episode of the Bible. They told them to each other, passing them down orally within their families and synagogues. Their view of God was conditioned by these stories, their circumstances, and by their own experiences. Like we saw last week, they are checking their view of God when things like the Tower of Siloam falls and kills those beneath it. Did God cause this to happen? Is the God I have heard about and known the kind of God who would do this to people? The thinking of the time, much as it is now, was deeply rooted in a God of wrath. If they didn’t believe that, they could have believed that God was not involved in the tower or anything else for that matter. To them, God was a transcendent being, uninvolved in the events of his creation. Jesus crafted his story to address both kinds of thinking, as well as any that was in between these two views. His point to the story would provide a whole new way for them to see God.
The whole new view of God for them wasn’t necessarily new, just new to them. Jesus had already been portraying God in it day after day, in place after place. Here he uses a father, dealing with a son who wants to leave him and his dreams for him, to show what God is like. The son asks for his share of the inheritance, essentially saying to his father that he was as good as dead. The father gives it to him, no doubt with tears welling up in his eyes as he feels the pain of separation from his son, from someone he has loved without limit since the day he first held him in his arms. His mind must have been flooded in that moment of time they had spent together, of hunting trips they had shared, of the way they would recite the Shema together everyday before chores and every night before going to sleep. The father knows he cannot keep his son there. Even if he could, it would not be what is best for his son. His son has to make his own choices, living with their results. So he lets his son walk out of the house and watches him go down the road. The picture Jesus painted for his audience is of a father who is right there on the front porch of his house, gazing with a broken heart full of love, watching his son disappear into the distance beyond the edge of their property. What Jesus shows about the father, in his eyes, is not just a look of deep disappointment. He shows a glimmer of hope still in his eyes as Jesus noted that the father never stopped looking for his son to come back home. The disappointment of a teary eye of separation does not conceal the hope of reconciliation.
Henri Nouwen wrote in his book, The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming,
Now I wonder whether I have sufficiently realized that during all this time God has been trying to find me, to know me, and to love me. The question is not “How am I to find God?” but “How am I to let myself be found by him?” The question is not “How am I to know God?” but “How am I to let myself be known by God?” And, finally, the question is not “How am I to love God?” but “How am I to let myself be loved by God?” God is looking into the distance for me, trying to find me, and longing to bring me home.[i]
Seeing a painting of Rembrandt’s of the son in a gallery in St. Petersburg, Russia, radically transformed Nouwen, leading him to see God in a whole new way.
This painting of God by Jesus is one that is to go out on a gallery open for the entire world to see. Jesus took it on tour, then placed it on public display in such a way that anyone could see it. Jesus wanted the public to know that God was the kind of Heavenly Father who never quits on his kids, who allows them their freedom, who suffers their rejection, who never quits looking for them when they wander off, and who, instead of saying “I told you so” with a shaking finger, embraces us with a hug and a big party. The way Jesus portrayed God was unbelievable, at least by some. Jesus painted for them what this Father looked like.
Have you been to this gallery? Have you seen Jesus’ portrayal of God? Or, are you allowing other people, current events, and popular understandings of God shape how you see him? Some people get so caught up with their sins and their failures that they just can’t accept that they will be accepted back home. Others continue to eat the slop of their surroundings rather than remember what life could be like if they went back home. What Jesus does for our understanding of God is just what he did for the people in his audience that day. He clarifies it. He perfects it. He embodies it. He allows us to enter the story as a son, identifying with childish rebellion and sel-centered living. He provides for us a way to see it from a brother, challenging the Father’s grace and unconditional love. He opens our eyes to see the enduring and patient love of a Father who never allows the sins of his child get in the way of the abundance of his love.
Ernest Hemingway wrote a story about a father and his teenage son. In the story, the relationship had become somewhat strained, and the teenage son ran away from home. His father began a journey in search of that rebellious son. Finally, in Madrid, Spain, in a last desperate attempt to find the boy, the father put an ad in the local newspaper. The ad read: “Dear Paco, Meet me in front of the newspaper office at noon. All is forgiven. I love you. Your father.” The next day, in front of the newspaper office, eight hundred Pacos showed up. They were all seeking forgiveness. They were all seeking the love of their father.[ii]
So are we. Jesus has shown us that such love seeks us out, meeting us on the road of our return.
[i] Henri J.M. Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming
[ii] George Munzing, “Living a Life of Integrity,” Preaching Today, Tape No. 32)