The parables of Jesus are invitations to view our reality, and to relate to the world we live in, in a new way. I should not be surprised that I end up being surprised when I spend time with these holy and subversive stories. They are dangerous because they undermine conventional thinking, and inspire dis-ease- a lessened sense of ease with the way things are.
A week ago I preached on the Parable of the Good Samaritan. What I took away from my prayer and study around that story is that "who is my neighbour?" is actually the wrong question. (At least when asked in a legalistic, help me define the limits of my responsibility for others, kind of way.) Questions more faithful to the way of Jesus might be, " How do I be a real neighbour? " "How can I live with compassion?"
This past week I worked with the Parable of the Prodigal. I began with the idea that I would use the story of the younger son to talk about what classical Christian spirituality called the Threefold Path. In our journey towards God, there are three aspects: Purgation, Illumination, and Union.
Purgation is overcoming the distractions and compulsions of the world, by becoming aware of their hold on us, and developing a disciplined life so that we are not bound by them. (The Prodigal Son spends his inheritance on riotous living, and is left with nothing to show for it. He ends up doing hard labour on a pig farm, and longing for the comforts of his family home.)
Illumination is the beginning of our consciousness that there is more to life than we once thought. It is as if we are waking up to the spiritual depth and meaning present in everything. (The Parable says the younger son "came to his senses". He decided to seek his father's forgiveness, saying that he had sinned against his father, and against heaven.)
Union, also called contemplation, or mystical prayer, is the gift of God's presence with us. (The father rushes out to meet his prodigal son on the road, and the parable describes the joy of a great celebration.)
My difficulty with re-telling the parable in terms of Purgation, Illumination, and Union was that when I read the story, it did not seem to me that the younger son had done enough in the Purgation phase, to warrant his Union, or Re-Union, with the God-figure in the story, his father.
I took my sermon in another direction, about the father's loving acceptance and grace towards both of the sons, because I recognized within myself that like the older brother, I still wanted to judge the prodigal. He didn't deserve (at least, not yet!) the forgiveness, love, and acceptance of the father.
That was the surprise for me this week. The whole point of the parable is that grace, love, forgiveness, when given freely, purely, by God, are absolutely unearned. And God offers them anyway.