Monday, 30 March 2015

Meditation: THE GOD WHO BRINGS US HOME - by John de Gruchy


Luke 15:11-20
"He ran and put his arms around him and kissed him."

We know the story Jesus tells very well.  A father, and presumably also a mother, has two sons.  The younger grabs his inheritance and sets off to find freedom, fun and fortune.  He is glad to be shot of his elder brother who is a self-righteous pain the neck.  The elder son says good riddance to bad rubbish.  He now has his parents to himself and will make sure that when the old folk die he will not only get his share of the inheritance, but the house and all its contents as well!   But each day the parents anxiously wait for news from the far country.  They hear nothing. Their prodigal is too busy using his freedom and inheritance to have fun. No time for SMS' or e-mails.  He is also making bad choices, bad friends, and finally ends up in a bad place, his life spiralling downwards.  When he hits rock bottom he know he has made a terrible mistake, but a homing instinct gets to work, picks him up and leads him back home.  The parents are overjoyed. They welcome him with embraces and kisses, and throw a party to celebrate his homecoming.  Meanwhile the elder self-righteous brother who played by the book and diligently and scrupulously kept the rules, is peeved, complains that his father is far too lenient, is now  ignoring him, and in a huff refuses to join the party.  He slams his door shut and plugs his ears to keep out the sound of the celebration.

Some early church interpreters thought the parable was about the relationship between Jews and Gentiles.  The son that stayed home and obeyed the rules represents the righteous Jews who remained faithful to the Law of Moses and at home in the household of God; the son who left home, broke all the rules and wandered in the wilderness, represented the Gentiles, estranged from God and aliens in the household of faith.  In the context of the early struggles between the church and the synagogue we can understand why the parable was interpreted in that way. 

But the story is universal,  We immediately recognise the characters.   We might even recognise ourselves in them.  For it is about us, our relationships and what we do with our lives.  Whether we focus on the prodigal or the elder son, it is about human self-centredness,  our self-centredness; it is about the culture of me and mine.   The prodigal is hell-bent on self-gratification; the elder son is equally hell-bent on self-righteousness.  In his desire for personal freedom the prodigal broke of the rules that make freedom possible.  In his desire for self-righteousness, the elder son made a fetish of the rules.  He forgot that all they are summed up in the law of  love.

The parable is also about God as parent.  Not everyone understands God in this way.  I have sympathy for atheists who are honest enough to say they cannot believe in God, at least in God as understood by many people who claim to be believers.  Give me an honest atheist any day, especially one who is concerned about justice and serves those in need, than someone who believes that God sanctions war, approves racism, and condemns people to hell whether in this life of or hereafter.  If that is who God is, then I too am an atheist.  I want my freedom from the shackles of such religion; I want my inheritance as a human being; I want to get as far away as possible from the church that proclaims this God,  and make my own way in the world.  If my elder brother wants to stay home, go to church, keep all the rules, and worship that kind of God, good luck to him.  I need fresh air!  Not rules that dehumanize both me and others.

The story of the prodigal son can also be read as a journey of self-discovery, like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz who has to leave home in order to find herself.  As such it is a story about the awakening of self-consciousness, the  dawning of adolescence, the time when we discover that Father Christmas and the tooth-fairy are childish fantasies and that religion is a threat to well-being -- it is time to move on, to discover the wide world, find freedom and stand on your own two feet in freedom.   By contrast, for his older brother,  the way to negotiate adolescence is through religion -- but religion as  a set of rules and traditions that answers all questions with absolutes, providing status and security.   Not for him the wide horizons and risks of experience, or even the risk of loving someone as foolish as his brother.  He is comfortable in his isolation from those unclean, has no doubts only certainties.  But he is beginning to doubt his parents' sanity.  Why are they so extravagantly and foolishly  welcoming his brother home, and making such a fuss about him?  Have they lost their senses?  Whatever happened to all the family rules?  They are forgiving even before his brother is repenting; they are embracing him before he has even taken a hot bath to wash away the dirt and smells of his sojourn in the pigsty of iniquity. 

Now what if, for Jesus, the parents represent his understanding of God?  Who is this God he is talking about, who seems to break his own rules, the God beyond conventional religion and customary morality?  The God who sets us free to be ourselves, to be more truly human, to be there for others?  This foolish and weak God, as St. Paul describes the message of the cross.  This is not only the God who waits for us to return home, but the God who comes running to meet us, embracing us with kisses.  The God who forgives us in advance, already sensing that we are sorry  The God who prepares a banquet so that we can all celebrate the home-coming with music and laughter. 

But what about the elder son who is still sulking in his bedroom?  His parents love him equally and long for him to come to the party.  He stayed home  but has yet to discover what home is about, and he won't do so until he joins the celebration.   Maybe he, too, in time, will also come to his senses and know that faith in God is not primarily about rules and religion, but about grace and forgiveness.   It is not even about me; it is about us.   Only when the elder son learns that, and loves his brother truly,  will he be free of the shackles that bind him and able to join the party and truly be at home. 

So what does the parable tell us about home?  Is home a place?  Yes, of course, in some sense it is a place.  But it is far more than a place.  When Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz returns home from her wanderings in a far country,  home is still the farm she had left.  But she sees it differently as though she had visited it now for the first time.  Home has become the people she loved. Yes, home is that network of relations that gives meaning to our lives.  This slowly began to dawn on the prodigal in that far country; it had yet to dawn on his elder brother even though it was staring him in the face.  And, of course, in coming home we recognise at last that God is no longer the God of our adolescence.  God is the One who was with us in the pigsty as he was on the cross, the One who meets us on the road to bring us home, the One who is yearning for us to get out of the box of bad religion --  for God is the One in whom we "live move and have our being," the home towards which we are led, and where it all comes together.

John de Gruchy
Volmoed 26 March 2015 


BOOK LAUNCH: 'SAWDUST & SOUL' - John de Gruchy
Woodwork, creativity and spirituality...

We launch John's new book with William J. Everett going under above mentioned title with a talk by De Gruchy on 'Christianity & the Arts', comments by Peter Storey and responses by Lerato Maduna.

Monday, 13 April 7pm
The venue for this site-specific event is:
{fleld office} Coffee Shop, WOODSTOCK EXCHANGE, 66 Albert Rd., Woodstock. Parking secured and directions to follow.
Book for R30 your space at or 021 686 1269
Refreshments and books for sale.

Monday 20th April 6.30 for 7.00 p.m.
Rondebosch United Church, Belmont Road.
Roderick Hewitt, Jamaican theologian and author, currently teaching at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.
“Bob Marley’s ‘Redemption song’ in conversation with Steve de Gruchy’s ‘Olive Agenda’.

Refreshments after the lecture

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