Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch
preached at S.LUKE’S QUEEN’S PARK BRIGHTON Patronal Festival 2016
St.Luke has a very special place in my faith.
Matthew’s gospel shows the majesty of Christ.
John concentrates on His divinity.
Mark hurtles through His career and is best on the passion and crucifixion.
Luke is all about the compassion of Christ and His love of the poor. Luke’s God the Father is all tenderness and forgiveness.
But I want to start by sharing with you my love of cinema, especially Westerns.
Not “Bang! You’re dead”cowboys and Indians but the sort of Technicolor masterpieces of the 1950s (my tastes are showing my age, I’m afraid) - slow-burning sagas of sprawling cattle ranch dynasties and the feuds between the generations.
A typical storyline would involve 5000 acres, several thousand head of cattle, an ageing widowed cattle baron (probably played by Burl Ives), a faithful Mexican housekeeper, a dutiful spinster daughter and two sons, as different as chalk and cheese.
One is cold, dull and hardworking. A good role for the bitter and aloof Robert Ryan. The other is wild, spoilt, irresponsible, sexy and hellraising. I see a young blue-eyed Paul Newman in that part.
For my Hollywood screenplay, I am of course stealing the plot of the parable of the prodigal son. I’ve just had to add a couple of female characters to satisfy the studio, because the only female centre-stage in the original version is the unfortunate fatted calf.
This parable is unique to Luke’s gospel and is perhaps the most moving story in the bible. It is also ideal movie material: uncomfortable truths about the human condition plus a perfect depiction of the love of God.
The father’s treatment of each of his sons we will save up for last.
Let’s start with the young blue-eyed Paul Newman character. You can read him like a book: selfish, headstrong and naive.
As soon as he is of age, he demands impatiently that his father sell up some land and some livestock, however harmful this may be to the business, so that he can have his share of the inheritance in advance and go and splurge it on having a good time.
And the consequences are pathetically predictable. The money disappears even faster than he thought possible. He ends up penniless and starving and decides to go back home and ask for a menial job on his father’s farm.
He’s just a silly, cocky, immature boy who has got his come-uppance and you can’t really help feeling sorry for him and pleased that he has come to his senses. There always have been, and always will be, plenty of irresponsible youths like him who grab what they can and run away from home in a misguided bid for freedom. The tragedy is that, unlike him, so few of them make it back.
Now then, what about the elder brother?
I’m afraid he is by far the most problematic character. You see, wouldn’t you, like me, admit that the first time you heard the story, you instinctively identified with the feelings of the elder brother, with his sense of injustice and of having been slighted? We couldn’t see – perhaps we still can’t - why the story seems to imply that his attitude was wrong.
The fact is, Jesus touches a raw nerve here in His teaching.
The very same nerve He touched in His parable of the labourers in the vineyard. Because there as well, you see, most people instinctively line up with the workers who objected to the latecomers being paid as much for working one hour as they had agreed to for working all day.
Why is this particular nerve so raw?
I think the answer must be that humanity is too obsessed with its own ideas of rights, entitlements, justice and fairness. It’s bad enough when we think we haven’t received our just reward. But, oh my goodness, if we see someone else getting MORE than their just reward, then we really get het up.
But suppose for a moment that the father had shared the attitude of his elder son and said to the younger one: “How dare you darken my door again? You’re no son of mine. You got what you wanted long ago. On your bike!”
There’s justice for you. The elder brother would grin grimly. Or would he? What if, deep down, he was a good and kind chap?
The sight of his long-lost brother must have stirred conflicting emotions in him. If he saw him being given the order of the boot by their father, he might have been too churned up just to smirk with satisfaction. We’ll never know.
Justice is a good thing. In fact it is necessary as far as it goes: a civilized society cannot function without it.
But there is something higher and more precious than justice: the opening of the human heart , as Pope Francis keeps saying, wide enough for mercy.
I used to be a lawyer but I had to give that up when I entered the priesthood because I realized that law and love don’t always mix very well.
Justice is clear and transparent (its merit is in being seen to be done) but it’s essentially cold and impersonal. Mercy is warm, spontaneous, heartfelt and creative.
That is why Our Lord tells us that heaven rejoices more over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine so-called just men.
And the trouble is the resentful elder brother is a sinner who is in dire need of repentance. His sin is less obvious, less crass, than that of his younger brother.
It is the more insidious because his sense of self-worth and fear of being hard-done-by is a cancer gnawing away at his soul. It stops him entering sympathetically into his own father's joys and sorrows.
The commotion caused by his brother's unexpected return brings out the worst in him. He sulks. He whinges. Like the labourers in the vineyard, he jealously supposes himself to be wronged because someone else is treated with something more than justice.
Heaven doesn’t rejoice over the elder brother’s sense of right and wrong. Heaven doesn’t want “justice” meted out to the foolish youth. Heaven wants both sons to grow up, to take their cue from their father and make the family a loving whole again.
And so at last we come to the father-figure, the old cattle baron played by a genial pipe-smoking Burl Ives in my fantasy Western.
What can we learn from his behaviour about the nature of God? Well. Do you want the good news or the good news?
He cannot contain his joy at the return of the black sheep of the family. “While he was yet far off”, he runs to meet him, embraces him and forgives him everything before he has even been asked. It is simply enough that his lost and silly child has come back.
Then we turn to sulky-face. How does the father deal with sullen, stubborn, self-pity? Guess what - with love. With unconditional love.
He doesn’t demand of his elder son that he should be more gracious and grateful before he is accepted, any more than he demanded of his younger son that he should grovel or earn back his father’s favour by a spell in the doghouse before he is accepted.
Instead, the father speaks what Trevor Huddleston once called the most stupendous words in the whole gospel: “Son, you are with me always and all I have is yours.”
Those words, supremely gracious, which Jesus puts into the father’s mouth, are meant for you and me. God’s love does not depend on our making amends for our neglect of Him. It is unconditional.
But then of course the miracle is that, as soon as you realise God loves you whether you love Him or not, then you start to want to love Him and when you want to love him, then you do love Him and you automatically make any necessary amends.
As soon as we trust enough to accept that we are loved by God, there is no room for, there is no point in, self-righteousness or self-pity.
But dare we trust, or will we stubbornly prefer to rely on our own merits? Would we rather have strict justice, everything decided on a system of Brownie points, confident that we will outscore our neighbour? Or will we go for broke, go for mercy, like the prodigal?
You may have already appreciated that the story leaves us with an unanswered question.
As the music surges and the credits roll at the end of our film, the camera pans back to a medium range shot of the ranch-house and the immediately surrounding fields from the distance. We can’t pick out the figure of the elder son. What happened?
Did he persist in sulking, blocking his ears as the whoops of the hoe-down reached him? Or did he follow the lead of his younger brother, admit with an “aw heck” shrug and an embarrassed grin that he was making a bit of a fool of himself, and go indoors and join the party?
It is no accident that Jesus leaves this question open. He wants us to step into the shoes of the elder brother and answer for ourselves.