Have you ever watched a small child struggle with the idea of a birthday party for somebody else? Picture this, a tiny tot walking with a parent up to the house of a friend, gripping a brightly wrapped present that is not for him. Now, he’s been prepped at home. It’s been carefully explained the present is for his buddy, not himself. He’s been told if he is a good boy he’ll get cake and ice cream and have a good time. Outside the house, this little boy hears the party inside. There’s music, laughter, and excitement and suddenly it’s all too much. How can all this fun be for someone else? He’s been good. He starts to cry. But, this isn’t ordinary crying. This is a one-scream cry that does not pause for breath. It goes higher and higher as lungs empty. Finally, the mouth is open but there is no sound at all. Color drains from the angry face. Lips go blue, the small body wobbles, … and … he’s down! The vigilant father, whose heart breaks a bit at the pain his son is putting himself through, catches the tyke. Seconds later, the reluctant party goer awakes, wobbles to his feet glassy eyed, goggles owlishly up at his parent with a what just happened look on his face … and the kind parent puts an arm around his shoulder and says, “Come on son, let’s go join the party.”
This situation is not all that different from the scene set in Luke 15:25-32, when the elder brother of the prodigal son discovers a party going on at home. When he finds out the party is for his irresponsible, wayward younger brother, the older brother throws his version of the toddler’s tantrum. He refuses to enter the house. When his father asks him to come inside, deep and bitter resentments peppered with harsh judgments pour forth. On the surface the elder brother seems to be the righteous sort we Christians strive to be. But, underneath it all he’s a resentful and judgmental mess. At our worst, we can be a lot like this too. We try so hard to do what is right, to follow God’s rules and Jesus’ examples, and in our zeal we create lots of extra and impossible rules. We find ourselves feeling trapped by it all. Feeling trapped makes us mean. And it shows. Back in 2005, Tim Burton made a wonderfully weird animated movie, The Corpse Bride, filled with a surprising amount of social commentary. Particularly striking was Burton’s vision of the Christian Church. The church building in the movie was tall, dark, and forbidding. The congregation was a grim bunch. And the minister was a nightmare. The voice of the minister was Christopher Lee, scary, sinister, spooky Christopher Lee! His character was tall, gaunt, and extremely stern. When I saw this I wondered if this was a common perception of Christians today.
A recent survey of people in their teens and twenties provided the answer. Yep. Where ten years ago, this demographic had portrayed Christians as friendly people, now they see us as, brace yourselves, generally insensitive, hypocritical, and judgmental. Is that all? Noooo. They also write us off as “boring, old fashioned, and out of touch with reality.” Ouch. In other words, Tim Burton portrayed us as young people outside the church see us. We are seen as the angry tantrum-throwing child outside the birthday party or the cranky, self-righteous, judgmental older brother in the story of the prodigal son. And is it really a surprise? Within the church, we often find ourselves divided over one sticky issue or another, locked in contentious and all too public battles. Let’s not even mention some of the more colorful TV and radio preachers.
But, there is a way out of this mess. We need to understand we are God’s heirs and that God loves us all. We need to realize that God has invited us to the party too. If we can manage that, we can stop standing outside the house pouting, shed our anger, drop our frustration, and live in the joy that God feels for us. Heck, we are offered the opportunity to party with the creator of the universe. If we can manage to really wrap our heads around that, we can live in an infectious joy that we will gladly share with others.
Paul provides us with some guidance in achieving this happy goal. In Romans 12:9-15, he states, “Let love be genuine … love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.” In verses 16 through 18, Paul adds, “Live in harmony with one another, do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” Don’t think you can manage all that? Take C.S. Lewis’ advice from Mere Christianity. Fake it. Act like you can do these things, and soon enough you’ll discover you really are doing them.
If we do as Paul asks, we will find resentful judgment is set aside. It will occur to us that God really longs for the return of the wayward sinners and for us to really come home too. Wrapped up in miserable self-pity and stewing in resentment, we have been just as lost as the elder son fuming out in the dark. When that hits us and we want to come in, God will rush out to meet the us, embrace us, and return us all to the status of heirs to the kingdom of heaven. God will throw us all a grand party out of love and joy. The grace of it all is magnificent! Can you feel the joy and excitement bubbling up at the thought?
Once this hits us, really hits us, perhaps, we can change that impression people have of us as boring, hypocritical, and judgmental. Instead, joy-filled and welcoming, we can usher people into the faith and revel with God as these lost sons and daughters return home. This is not a way merely to change our image with the world. It’s no PR stunt. It is a means of liberating ourselves from misery, anger, envy, self-pity, and self-imposed exile. It is a means to freedom.
If we Christian cannot manage to give up our judgmental, self-righteous attitude, then we will be trapped like the elder brother in a morass of resentful pride, unkindness, and selfishness. This will make us unbending individuals totally unwelcoming of others and entirely unable to share in the joy of God. We will find ourselves forever outside the party.
To reference another great theologian of the twentieth century, Dr. Seuss, if we can’t free ourselves of angry pride, we will be just like the Zax. In Dr. Seuss’ story, there are North-Going and South-Going Zax. These creatures are taught in school to go only one direction and never to take even one step in any other direction. One day, a North-Going and South-Going Zax meet head on in a wide-open desert. Neither one will budge. Each was too proud to step aside even one little step. One Zax tells the other he won’t budge for fifty-nine days if that’s what it takes to win this battle. The other declares he won’t move for fifty-nine years! He adds, “I’ll stay here, not budging! I can and I will. If it makes you and me and the whole world stand still.” In the end, both stubborn Zax stand in one place so long the empty plain is built up with houses and highways all around them. They have become their own worst enemies and have been intransigent so long it has become virtually impossible for either to move. That is our fate if we decide we must be a judgmental and angry people. And the Zax were wrong. The world did not stand still. The world will not stand still for us if we decide to be so stubborn.
So what do we do? How do we keep from being the stubborn, blue-faced child hurting ourselves in our anger? How do we keep from being the Tim Burton caricature of Christianity? How do we remove the label of boring, prideful, hypocrites from ourselves? How do we keep from being the older brother of the prodigal son, a brother so lost in his resentment he refuses to celebrate with God when kindly invited? Here are several suggestions.
The elder brother, who stayed on the father’s farm and kept his nose to the grindstone, probably pushing harder than he had to, and he grew bitter. He forgot he was loved. To avoid the same fate, we have to understanding in our hearts that God loves us deeply and truly. God loves those of us who have never left home just as much as the prodigals who return. God wants both to sit at his table and participate in his joy. There is no rivalry between the two factions with God. God loves both and wants to wrap loving arms around both groups. So, we need to drop our sense of rivalry with others, our us-against-them mentality. Let me repeat, there is no such rivalry with God and there need be none with us.
But how do we live that out you ask? First, trust in God. Trust that God tells the truth and that God loves everyone equally. Trust that God wants everyone to be part of the kingdom and to share in God’s joy and God’s party. Trust is elemental to this healing process.
Along with trust, practice the discipline of gratitude every day. Make a special effort to acknowledge that everything that you are and all that you have is given to you as a gift of love from God. Make the conscious choice to be grateful each and every day. Soon the happy discovery will be made that gratitude, and the growing joy that accompanies it, cannot coexist with bitter resentfulness. Gratitude and joy will shove that corrosive anger aside.
In time, we come to realize, as Henri Nouwen states in The Return of the Prodigal Son, that Jesus was sent by the Father to reveal God’s unremitting love for all his resentful children and to offer himself as the way home. We realize God desperately desires to wrap loving arms around us all, pull us in from the outside, remove us from the outer darkness to which we exile ourselves, and bring us into the party to share God’s joy, now and forever.
Once we arrive at that realization, practicing trust and gratitude, and entering into joy, we will become joyous, welcoming people. We will become true heirs to God—heirs who reflect to all whom we meet the love of our generous, merciful, gracious Father. As the twentieth century scholar, William Barclay states, “In a depressed world, the Christian should be the one who remains full of joy of life. There should be a sheer sparkle about the Christian … the Christian must be a diffuser of joy.” Come. Rejoice with God in the recovery of each and every lost soul who returns. God is pleading with you. God wants you at the table. God loves you so much. Add to God’s joy today. Come to God’s party.
The Green Bible: NRSV. New York: Harper One, 2004.
Kemp, James W. The Gospel According to Dr. Seuss. Valley Forge, Pennsylvania: Judson Press, 2004.
Nouwen, Henri J. M. The Return of the Prodigal Son. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
J.B.S. © 2010