Weekly Sermon Illustration: Parables as Comedy
In our blog post each Monday a reading from the Revised Common Lectionary and pair it with a Frederick Buechner reading on the same topic.
On March 6, 2016 we will celebrate the Fourth Sunday in Lent. Here is this week's reading from the gospel of Luke:
"There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.' So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, 'How many of my father's hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands."' So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.' But the father said to his slaves, 'Quickly, bring out a robe--the best one--and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!' And they began to celebrate. "Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, 'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.' Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, 'Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!' Then the father said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.'"
In Buechner's classic Telling The Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy & Fairy Tale, he describes how parables such as that of The Prodigal Son can be viewed as comedy:
I think that these parables can be read as jokes about God in the sense that what they are essentially about is the outlandishness of God who does impossible things with impossible people, and I believe that the comedy of them is not just a device for making the truth that they contain go down easy but that the truth that they contain can itself be thought of as comic. It is hard to think of any place where this is more apparent than in the greatest parable of them all, the one that is in its own way both the most comic and the most sad. The Prodigal Son goes off with his inheritance and blows the whole pile on liquor and sex and fancy clothes until finally he doesn't have two cents left to rub together and has to go to work or starve to death. He gets a job on a pig farm and keeps at it long enough to observe that the pigs are getting a better deal than he is and then decides to go home. There is nothing edifying about his decision. There is no indication that he realizes he's made an ass of himself and broken his old man's heart, no indication that he thinks of his old man as anything more than a meal ticket. There is no sign that he is sorry for what he's done or that he's resolved to make amends somehow and do better next time. He decides to go home for the simple reason that he knows he always got three squares a day at home, and for a man who is in danger of starving to death, that is reason enough. So he sets out on the return trip and on the way rehearses the speech he hopes will soften the old man's heart enough so that at least he won't slam the door in his face. "Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son." That will hit him where he lives if anything will, the boy thinks, and he goes over it again. "Father I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son" (Luke 15:18-19), trying to get the inflection right and the gestures right; and just about the time he thinks he has it down, the old man spots him coming around the corner below the tennis court and starts sprinting down the drive like a maniac. Before the boy has time to get so much as the first word out, the old man throws his arms around him and all but knocks him off his feet with the tears and whiskers and incredulous laughter of his welcome.
The boy is back, that's all that matters. Who cares why he's back? And the old man doesn't do what any other father under heaven would have been inclined to do. He doesn't say he hopes he has learned his lesson or I told you so. He doesn't say he hopes he is finally ready to settle down for a while and will find some way to make it up to his mother. He just says, "Bring him something to eat, for God's sake. Bring him some warm clothes to put on," and when the boy finally manages to slip his prepared remarks in edgewise, the old man doesn't even hear them he's in such a state. All he can say is the boy was dead and is alive again. The boy was lost and is found again, and then at the end of the scene what Jesus as teller of the parable says is "They began to make merry" (Luke 15:23). Merry, of all things. They turn on the stereo. They break out the best Scotch. They roll back the living room carpet and ring up the neighbors.
Is it possible, I wonder, to say that it is only when you hear the Gospel as a wild and marvelous joke that you really hear it at all? Heard as anything else, the Gospel is the church's thing, the preacher's thing, the lecturer's thing. Heard as a joke - high and unbidden and ringing with laughter - it can only be God's thing.
And if it is a joke about the preposterousness of God, it is also a joke about the preposterousness of man as the sequel to the parable exemplifies. The word sin is somehow too grand a word to apply to the reaction of the prodigal's elder brother when the sound of the hoedown reaches him out in the pasture among the cow flops, and yet in another way it is just the right word because nowhere is the deadliness of all seven of the deadly sins deadlier or more ludicrous than it is in him. Envy and pride and anger and covetousness, they are all there. Even sloth is there as he sits on his patrimony and lets it gain interest for him without lifting a hand, even lust as he slavers over the harlots whom he points out the prodigal has squandered his cash on. The elder brother is Pecksniff. He is Tartuffe. He is what Mark Twain called a good man in the worst sense of the word. He is a caricature of all that is joyless and petty and self-serving about all of us. The joke of it is that of course his father loves him even so, and has always loved him and will always love him, only the elder brother never noticed it because it was never love he was bucking for but only his due. The fatted calf, the best Scotch, the hoedown could all have been his, too, any time he asked for them except that he never thought to ask for them because he was too busy trying cheerlessly and religiously to earn them. "The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up" even as the prodigal himself was raised up, Jesus says, "and blessed is he who takes no offense at me" (Matt. 11:5-6). Blessed is he who is not offended that no man receives what he deserves but vastly more. Blessed is he who gets that joke, who sees that miracle.