Billboards and Parables (Fourth Sunday in Lent)

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So first of all, I should note that it’s purely coincidental that my first weekend back after sabbatical is the weekend we read the story of the return of the prodigal son!  Pr. Christine and I didn’t plan it this way.  It’s just the way the lectionary worked out.

But I did spend the last 7 weeks on sabbatical.  And beyond the skiing (which was pretty much the only thing I posted pictures of), I did spend a fair amount of time reading and doing theological reflection.  But the first of my theological reflections wasn’t planned at all.

It happened while I was driving across Missouri and Kansas on I-70.  Some of you may have driven that route as well, and if so, I’m sorry!  It’s long, and boring and you often feel like you’ll never get through it.

So to keep you from being too bored, there are folks who have placed religious billboards every few miles, and since there’s nothing else out there, you can’t help but notice them.  And the more I read them and thought about them, the more uncomfortable I became with their theology.

It wasn’t that the sayings themselves were totally wrong.  It’s just that they portrayed an image of God that was kind of disturbing.  For example, I saw signs that said:

  • “Jesus IS real!” (I think Jesus is real, too, but here it felt like Jesus was portrayed as a kind of menacing figure that was coming to get you…)
  • “After you die, you WILL meet God” (I think that, too, but to me it’s a promise, not a threat…)
  • “If you die tonight, heaven of HELL?!” (Which kind of implies that God is happy to send you to hell, unless….)

Now of course, the folks who put up those signs and others like them might say I’m totally misreading the implications.  But as I rode along and read those signs, I thought to myself, “If I didn’t know anything about this Jesus guy, I’d want nothing to do with him!”  Because as I read the implications and the image of God that the signs were conveying, it sounded as though God was a kind of mafia boss who essentially was saying, “hey, you got a nice little life going on here.  It’d be a shame if you ended up burning in hell for all eternity…”

And is that really the right image of God?  Is that who God is?  Is that who Jesus is?

I remember one of my New Testament professors in seminary talking about all the ways you could envision Jesus if you edited the various things Jesus said and did… (he could seem mild and friendly or stern and angry.)   And this professor had literally written books analyzing Jesus!  But in the midst of that discussion, he said to us, “Everyone of us has an image of who Jesus is, whether they’re consciously aware of it or not.  And you can’t operate without one.”

So what’s your image of Jesus?  Who is God to you?  Because your image of who God is conditions your image of yourself and your relationship to God.  So is God:

  • The mafia boss who’s watching closely to see if it’s time to smite you …?
  • A distant reality, who really doesn’t have anything to do with you right now … (but someday after you die, you’ll get to see Grandma again)?
  • A friend who walks with you and cares what’s happening right now…?

I raise these questions, not just because they’re important for each of us, but because the reason Jesus tells parables is to give us an impression of who God really is.  They’re intended to imply characteristics of God even more surely than those billboards were.

And even though we tend to call today’s parable the parable of the prodigal son, it’s really not about the son.  It’s about the father.  And in looking at the father, Jesus intends to inform our image of the being and character of God.

So what does Jesus want us to learn about God’s character from this parable?  Well, the beauty of parables is that there are many things to learn, but I’d like to suggest three really important characteristics of God that Jesus conveys through this parable:

  • God is a realist – the father doesn’t welcome the son home because he’s too naïve to believe what the son has been up to (when the older son tells the father what the younger son has been doing, the father doesn’t dismiss it as “fake news” or pretend it really isn’t that bad); instead, the father loves the son in spite of his imperfections, and frankly without any delusion that the younger son will now be totally changed… (there was a really good video portrayal of this a few years ago at a Group Workcamp we were at…)
  • God wants to have a real relationship with us – and that relationship can’t be forced, or coerced through threats.  This is why the father waits patiently for the son to return.  He doesn’t send threatening letters, or even lecture him about the obvious consequences of his actions.  He’s looking for a renewed and restored relationship, and that can only happen when the son is ready for it.  And so God’s patience isn’t about enabling bad behavior, or about biding time until he can punish somebody.  It’s about nurturing and restoring relationships with people…
  • God also includes the melodramatic, obnoxious older son – the story doesn’t end with the return of the younger son.  The story ends with the father pleading with the older son (not forcing the older son), to come in and join the party.  The older son didn’t want to associate with “them” – the younger son and the people who liked him.  Honestly, the younger son probably didn’t care to associate with “them” either (that is, the older son and his buddies).  But the father wants them both included. And in our polarized society, that means that God is intent on including all the people we think of as “them”.  So whoever you consider to be the “us” in your life, it means that God includes you – but God also wants to include whoever you think of as “them” as well.  It means that God loves and includes even the people who put up obnoxious, and in my opinion, heretical billboards about God.  Even them!

Often, we’re tempted to read the parables and make them about us.  That is, who should we be, how should we behave and what should we do?  Certainly, there are lessons to be learned there as well.  But in the end, the parables aren’t about us.  They’re about God, and who God intends to be in our lives.

And so as you read and consider this parable and others, think about the images of who God is.  Let those images form the relationship that you have with God.  And maybe most of all, trust the images of God that Jesus gives you in parables, instead of the images you get from billboards!