Imperatives (Fourth Sunday in Lent)

Sermons on YouTube…

This year, the day arrives on the Monday after Easter.  April 18 is the dreaded “tax day.”  On that day, or before, we all MUST file our 2021 taxes, or at least file an extension.  It’s the law.  We have to do it.

And for most of us, if we want to have money to pay our taxes, we MUST get up and go to work.  This is regardless of whether we feel like getting up early or doing work that day. We just have to do it.

And frankly, whether it’s “work” or not, there are always a bunch of things we’ve been putting off that just have to be done – whether it’s work around the house, taking the car in for service or making doctors’ appointments.  I often get up in the morning and say to myself, “I HAVE to get this done today.”

We have to.  We must.  There is no option.  It’s the “imperative” in our lives.  In fact, as much as I always hated studying grammar, I recognize that grammatical construct and realize that I use the “imperative” whenever I’m in a situation where I don’t feel I have an option.  I have to do this.  You have to do this.  We must do this.

And almost always, what I MUST do is something I’d really rather not do, even if I know it’s important or necessary.  It might be paying taxes, taking care of an onerous task, or just dealing with stuff that takes time which I’d rather spend on something else.

And often, that’s the way I hear imperatives in the Bible as well.  I read about things I MUST do, or have to do, to be a faithful follower of Jesus.  Many of these imperatives I recognize as good and important.  Still, the imperatives are usually things that are hard, or that frankly, I probably wouldn’t want to do if they weren’t imperatives.  You know, stuff like pray for those who don’t like you; do good to those who have hurt you; seek God’s will instead of your own.  Imperatives are usually about doing hard stuff.

Today’s Gospel reading, which we usually call the “parable of the prodigal son,” also ends with an imperative.  But it’s a strange imperative, because it’s not an imperative to do something hard or onerous.  As the story concludes, the older son is standing outside the house with the father, arguing about whether or not to go in to the party.  Yet the father tells him that “we had to celebrate and rejoice.”  We had to.  We must.  In the Greek, that’s the verb that’s used – “we must”.  This is not something we can do if we want.  This is not something I just think is a good thing right now.  We had to have a party! We had to do this – it’s an imperative.

Yet the older son doesn’t want to do this imperative any more than filling out tax forms!  From his perspective, why “must” we celebrate and rejoice?  After all, things are still a mess:

  • For example, younger son really hasn’t “repented” in the sense of being sorry or turning over a new leaf.  He’s just hungry and has come home with a rehearsed line that he hopes will get him back on daddy’s gravy train…
  • Besides that, half of the father’s wealth has now been blown by the younger son (whether or not the older son’s accusations of how he’s blown it are accurate or not…)
  • So clearly, there’s also still a lot of tension and dysfunction in the family –whatever problems caused the family to split up before are clearly still there…

Noticeably, the father doesn’t actually dispute any of this.  There’s still a lot of bad stuff going on.  There’s still a lot of unresolved pain.  And there’s still a lot of work to do before this family is going to be able to grow together again.

But in the midst of the pain, the difficulty and the dysfunction, the father sees that what was lost has been found.  What was dead has come back to life.  The father sees that, even and especially in the midst of the mess.  And maybe that’s the most important time to see new life – when everything seems to be dying and falling apart.  And so rejoicing and celebrating isn’t an optional activity.  “We had to celebrate and rejoice.”  It’s imperative.

The great thing about parables is that there are many ways to look at them, and many dimensions to explore.  But I suspect that at least one reason Jesus told this parable was to remind his listeners – including us – that God’s imperatives in our lives aren’t just seemingly onerous commands.  They include the imperative to look for signs of God’s new life.  They include the imperative to recognize when something that was lost has been found.  And they include the imperative to celebrate and rejoice – to party! – when we experience those things.

And maybe Jesus uses this imperative because it’s easy to miss the signs of new life when so much seems to be dying around us.  It’s easy to ignore what’s been found when so much seems to be being lost.  It’s easy to focus on all the dysfunction in the world around us, instead of letting ourselves join the party.

And the imperative to celebrate and rejoice isn’t simply permission to be momentarily happy if we want to.  Instead, by telling us that we have to rejoice and celebrate, Jesus calls us to be people who:

  • Consciously look for signs of new life – which is something we might not do if not for the imperative…
  • Put emotional energy into rejoicing – instead of stewing in anger and disgust about all that’s wrong around us…
  • Actively celebrate – that is, to actively be involved in lifting up that which has been found – so that we become living signs of hope in the lives of others around us…

And those things are maybe most important when things are bad.  When we feel like we’ve been wronged by someone who doesn’t even ask for forgiveness.  And when we’re so hung up on the pain of the past that we’re not even looking for the promise of the future. 

It’s at those moments that we most need the imperative to celebrate and rejoice.

A few months ago, a bunch of us read the book “Short Stories by Jesus” by Amy Jill Levine, a Jewish New Testament scholar, in which she discusses how Jesus’ first Jewish listeners might have heard this story.  And she concludes with the following thought:

“If we hold in abeyance, at least for the moment, the rush to read repenting and forgiving into the parable, then it does something more profound than repeat well-known messages. It provokes us with simple exhortations. Recognize that the one you have lost may be right in your own household. Do whatever it takes to find the lost and then celebrate with others, both so that you can share the joy and so that the others will help prevent the recovered from ever being lost again. Don’t wait until you receive an apology; you may never get one. Don’t wait until you can muster the ability to forgive; you may never find it. Don’t stew in your sense of being ignored, for there is nothing that can be done to retrieve the past.

Instead, go have lunch. Go celebrate, and invite others to join you. If the repenting and the forgiving come later, so much the better. And if not, you still will have done what is necessary. You will have begun a process that might lead to reconciliation. You will have opened a second chance for wholeness. Take advantage of resurrection.”