At the center of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle’s most famous book on ethics is a memorable portrait of a guy that he thinks is the perfect man. This fellow that Aristotle describes is brave, self-controlled, noble, rich, generous with his friends, openly scornful of his enemies—his deeds are few but impressive. So detailed is Aristotle’s description of this ideal man that he even says of him that he has a deep voice and his way of walking is measured and unhurried.
When teaching this portrait of Aristotle’s perfect person to students, they often find this last detail a little puzzling. Why would Aristotle’s ideal man be known for measured and unhurried walking? Why would that matter?
To explain this I would simply say, “Well, did you ever see a grown man running to catch a bus?” “Wait… Stop… Wait for me…” No. No, that will not do.
No, Aristotle’s perfect man never rushes because he is grave and dignified, and running pell-mell is undignified.
Something else I try to get students to understand is that Aristotle’s vision of the perfect person is in many ways quite unlike the Christian ideal. We see this difference plainly in today’s Gospel reading because the very center of the story of the so-called prodigal son is a totally undignified act.
This most familiar of our Lord’s parables is unique to Luke, and it’s very much worth our careful study and particularly so on this Sunday, Rose Sunday, when we mark a crucial shift in the season of Lent.
We know the setup: The younger of two sons asks his father for his share of the inheritance. This is an impertinent—even insulting—request. Normally in ancient Near Eastern cultures a man’s inheritance is only endowed on his heirs when he is dead. And even when he is alive he still retains his right over its expenditure.
But the younger son doesn’t respect these norms and abandons his family and his homeland, a virtually unthinkable act of desertion.
Because he has cut all ties with family he ends up helpless and alone when he is in need. Having squandered everything he took from his father and being exposed to famine in desperation he works the most degrading possible job for an observant Jew: pigs are unclean, and yet there he is so close to starvation that he is envious of these filthy creatures’ slop. This is what we nowadays call hitting rock bottom. The younger son has nothing, and he has no one to help him.
So he decides—in a word—to repent. “I will arise 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 as one of your hired servants.”’
This is what repentance looks like to our Lord’s audience. He is speaking in chapter 15 of Luke’s Gospel to the Pharisees and the scribes. And as far as they are concerned, this is the perfect way to end this story.
Because the younger son’s gesture of repentance is exactly what the Pharisees would approve of. Repentance according to the religious authorities of the day requires us, as the younger son does, to “come to ourselves” and realize that our situation needs fixing. Repentance means confessing that we are not worthy and offering to make restitution.
And this offer to be one of his father’s hired servants is one that a sober, dignified ancient Near Eastern paterfamilias would be tempted to take quite seriously. Maybe the boy has learned his lesson. If he goes to work here in the household then he can earn back some trust. If he sticks it out as a hired servant for a while then his father will know that he really is sorry. And the money he makes can pay back the father for all the wealth he squandered. From the son’s perspective, repentance is a smart move.
And from the father’s perspective accepting that repentance makes good sense too. It restores the father’s honor. It allows him to recover from his son’s insult. It is a dignified solution to an embarrassing family problem.
But the father is not that dignified. What is he? According to verse 20, he is compassionate. And that compassion drives him to drop all dignity. He is not measured and unhurried. He runs. He runs to his child, he runs for compassion, he runs with joy, and he flings his arms around his son’s neck and kisses him.
God is not waiting around for us to show up shame-faced looking for a handout. God doesn’t want us to work off our debt or earn our way back into his good graces.
The Father sees us coming while we are still far off. How does he do that when we are still far off? Because he’s looking for us. He’s actively looking and longing for us, and when he sees us he comes running to welcome us home.
And yes, it’s important that we come to God in repentance, but notice that in the story the younger son doesn’t even get to finish his carefully rehearsed speech. There is no question of becoming a hired servant because repentance cannot earn back relationship with God, that relationship that we have so foolishly spurned.
Relationship with God can only be restored as a free gift from our heavenly Father, one he is eager to give.
This story marks a shift in Lent, as I said. This Sunday, Rose Sunday, is when we shift our attention from our individual repentance, our fasting and self-denial, to a shared anticipation of the coming Great Feast of Easter.
There are two proper prefaces for Lent; the first you have already heard on this season’s past Sundays—it focuses on the temptation of our Lord, how he was tested as we are and yet did not sin.
Today the celebrant will say a different proper preface; this one calls us to prepare with joy for the Paschal Feast.
And the familiar story of the younger son and his compassionate father ends with a feast. The feast is in celebration of nothing less than the younger son’s passage from death to life. And in the same way our Easter feast is in celebration of our Lord’s rising from death to life, which in turn causes us to celebrate our baptism into Christ’s death and rising to new life in him.
This is the good news that awaits us. But not everyone is happy about it. The older son, not without some reason even, is upset that there is a feast at all. He has been at work in the field all day, and nobody has brought him the news. Awkward… He declines to rush with the same joy as his father. He even refuses to his father’s face and in front of the guests to go in to the house, an insult almost as grave as the younger brother’s. He puts the worst possible construction on his younger brother’s activities while away from home, complains that he has never been treated as well by his father, pleads not for his family but for his friends, and generally fails to see the truth that his father reassuringly speaks to him: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive.”
Intriguingly this parable ends in suspense: What will the older brother do? Will he join the feast as well? Or will he remain sulking outside?
Our Lord I believe leaves the choice to those who are listening to him. We are hearing him, and we have a choice to make. And who else is his audience, besides us I mean? As I said it is the Pharisees and the scribes; they have a choice to make too. We know this because Luke tells us so at the very opening of chapter 15. And what are the Pharisees and scribes doing? They are not just listening to Jesus; they are murmuring against Jesus.
They are complaining and sulking and in a totally dignified manner I am sure holding themselves aloft and refusing to join in what Jesus is doing because as Luke tells us “the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to Jesus.” Sinners. I’m sure they found that outrageous. A crowd of sinners gathered together to hear the words of Jesus was probably really undignified. And because the tax collectors and sinners were drawing near to him the Pharisees said of Jesus, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
That’s right. So he did. And so he still does. And he tells us this story to show us why. This parable shows us what God’s attitude toward sinners really is: God sees sinners far off and runs to them. He wraps his arms around them and kisses them. And he invites them to a celebratory feast.
The Great Feast of Easter is coming soon. What a shame it would be for us to miss out for any reason. What a shame to be stopped by embarrassment at our past mistakes; to hold on to our stubborn pride; to cling to our sham dignity, and refuse to go in to the house and join in. Sinners of all kinds are invited. Those who are more like the younger brother and those who are more like the older brother. God wants both of them to come into the house.
God does not greet our repentance grudgingly, with cold indifference; God is longing for you to come home; God is eager to receive you with joy no matter how low you have sunk. If we will have it, then all that is God’s is ours too.
So don’t hold back now. It is fitting that we should make merry and be glad.