Prodigal People and the New Creation

Joshua 5:9-12

Psalm 32

2 Corinthians 5:16-21

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Christians are supposed to be new creations in Christ, according to St. Paul. “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new.” The theme of new creation in fact pervades the New Testament, which itself is named “New Testament” to indicate this. John’s Gospel begins with the phrase, “In the beginning was the word,” which echoes the original creation account in Genesis. In the Genesis account, in the beginning were the roiling water, the divine wind or spirit, and then the divine word creating order. Matthew, Mark, and Luke have all those elements in their accounts of Jesus’ baptism. Christians have a new covenant, occasioned by Jesus. Jesus brings us a new commandment, according to John, to love one another as he has loved us. According to the book of Revelation, Christians live in anticipation of the New Jerusalem. Part of the meaning of Lent is the preparation of new members of the Christian community who will be received, some of them with baptism, at the Easter Vigil service. Entrance into the Christian community is a new life. Novelty is everywhere in Christian thinking.

Nevertheless, novelty is not everything, despite Paul’s saying that “everything has become new.” Christ is the Alpha as well as Omega. The new creation does not erase the old one and start over. Somehow it is a fulfillment of the old creation, or a redirection of it. If we think of the old creation as something to be rejected, we will lead ourselves straight into anti-Semitism, a path St. Paul sometimes took. In fact, the Christian orientation to novelty is significant because it is an imitation, a repetition, a bringing to completion, of God’s novelty in the first creation.

What can all this mean for us today with our scientific cosmology of the created order? In a strict sense, there is only one creation, the creation of the entire cosmos that includes space and time. I mentioned last week how vast this is. Because space and time themselves are created, everything within space and time is a creature. God can create anything our science and arts can discover to be real; there can be no conflict between scientific discovery and a theology of creation because science only discovers what God creates. We play out our lives within spatial and temporal history. From our temporal position now, the past is over and fixed and the future is open to many possibilities, some of which depend on us. Each moment of our temporal lives, we are local parts of God’s creative act. God’s creative act is not temporal but eternal, not in time and space but creative of them. Yet each thing within time and space is the flourishing of God’s creative act at that moment and place. As I say, in a strict sense, there is only one creation, and it is unfolding now.

How can we need a new creation, then, and how is such a thing even possible? How can we make sense of the biblical symbols of novelty within the time that is the product of the original and only creation? The answer lies in the complexity of human freedom, which the Bible symbolizes in its stories of the fall. Stars, stones, and eddies of expanding gasses are dumb creatures. They simply are what they are. Human beings learn language and, with that, self-consciousness. We take on identities in relation to society and the environment. We have orientations that guide our actions. Our self-consciousness, identities, and orientations are all in part of our own invention. We can know that the future can be actualized in many different ways and that those ways have different values. Since we can, in part, control what happens, it is our responsibility to actualize the better future. The qualities of our choices determine our own moral character. This freedom is an astonishingly complex affair, and is what sets us in worth above stars, stones, and expanding gasses.

Yet it is possible to abuse that freedom, all the while being creatures of God unfolding our lives day by day. Not only can we make wrong moral choices, we can choose to deny our created status and the relation to God this implies in any number of ways. In simple cases we merely focus too much on ourselves and lose sight of the larger connections of creation that might be affected by our actions. We forget about gratitude to the God who creates us in conjunction with the rest of the world. In more complicated ways we reject the world God gives us as unsatisfying, or filled with too much pain. Sometimes we double over this rejection so that we condemn ourselves for rejecting God, and then we get pretty close to despair. Such despair is really a perverse form of pride because we presume for ourselves God’s position to judge us. At any rate, what might have begun as simple selfishness soon, and universally, becomes a kind of bondage to the powers of the world to which we sell our souls to keep ourselves afloat. Those powers, such as money, sex, pleasure, control, aesthetic enjoyment, freedom, moral projects, and the like are all created and are all good in themselves. Yet they can become ropes that bind us and ruin our freedom.

To fulfill our human nature as created beings we are not only dumb creatures like stones. We need to exercise our freedom rightly to be in gratitude and harmony with the Creator and the created order. When that freedom has been perverted and we are in bondage, that’s when we need a new creation to untangle and fulfill the fundamental creation. The Christian life is that new creation of untangled people on the way to the fulfillment of sanctification. Individually Christians are new creatures, and collectively the Church is the corporate life of the new creation.

How should we interpret the parable of the Prodigal Son in this regard? The most obvious interpretation is that the Prodigal stands for the people who have become tangled and lost within the first creation. Like the Prodigal, people have slipped to selfishness and perhaps a youthful excitement about living freely on their own, squandering their inheritance, until they are starving. Then in desperation they turn to God who receives them back. We can read the redemptive process in Jesus as the way by which God receives them back. And we can rejoice at Jesus’ point in the parable that the Father’s love itself is a joy at the Prodigal’s return and an acceptance without rancor.

Have we not ourselves played the Prodigal’s part sometimes in our lives, perhaps in the distant past, perhaps rather frequently, perhaps even now? I doubt that I speak only for myself. As for myself I am actually an Elder Brother, prototypically so. I worked hard, obeyed my parents, did well in school, and became a professional academic and a professional minister in my early twenties. My prodigal younger brother flunked out of four high schools before graduating from the fifth, a military academy. He was in his mid-thirties before he was able to make a marriage stick, and to return to middle-class respectability and a loving family. He never returned to religion, and died in his fifties from lung cancer caused by prodigious smoking. Unlike the Elder Brother in Jesus’ parable, I never resented his success or respectability later in life. But I did resent the fact that he always had the greater share of our parents’ attention, mainly because he gave them so much more to worry about. The most ironic part of our relation was that I envied him his prodigality, his capacity to play music and not worry about making a living, his extravagant spending of what money he had and his charm in cadging more from family and friends, his love of engaging wild and diverse groups of peopl
e inside and outside his family, so often as if at a party. I envied also the fact that toward the end of his life he changed from being a “taker” to being a “giver,” with prodigal generosity. By contrast I have always been something of a giver, but grudgingly, and always also a taker, but with embarrassment and impatience at not being self-sufficient. Through my envy I too am a prodigal son, but a failed one. In the symbolic sense, I’ve never left the Father’s house, but I’ve spent a lot of time around the front door, sometimes inside and sometimes out, and have never expected a party when I go back in. Am I wrong in thinking that most people are like my brother or me, or some combination of the two?

The point of Jesus’ parable is that both brothers need reconciliation with their Father, with God, as the parable has it. The Prodigal Son turned from his Father to seek freedom and fun. The Elder Son worked for his Father, but obviously was not turned toward him in the gratitude and joy appropriate for creatures of God. If the Elder Son had been turned to his Father, he would have seen and loved the Father’s generosity to both sons. Instead the Elder Son also turned away from his Father to follow his prodigal brother with envy and resentment. The brothers respectively exhibited two common forms of alienation from God and the bounty of creation, and I fear many other forms of alienation exist as well.

The Christian message is that knowing Jesus can turn all these forms of alienation around so that any individual whatsoever can be reconciled to God the Creator. Our petty selfishness that puts us in bondage to the allures of worldly satisfaction, the extravagant selfishness of the Prodigal’s sort as well as the meaner selfishness of the Elder Brother, can be turned by the encounter with Jesus to hunger for God and to revel in God’s generosity no matter how painful our lives or how bound up our spirits have been.

Jesus was the new being who was subject to all the ambiguities and pains of life, surrounded by poor students, abandoned by them when the showdown came, crucified naked and bleeding in front of his mother, and yet never was alienated from God his creator. From the beginning he was faithful and in love with God, confident that God loved him, and at the end he commended to God his battered but purified spirit. His disciples came to understand this, and they too, in imitation of him, gained the power to become new beings. They taught their disciples, and on down the long line of redeemed sinners the new being comes to us. We too can be new beings in Christ.

A final point that turns the symbols of our texts once more: The word “prodigal” means extravagant. The Prodigal Son was extravagant in a small way, and when his funds ran out he limped back home. The great extravagance is God’s in creating the world. Our Prodigal God created a cosmos of immense dimension, from Big Bang to the Final Dissipation. Our Prodigal God gave us a garden world in a cosmos of rocks, fires, and gas. Our Prodigal God gives us freedom and a deep history with which to refine it. Our Prodigal God gives us leave to alienate ourselves from creation and with extravagant means of grace calls us back. Prodigal grace abounds in the Earth’s beauty, in the love of family and friends, in the opportunities for new life of all sorts, in the saints of the church and the sinners of the city. Prodigal grace abounds when we call to one another in love and say, “let us make lives with one another, and they shall be good.” God’s prodigal love does not let us go, it follows us to the wings of the morning, and rejoices when we return for new life. New life we have in God’s love, new life such that we become whole new beings, new life such that we can renew the world, new life such that we can bear up in joy when we have to accept our persistent failings and the world’s incorrigible evils. The new being in Christ is not a perfect being, nor is the new creation a perfect world. The new creation is a world in which we know how to love God as our beloved, and love one another as God loves us all. God’s creation of us is divine love. Our love for God, a prodigal miracle, is also divine love. Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville

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