A reflection on the readings for Lent 4C: Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
In a small town where life has been the same for 100 years, a war is about to break out between the tranquility of tradition and the fear of change. A power struggle ensues between acts of compassion and hospitality and a fierce adherence to protocol. The shock of something new, the excitement of letting go of what have become meaningless rules for life, the dangers of denying people joy and the consequences of intolerance are aroused by a chocolatier’s delectable sweets in the movie CHOCOLAT. At the heart of the story in CHOCOLAT is a gypsy-like woman named Vianne born with special powers. Vianne arrives as a mysterious outsider to the French village of Lansquenet where she opens a chocolate shop featuring tantalizing candy and beverages that can, in addition to being delicious, cure lost hopes and awaken long deprived emotions.
Vianne's effect, and the impact of her chocolate, is immediate and extraordinary: the elderly find themselves recalling young love, troubled couples regain their spark, sniping neighbors become happy friends, and one woman, initially portrayed as a disheveled, incoherent thief who is ignored by the towns people leaves her abusing husband and finds her voice and a sense of purpose in life. But Vianne's chocolate arouses something else: an escalating battle between compassion and moral indignation.
Some in the town begin to let go of their limited view of themselves and other people. Others in the town anchor themselves in the tradition, led by the righteous Comte de Reynaud, who declares Vianne public enemy number one. Just as Vianne is about to give up and leave town an unexpected romance with a handsome stranger forces her to choose between leaving her hostile surroundings or making a true difference to the townsfolk of Lansquenet. The fable's moral is a call for compassion and hospitality and embracing joy in life. Indulging in pleasures like chocolate is a metaphor for grace, compassion, and joy. The story reveals the depth of God’s mercy made manifest as the townspeople gain a deeper appreciation for the wide expanse of human foibles and quirks, learning how to truly love their neighbors as themselves.
Our children in the Prayer Room are spending the season of Lent considering the environmental and economic impact of chocolate growth, production and consumption. In a curriculum called, Know Chocolate, the children are forming a parallel understanding between growing chocolate in the rainforest and growing as Christians in church.
We have learned, for example, that cocoa pods form on trees in the rainforest from flowers that bloom all year long. This mirrors the idea of Christians being formed in the church all year long.
Enabling the flowers to pollinate and produce pods are little creatures call midge flies. They are annoying critters, but without them the cocoa blossoms would not be able to create the seed pods. Each pod that forms from a blossom contains 50-70 cocoa seeds and can make up to 7 chocolate bars. In other words, the cocoa tree is very productive thanks to the presence of a small annoying creature.
Likewise, the issues in our lives that we find annoying can be transformed into something that produces good fruit in us. It’s really only a matter of our perspective – how we make use of the circumstances of our lives, through engaging in our faith, and striving to see the world through the concept of compassion and hospitality.
Our Gospel reading from Luke this morning begins with a complaint made by the Pharisees and scribes regarding Jesus’ willingness to welcome and eat with sinners. It ends with a father’s welcome to his errant younger son and a plea to the elder son to join the party; to be present with his neighbors and younger brother at the party the father is throwing.
Having everyone present at the party marks the restoration of proper relations among the members of the family and the wider community. [i] Likewise we are restored and made when we come to the table and celebrate God’s gift of love in the bread and the wine, for all of us are welcome here.
As the story unfolds, it is clear that the parable conveys the idea of a loving God, portrayed by the father’s abundant unconditional love for his children. God love for us, for all creation is a deep expansive love anchored in compassion and justice. God’s love is less an emotion and more of an action. God’s love acts in and through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and in and through us when we too act with God’s love – with abundant compassion and hospitality.
Grace lies at the heart of this parable—scandalous grace, grace that defies all earthly rules and conventions. It is grace that enables this expansive love to be made manifest. Grace is how God’s love is experienced in our lives.
And yet, we struggle to believe this to be so.
For example, identifying too closely with the younger son we lose sight of the extraordinary love of the father, who runs to greet his child.[ii] A parent who has prayed for this day and yearned for the return of the child.
Identifying too closely with the older son and we risk wallowing in bitterness. When we cling to our tried and true ways of doing things, wishing that someone would simply acknowledge our faithfulness, if not with a “fatted calf,” then at least with a “young goat” – we risk losing ourselves to pride, jealousy, anger, and self-righteousness. [iii]
This parable of the Prodigal family offers an alternative perspective. Here, in contrast to “the way things should be,” mercy abrogates justice, abundance trumps anger, and wayward children are welcomed home by loving parents. This is the overwhelming scandal of grace offered by God who calls us, through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, to do likewise – offer expansive, abundant love through acts of compassion and hospitality which manifest God’s scandalous grace.[iv]
Lent is a time to consider these perspectives – of love, compassion, and hospitality. Lent is a time of repentance - by which I mean - turning and returning to God, considering how each of us is doing our utmost to live as God calls us into acts of love. Lent is a time to consider these through prayer and the practice of our faith in the worshiping community of the Church.
Lent is a season of reflection, repentance and change. It is a time of steady examination of what we do and do not do, a time for honesty and for thorough rethinking. Lent is a time for us - as God’s people - to change habits, even if it is just joining with the three churches that are gathering here in Dearborn for our Lenten soup suppers on Thursday nights. Or maybe the habit we change is through purchasing and consuming Fair Trade chocolate, which is offered here one Sunday month through Equal Exchange, a ministry supported by the M-T family. Maybe you will embrace some other new way of acting in love, compassion, and hospitality to the midge flies in your life, thus producing the seeds of abundant grace.
Lent is a time to contemplate in faithfulness many things, as we contemplate again the faithfulness of Jesus and the ways in which he lived and acted as an agent of God’s love.
How are we living out acts of love, in such a way that the grace that results from acts of love surprises, or perhaps, offends, us in its extravagance?