[Is God playing games?]
I was reading your commentary regarding the passage of Luke 15:1-32…. I want to ask you about what you said: "Jesus could have invented any kind of story to reveal what God is like. That he invented this is a matter of immense significance. God rejoices to find what is lost."
What got me thinking, however, is the path we were put on to begin with. Meaning, do we, as humans, all start off "lost"? Let me clarify a bit so you may understand the question, because this strikes me as confusing. The only way for God to rejoice at the sinner who repents or the sheep who finds its way home, is to be lost in the first place. So, what I am trying to understand is: has God purposefully "set us out" to be "lost" from birth, and see which of us souls, in human form now, can find the journey back home - so to speak…?
Thanks for your email. It’s great that you get your teeth into a question and don’t let go!
“What’s the first thing you have to do to prepare for the Sacrament of Penance?” “You have to commit some sins,” replied the little girl. Well, we can be dispensed from that requirement. Remember that in the parable of the Prodigal Son there is also the older brother, who never went astray in the particular way that his younger brother went astray. There is no indication in the story that the father loved one more than the other. To the older brother he said, “Son, you are always with me, and all I have is yours” (Lk 15:31). This is an expression of totally positive feeling; there is no limitation built into it, just as there was no limitation built into his love for his younger son. The implication is that we don’t have to be lost in order to come into our own.
It was almost universal practice in the past for spiritual writers and preachers to paint the wall black in order to get credit, later on, for painting it white: they would make sure we felt totally bad before attempting to apply their remedies. It was melodrama rather than drama. But, you might object, don’t we still have that? We begin every Mass by “calling to mind our sins.” What a way to begin a celebration! It would kill any other kind of celebration. What would happen if the best man at a wedding started off in that vein – or a school principal at a debs’ ball?
But this is to misunderstand the Liturgy. We call to mind our sins in order to be sure that we are bringing our real selves there, and not some tailored version – like a spiritual Sunday suit. We come as we are; it is real drama, not melodrama. And the text says, “Let us call to mind our sins,” not “Let me call to mind your sins.”
Sin isn't necessary for a Christian life, but it would be unrealistic to imagine that there are any Christian lives without it. Here’s a remarkable paragraph to that effect from Meister Eckhart (1260 – 1328). “See: who was dearer to our Lord or more intimate with him than the Apostles were? Yet not one of them but fell into sin: they had all been great sinners. He has frequently shown this in both the Old and the New Testament in regard to those who afterwards were by far the dearest to Him; and even now one seldom finds that people come to greatness without erring somewhat at first. Our Lord's intention in this is that we should recognise his great mercy: he wants to urge us by this to great and true humility and devotion. For when repentance is renewed, love too is greatly increased and renewed.” Eckhart is showing us that he has read John’s First Letter: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us…. I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the just one” (1:8; 2:1).
All of chapter 15 of Luke’s gospel, and not just the story of the Prodigal Son, is about being lost and found: the lost coin, the lost sheep, and the lost son. Being lost and being found: that's the stuff of drama, and an immense number of plays, novels and poems draw their power from that. It is the oldest of all dramas: hide-and-seek. Even babies know how to play this game. No one has to teach them; you could say they bring it with them from God. The spiritual life is a game of hide-and-seek. God seeks and we hide, God hides and we seek.
Jesus angled his story to his hearers, who were the scribes and Pharisees. They felt that everyone but they themselves was lost. Jesus characterised them perfectly in the person of the older brother. That older brother is one of the most unattractive figures in all literature. He has never gone astray, he has never been lost, he has never experienced the drama of hide-and-seek. He is joyless, self-righteous and mean-spirited; he’s the original grouch. Yet somehow the father managed to love him. Most people would identify themselves better with the younger brother, because we know we often go astray. We don’t have to go astray, but we do. So there’s hope for everyone, whether we are good or bad. What matters more is that God is good.