During the Easter season, I asked our parishes to think about Pope Francis and Archbishop Peter’s call for us to become missionary communities. We used the readings from the Acts of the Apostles to prompt our prayer.
Around that time, I discussed this with a friend of mine from another diocese. I think I described the western church as needing to move from a maintenance model to a missionary model. I must have said something disparaging about maintenance, something along the lines of managing the decline, sleepwalking off the cliff or something similar. Whatever I said, it sparked my friend off.
He said that was stupid, that it was a bad reading of the prodigal son. He said that he hated this false dichotomy of maintenance versus mission. He said a major part of the problem was precisely a failure of maintenance, and this failure in two ways. First, he said, we did not maintain the church as a home of the hard truths of the gospel. We soft-sold the cross as something easy. We told lies about suffering and the need for hard work in growing up spiritually. We did not make a real home where parents help children grow up. And so people left because it did not sound like real life, did not feed them real food.
Second, he said, because we have not maintained the church, when we go on mission, when we go looking for all the lost sheep, when we find them, what exactly are we going to do? To what home are we going to invite them? Homes require maintenance just to remain habitable. And they need something far more than that to be fit places to which one can invite guests.
All this is by way of background to today’s parable of the prodigal son. In particular it is background to that aspect of the story when the prodigal son remembers his father’s house.
The Greek test reads, “when he came to himself”. He comes to himself when he remembers his father’s house. The memory of the father’s house, the love he knew as home, reminds him who he is. It frees him from his delusions. The memory of the father’s house reveals he is living in a pigpen. It is this memory that allows him to get up and start heading back to the father. Remember, this is crucial: the prodigal son must wake up, must turn around, must start back for the Father to hug him. Human beings are free, and God will not take our freedom.
But what would happen if he had no memory of the Father’s house?
An Eastern priest, Fr Thomas Hopko, once ran this thought experiment. He sets it up with various theological reflections on sin, but he extends this reflection by saying: what if the prodigal son stayed in the pigpen, had a family and raised children in the pigpen, such that his children know nothing but the pigpen? I would just like to quote the upshot of this thought experiment: I found his conclusion revealing. He said – and I quote:
And then we can imagine that life in that pigpen—or existence, because it’s really not life—according to the Scripture you’re only alive if you’re with God—many people exist, not many people live—but let’s imagine that there’s this existence in the pigpen. And then that pigpen has to get organized. You know, the pigpen is highly populated now. And then let’s imagine that the people get together and say, you know, “We’ve got to get together and do something about this life in the pigpen.” So then what happens? There develops pigpen politics. Pigpen law. Pigpen art. Pigpen therapies. You can imagine so-called healing services of the pigpen. The books that could be written, you know: Life in the Pigpen. How to Cope in the Pigpen. Being Happy in the Pigpen. Surviving in the Pigpen.
That’s the end of the quote. As I said, quite revealing. But also if we don’t kid ourselves, pretty familiar. You have probably seen all those notices, in almost every shop these days or public institution, that read "We do not tolerate aggression." "Please treat our staff with respect." Basically: don't treat us like animals. Or: you have probably heard how bad it is on social media for children. They are being exposed to horrors at such a young age.
So, the question I would like to pose today is: how do we maintain the memory of the Father’s house in our culture today? Because it is disappearing, and disappearing fast. How do we as parishes give people the chance to come to their senses and remember where they belong? That they belong? That there is something better, somewhere to which they can return? That their home is love?
This is not an abstract question. It demands concrete answers. God is asking us this all the time. Asking us right now. Do this in memory of me. Jesus commands us to remember him, and remember him in the most fundamental meaning of the word. Re-member him: become his body. Present himself to our brothers and sisters so that they too can come to themselves in him. But how do we do that?
In a few months time, we are going to have some meetings in the parishes. We have big decisions to make about what to do with the parish hall at St Mary’s and what to do with the land at St Colman’s? But all these questions are really just concrete examples of the fundamental question: how do we help people, our neighbours, remember Jesus, remember the Father’s house?
We should be aware of how serious this question is. Our first reading has Moses standing between God and his people’s destruction. We know however from the Gospels that it is really Jesus, God standing between his people and their own destruction, the destruction they bring about themselves. Jesus is the one who places himself on the cross as the ultimate wrong way go back sign. He is constantly standing between the world and spiritual death, pleading with us to remember the Father’s house, to remember where true life is, to remember how greatly we are loved. To remember him.
As members of the Body of Christ, this is where we belong too. We are called to stand in front of a society that too easily is getting used to the pigpen. How do we wake up our neighbours? As I said, this is not an abstract question. People are hurting right now. And they are beginning to believe that this is where they belong. And because they believe this is what life is like, they will hurt others, and as they hurt others, the spiral downwards will accelerate.
How do we break this cycle? How do we help them remember the Father’s House? We as parishes must think hard about this because this is the life we have been given. This is the task our baptism has kitted us out for. And our life is precisely picking up this cross, trusting that it is the doorway to eternal life.