I was super-excited last year when the gods of TV Land saw fit to resurrect one of my beloved shows from my teenage years: The X-Files.
Oh, how I loved that show! (Full disclosure: Gillian Anderson was one of my high school crushes.) For those who haven’t seen it, The X-Files is a show about two FBI agents who are routinely sent to investigate cases that involve some kind of paranormal activity, like aliens, ghosts, and werewolves. Each episode typically involves some kind of monster, several members of the supporting cast meeting their untimely demise, and lots and lots of people walking down dark staircases with flashlights.
People love The X-Files, and other horror films like it, because they enjoy the experience of being momentarily frightened in a safe environment. It’s an adrenaline rush that sets us on the edge of our seats. But even more than that, I think people like to be scared by horror films because those stories give us a safe place, upon which we can project some of the deepest fears we humans hide in our subconscious minds.
The monsters on the screen are symbolic of our deep anxiety that, beneath the surface of our lives, there is nothing of substance. We are scared to death that we are alone in this universe and, when our time comes, this little light of hours will simply fade to black and become nothing.
Or, worse than nothing, we are terrified that we might look into the great mystery of existence and find a malevolent force that hates us and actively wishes us harm.
Even without the symbolism of monsters in the movies or on TV, those fears live within us. So, we humans build up defenses to keep the darkness at bay and ensure that we never have to look under the bed or in the closet. We live our lives with the covers pulled over our heads and our eyes squeezed shut. If you think about it, none of us ever really grew out of being afraid of the dark.
We may throw ourselves into work, surround ourselves with money and possessions, adopt fanatical ideologies about politics or religion, compulsively seek to control and manipulate others, or numb our fears with drugs, sex, or entertainment. We are frightened of what the truth might be, so we hide behind these false selves we construct for ourselves and identify with these things that are not truly us.
In this morning’s gospel, Jesus tells the story of two brothers, both of whom fell victim to this deep anxiety about life and reacted in very different ways. In the story, as Jesus tells it, their fears are symbolically represented in the person of their father, whose character the brothers have misjudged.
The younger brother is the one we’ve heard the most about over the past two thousand years. This is the one we have come to refer to as “the prodigal son.” The story begins with this younger brother saying, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.”
He’s asking for his inheritance, which would normally only come to him once his father had passed away. By demanding it now, the younger son is basically saying to his father, “You’re dead to me.” His father’s death is symbolic of his fear that, beneath life’s surface, there is nothing but darkness and emptiness. So, the son has concocted a plan through which he thinks he can keep those fearful feelings numbed. Jesus tells us that he, “traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living.” He’s living it up today because he’s afraid that tomorrow might never come. So, he makes himself the center of his own little world and declares his personal, momentary pleasure to be his highest good.
Now, as most of us already know, his plan doesn’t work out so well. Circumstances and consequences conspire against him and his whole house of cards comes crashing down in a very short period of time. Alcoholics and addicts call this “bottoming out.” When things were at their worst, this guy has a moment of clarity, in which he is finally able to see that his plan for happiness has not worked out so well for him. Yet, even then, this clever son has come up with his own plan to obtain security and prosperity for himself. He remembers how good people have it back on the family farm, so he decides to go home. And on the way, he comes up with a darn good apology and sales pitch that’s sure to land him a job and house with three square meals a day. Not the worst day ever for a washed up business man.
But then, something unexpected happens on the way home. He doesn’t even make it up the driveway. His father sees him and comes running up to throw his arms around him. He puts a robe on his back, a ring on his finger, and kills the fatted calf for a party. Ironically, this is exactly the kind of experience the younger son was hoping to have when he left home earlier; he just never expected it to come from his own father!
This young man was afraid that, beneath the surface of life, reality was just an empty shell and dark void. His fear of the dark was symbolized by the lie he tells himself: that his father is dead.
Well, it turns out that his father is not dead, but is in fact “the life of the party.” Even after all the wastefulness and the scheming, the father welcomes the son home with a celebration that goes far beyond anything he could have asked or imagined. Such is the abundant life to be found in God, the heart of reality.
Now the other brother (remember that there were two) has a very different story to tell. He is dutiful, loyal, responsible, and respectable. This son is everything we parents hope our kids grow up to be. But remember that this is a story about two lost boys, not just one. As we will find out, this older brother is not “the good son” that he appears to be at first.
Like his younger brother, the older son lives his life on the surface of reality because he is afraid of what might lie beneath. The younger brother was afraid that there was nothing but emptiness beneath the surface of reality, but the older son is terrified that the true nature of reality is malevolent and actively hostile. This attitude is reflected in the way he talks to his father. The younger son said, “You’re dead to me.” The older son says, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.”
The older son has severely misjudged his father’s character and painted him as a cruel, unfair miser. In order to protect himself from this monster under the bed, the older brother has come up with a plan for appeasing that hostile energy. He says to himself, “If I just play by the rules, everything will be okay. If I can just stay on that crotchety old miser’s good side, I will eventually be rewarded for my hard work.” This, by the way, is the strategy employed by so many good, religious people in our world today. We tell ourselves that God is out to get us, so we have to protect ourselves from God by way of meticulous religious observance, moral behavior, and sound doctrine.
But then, all of that changes one day when he comes home from work to find a party going on, all because his good-for-nothing younger brother has come back from an extended vacation in Las Vegas!
Well, this poor young fellow’s preconceptions about reality were unfortunately shattered in that moment. Where was the outrage?! Where was the justice?! Where was the punishment that he was so certain would be visited upon him, if he were to act so irresponsibly?!
So, he storms off in a huff and refuses to go in and join the party. I like to imagine him angrily banging around in the garage (if they had garages in those days), pretending to work some project, throwing his tools down loudly enough that he can be head inside the house.
And what does his father do? He goes out to him, just like he did for the younger brother when that son got home from his bender. And he blows his older son’s misconceptions about reality out of the water when he says, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”
Now, the father isn’t just waxing poetic here. Remember that, at the beginning of the story, he divided his wealth between his sons. In fact, the older son probably got the bigger share in this deal. Yet this same son, in the blindness of his anxiety, says to his father, “you have never given me even a young goat.” This son lives his life with the covers pulled over his head, afraid of the monster under his bed. And the monster (so he thinks) is his miserly father.
But, oh, how he has misjudged his father’s character. The welcome-home party for his younger brother, while earth-shattering for the older son’s worldview of a universe that is perfectly morally balanced, is the sign of his father’s true nature: extravagant generosity (one might even call it amazing grace).
Both of these boys were lost in their misconceptions about reality, so both of them chose to live their lives on the surface. One believed there was nothing but emptiness and loneliness, so he tried to fill that void with pleasure and numb the pain with entertainment. The other believed that reality was a monster that was out to get him, so he threw himself into hard work and religious observance in an attempt to appease the malevolent force that lies beneath the surface of life.
Both brothers were wrong. Both were lost in the lies they told themselves. And the most amazing thing is that their father responds to both of them in the same way: by coming out to meet them where they are. This father, who is symbolic of God for us, does not wait for his children to get their act together before welcoming them home. The invitation to this party is always open: to saints and sinners, sacred and secular, good kids and bad, alcoholics and workaholics.
We humans, like the brothers in this story, live our lives in the midst of a horror movie. We sense the mysterious darkness closing in around us and we are afraid. Sometimes, we are afraid that there is nothing there beneath life’s surface and we are destined to be utterly alone forever. So, we try to fill that void with momentary pleasures that lack the joy of true satisfaction. But when the movie ends and the keg runs out, and we wake up to find ourselves in a mess of our own making, God runs out to meet us with the revelation that there is, in fact, something substantial beneath life’s surface. God is not dead, but runs out to meet us with open arms, a royal robe, and a fatted calf. God says, “I am the God of abundant life.”
At other times, we are afraid that life is out to get us, that there is a monster whose wrath must be appeased if we want to survive. So, we throw ourselves into hard work and good deeds, hoping that following the rules will be enough for us to earn security for ourselves. But when our worldview is turned upside down by God’s refusal to punish flagrant sinners, when someone else is freely offered the welcome we’ve been working for all our lives, when we are so scandalized by this injustice that we sulk outside, refusing to condone such immorality, God runs out to meet us with the revelation: “I am the God of amazing grace.”
Abundant life and amazing grace: that’s what lies beneath the surface of life. Though it may sometimes feel otherwise, we don’t have to be afraid of the dark anymore: we are not alone and we are not unloved. The heart of reality is God: the God of abundant life and amazing grace. And this God is running out to meet us all today with the words that will forever be tattooed on our consciousness:
“I love you and there’s nothing you can do about it.”