A Resentful Story

"Love Will Tear Us Apart." Image by John Ivar Andresen via Flickr; licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

A familiar parable such as the Prodigal Son should invite a wealth of perspectives. We might think we know the meaning of the story. Perhaps this time around, we are a little more hermeneutically confident than the last time we tried to provide an interpretation of this well-know tale. But like any good story, its meaning lies somewhere in the gaps between the words on the page and our own lives; a truth that is simultaneously invigorating and terrifying. And it seems, somehow, that the stakes are higher when it comes to a story the whole world seems to know, regardless of any faith confession or commitments. What, then, is a Working Preacher to do?

Well, it means you have to sit in that gap for a while — and wait. And by waiting, I don’t mean for the Holy Spirit to show up and give you the answer. I fear we do that too often — expect the Holy Spirit to do the work for us. Expect an idea to fall from the sky much like the dove from the heavens at Jesus’ baptism. But, as my homiletics professor at seminary was wont to say, “One should not tax the Spirit too much.”

It’s a tricky balance — relying on the Spirit, trusting in the Spirit, while at the same time doing the hard work of sitting in that gap where discernment and discomposure are certain, even necessary. But, we will never know which is which, unless we sit and wait. Feeling around the text and our lives, wondering, testing, arguing, rejoicing, crying — and then finally landing on something that sticks, at least this time around, anyway.

Of course, what you will finally land on as the focus for your sermon, the core affirmation of your sermon, never depends solely on you, or even the nudge of the Holy Spirit, but what your congregation needs to hear. Add that to the mix, and no wonder sermon preparation is not for the faint of heart! If ever you choose to follow an interpretation of a text that I offer, it must always take on the flesh and blood of your particular context.

So, I sat in that gap for a bit this week and the truth that kept speaking to me is our human propensity toward resentment.

According to Merriam-Webster, resentment is a feeling of indignant displeasure or persistent ill will at something regarded as a wrong, insult, or injury, with plenty of synonyms to make the definition all too clear: bitterness, indignation, irritation, pique, displeasure, dissatisfaction, disgruntlement, discontentment, discontent, hard feelings, acrimony, rancor, animosity, and hostility.

Furthermore, a Google search will result in various and sundry articles focused on reducing or eliminating resentment as an unhealthy emotion. So, it is worth some time reflecting on just how and in what ways resentment is present and persistent in our lives. At least, it gave me pause. And while I would like to sit around and name persons for whom it seems resentment has taken over their soul, I started to admit what and whom I resent. That was not a pleasant experience.

And, while these articles provide a number of helpful strategies for letting go of resentment, and while I seem to recall somewhere along the line in my years of therapy that this was a topic of discussion, the Bible has never been terribly interested in our psychological needs.

There’s plenty of resentment to go around in this text entitled the Prodigal Son. As a result, we have to ask the story of the Prodigal Son, what is God’s answer to our resentment?

A response to this question is not helped by the fact that God causes our resentment. We might see ourselves in the shoes of the older brother, resenting his younger brother for not following the protocol of birth order, birthright, and responsibility; resenting his father for welcoming a son undeserving of such love. We might see ourselves in the shoes of the younger brother, resentful of having to wait for what is owed him, resentful of having to play the game to get back into his father’s graces. We might see ourselves in the shoes of the father, having to show mercy when mercy is not deserved.  But when we start to realize that God’s lavish love is the object of our resentment, well, that’s when the gap is almost unbearable. What do we do when we resent God for God’s seeming unfairness, God’s welcome of those unworthy of mercy in our eyes, God’s indiscriminate grace? Now, there’s a source of resentment that is not as easy to let go and the steps for doing so are far less clear.

It seems God’s answer to our resentment is to give us opportunities for it. God doesn’t take it away. God doesn’t protect us from it. Rather, God exposes it, names it, even eggs it on.

Perhaps, therefore, the resentment is necessary to remind us that we are not God — and that God does not operate within our systems of fairness or within our theories of theology. Resentment is necessary so that we are forced to take a good and very long look at ourselves and ask, why are we resentful? What’s the rub?

Or, maybe the answer to resentment is that God is God and we are not. And today, at least for me, that feels like the load is just a little bit lighter.