Luke 15:11-32; Ephesians 2:8-10
The Rev. Tom Herbek
September 13, 2015
Jesus never tells us whether the parable of the prodigal son ends with the older, “perfect” son coming to the party, or refusing to come in. I can’t imagine him coming to the party and joining the celebration, because that would have required him to give up all that he understood about how the world is supposed to work. The older son believed that you have to earn everything of value, which is what religious people also believe. This would have been a shocking parable to any good religious person of Jesus’ day. They expected that the parable would have ended with the father turning his back and hardening his heart against the younger son, telling him he was on his own, and pointedly praising the older son for doing exactly what he was supposed to do with his life. But Jesus saw life differently, saw God differently. The older son was in a prison of his own making, never able to come to the party, because he never understood it existed. In this prison that he created, a prison of certain salvation if he did what was required, a prison where new ideas were not an option, conformity was absolutely expected, and approved was the only goal, the older son could not accept what happened. In many ways, he was dead, and could not really live life. As someone once said, “Death is more universal than life. Everyone dies, but not everyone lives.” In her book, Daring Greatly, Brene Brown describes the danger of devoting our lives to perfectionism:
Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving for excellence. Perfectionism is not about healthy achievement and growth. Perfectionism is a defensive move. It’s the belief that if we do things perfectly and look perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment, and shame. Perfectionism is a twenty-ton shield that we lug around, thinking it will protect us, when in fact it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from being seen.
Perfectionism is not self-improvement. Perfectionism is, at its core, about trying to earn approval. Most perfectionists grew up being praised for achievement and performance (grades, manners, rule following, people pleasing, appearance, sports). Somewhere along the way, they adopted this dangerous and debili tating belief system: “I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it. Please. Perform. Perfect.” Healthy striving is self- focused: How can I improve? Perfectionism is other-focused: What will they think? Perfectionism is a hustle.
Perfectionism is not the key to success. In fact, research shows that perfectionism hampers achievement. Perfectionism is correlated with depression, anxiety, addiction, and life paralysis or missed opportunities. The fear of failing, making mistakes, not meeting people’s expectations, and being criticized keeps us outside of the arena where healthy competition and striving unfolds.
Perfectionism is a self-destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary, thought: If I look perfect and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgment, and blame.
Perfectionism is self-destructive simply because perfection doesn’t exist. It’s an unattainable goal. Perfectionism is more about perception than internal motivation, and there is no way to control perception, no matter how much time and energy we spend trying.
Perfectionism is addictive, because when we invariably do experience shame, judgment, and blame, we often believe it’s because we weren’t perfect enough. Rather than questioning the faulty logic of perfectionism, we become even more entrenched in our quest to look and do everything just right.
It is ironic to me that so many of us that call ourselves Christians still believe that we are expected by God to be perfect, and that any failure or flaw will separate us from God’s love and acceptance. Even if we can accept God’s love and compassion as possible in our heads, our hearts still have trouble with this. When we believe that perfection is what is required, then we end up doing all the right things for the wrong reasons. We end up unable to come to he party, not just for our undisciplined, selfish younger brother, who finally gets the consequences he deserves but then has the gall to come here.
We are unable to even experience that there is a party ready for us, as well. We have no understanding that is it our failures and our limitations that enable us to join the rest of the human race. As Joan Chittister writes:
“We fail to allow others to love us for our weaknesses as well as our strengths. Without the grace of our limitations, we would be dry, isolated, and insufferable creatures.”
Unless we fail at something in our lives, we can never know that there are benefits to failure that cannot be experienced in any other way. As columnist Regina Brett comments:
The benefits of failure are endless. Failure strips away fear. Once you’ve failed, you have nothing left to lose. You realize that you’re still alive, still breathing, still you, and life goes on. When you strip your life down to survival mode, you realize you don’t need all that much to survive or to serve others. You discover what you’re truly made of, and that you’re tougher than you ever knew.
God is Always Hiring
The younger son learned from his failures, and experienced the love and acceptance of his father, in ways that were unimaginable to the older son. And as author Tom Robbins writes, there are benefits to the big obstacles that are not present with the small day-to-day ones:
Perhaps a person gains by accumulating obstacles. Care must be taken, however, to select large obstacles, for only those of sufficient scope and scale have the capacity to lift us out of context and force life to appear in an entirely new and unexpected light. For example, should you litter the floor and tabletops of your room with small objects . . . you step around the objects, pick them up, knock them aside. Should you, on the other hand, encounter in your room a nine thousand pound granite boulder, the surprise it evokes, the extreme steps that must be taken to deal with it, compel you to see with new eyes. Difficulties illuminate existence, but they must be fresh and of high quality.
The largest obstacles are the one that often bring drastic change. The biggest failures are the ones that force us to endure what we cannot change in our life, so that we can then become the person we are next meant to be. What he went through meant that the younger son realized something that he never knew before: his father loved him, not for what he accomplished, but just because he was his son.
Jesus told this remarkable story to try to get his hearers to change their perception and understanding of who God is. The “older brothers” in his audience had to decide whether they could join God’s party, or would continue to stand outside, haughty and angry at what God was doing.
I like Richard Rohr’s description of God’s grace:
Grace cannot be understood by any ledger of merits and demerits. It cannot be held to any patterns of buying, losing, earning, achieving or manipulating, which is where, unfortunately, most of us live our lives. Grace is, quite literally, “for the taking.” It is God eternally giving away God – for nothing – except the giving itself.
Grace will always be experienced as more than enough instead of a mere survival mode. If there is not grace to a situation, it does not really satisfy or give any deep joy.
The great thing about God’s love is that it’s not determined by the object. God does not love us because we are good. God loves us because God is good.
Human love is largely determined by the attractiveness of the object. When someone is nice, good, not high maintenance, attractive physically, important, or has a nice personality, we find it much easier to give “ourselves to them or to “like” them. That’s just the way we humans operate.
We must be taught by God and grace how to live in grace. Divine love is a love that operates in a quite unqualified way, without making distinctions between persons and seemingly without such a thing as personal preference. Anyone who receives divine love feels like God’s favorite in that minute! We don’t even have the capacity to imagine such a notion until we have received it! Divine love is received by surrender instead of any performance principle whatsoever.
- Daily Meditations
I like the bumper sticker I saw:
“God loves you anyway.”
In that hymn we just sang, “Amazing Grace,” there is a phrase that has always grated on me: “that saved a wretch like me.” But perhaps the key is: “I once was blind, but now I see.” The truth is that we are not “wretches.” We are children of God, who loves us unconditionally, with no “if only’s” no pre-requisites, just open arms and a party. It’s our choice whether to join the party or not.
May we all continue to grow in our openness to throw a party of acceptance for those we meet each day. And perhaps hardest of all, may we open our eyes and our hearts, and join the party for us, as well, for we, too, are God’s children, loved by God as if we were each the only one God had to love. That is the amazing possibility that grace makes into a reality!