From the front steps of my block of flats, I can see, two kilometres away or so, the goddess Nike, stretching out her arms and a halo over St George rampant while cherubim sound their trumpets.
This post is not really to do with the reasons why there is a 141.8-metre victory obelisk, topped with the goddess of victory, in the centre of Victory Park. She is meant to be rejoicing in the outcome of the Great Patriotic War in 1945, and has nothing to do with the substantially non-victorious incident of a man jumping out of a window in a nearby residential area in June 2013. Nike cannot help it that if I stand on my front steps and remember the fallen man, the fallen man and the victorious goddess are exactly on a line.
But the contrast is striking. There, the ostentatious glory of human success on a grand scale; there, the ignominy and pain of the actual life of one boy. What victory exactly are the words that spring to mind – not because I really have anything intelligent to say about the connection between the two – but because there are moments when victorious toothpicks are really just too infuriating.
Considering the immense lack of victory in the world, the many occasions on which Lazarus did not come forth, the prodigals who never came home, the people who never got to pick up their mats and walk, the people who have just jumped out of windows or taken part in a Great Patriotic War, some of them doing all of it without ever finding themselves able to hope that God existed and/or cared – considering all this, might it be that we Christians do sometimes sound slightly too cheerful?
We talk about victory a lot. We talk about hope a lot. Our talking and preaching are typically bursting with confidence about healing, forgiveness, restoration, faith and the power of God. We-e-e-e-e-e-e cantellthe world about this, we can tell the nation about that. And I don’t think I think we should suddenly start sounding miserable, or that we stop praying for miracles or refuse to be thankful for good and beautiful things –
– but if I only feel Hopeful and Victorious because the sky is clear and I can float around comparing pretty stars to Jesus, some kind of disconnection with reality seems probably to have occurred. What about those who have no clear skies, or who are so weighed down by the tedium and difficulty of the world that they can’t look up, or look up from an unstarry reality that really cannot be ignored?
People like the Prodigal Son, in fact:
And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.
If you skipped the quotation, like I always do, please pop back and read it. I know you’ve read this parable a thousand times and heard it expounded by preachers a thousand times more. But please reread just that verse.
I have forgotten if I have ever heard a sermon or read a book that drew any attention at all to the fact that the younger son was sinned against as much as he was sinning. Usually we emphasise the younger son’s arrogant disregard of his father, his generally wild ways, and his extravagant welcome home, a portrait sitting tidily side by side with that of the older brother, a pharisaical do-gooder, ungracious and unwilling to receive grace. Even in tidied form, this double portrait can probably stand to have more than a thousand preachers pick it up and do their worst. But Jesus’ version is not actually quite so tidy. There was a famine. There was no kindness, no basic humanity among the local people. He was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.
Which seems to turn the parable inside out and leave it full of ragged ends, not only a story of suitable proportions for a 40-minute Gospel Presentation with10minutesforquestions, but also a story that acknowledges the realities of experience in the world that we vaguely suppose we’re supposed to be taking The Gospel to. As well as the individual child’s tendencies towards self-destruction or self-righteousness, there is the craven selfishness of society in general and the mercilessness of nature. There is the profligate young rebel and there is the viciously unjust world he lives in. There is Elliot Rodger and there is the NRA. Jesus, like the extravagant father he describes, sees a son who was lost, not only a son who sinned.
And the larger problems do not get resolved in the telling of the parable. Solutions for human unkindness and natural disaster do not seem to be forthcoming: the loving father remains distant from the famine-lands and the pig-fields, and although one son’s return is sufficient reason for a party, nothing else has changed. Could the father not have organised a rescue mission to the far country, showing its citizens what reckless generosity looked like? Couldn’t the older brother have gone, an emissary of reconciliation and hope? There would be something familiar about that plot twist; that would be what Jesus did, the older adopted brother of all the world.
But he left the story in its raw state, sharp-edged with the sense of injustice, the exultation at the younger son’s return, the older son’s unresolved bitterness.
Somehow in the church we have to find a way to have the party and battle with the need and ungraciousness that continues. We have to be “real” – which is a buzzword often meaning that we have to be honest about our own feelings – but I mean that we have to be realistic about all the feelings in the world. I cannot be doing with the kind of preaching that jovially asserts God’s plans, power and faithfulness towards me and has nothing to say about an abducted schoolgirl in Nigeria, a college student shot in Santa Barbara or a woman stoned to death in Pakistan. I do not want a prayer life in which I petition God for help with my next lesson as often as anything more significant. I could be more patient with the mixedness of the metaphor that ‘God brings the ruins to life’ if I could see more clearly how the metaphor might be realized in the world.
There must be some way; there must be some way of finding out what difference it makes that Jesus went to the very worst corner of the very worst pig-field. ‘Grace is the law of the descending movement’: after the random man jumped out of the window, for some time in my mind there was a kind of doppelgänger effect, whereby the fallen man and the crucified Jesus seemed so very similar it felt like they might change places when I wasn’t looking. The very very highest went all the way down to the very very lowest, and that is where victory starts. It is a impression I would like to get back. The homeless man sleeping on the warm air vents in the shadow of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is Jesus. Jesus is suffering in Syria and Afghanistan and East Ukraine. And the guns, somehow, have no meaningful power compared to the power that compassion has, and the first shall be last and the last shall be first, and the Beatitudes are simply true. And these are just words on a blog post. But it is the start of a new day. Who knows what might happen.