31 Mar 2019
Wikipedia, for whatever amount of trust you have in it, lists 156 movies about con artists. I looked at the list and I must say I have heard of only a few. But then I am not someone you want on your trivia team when movies are the category. Probably The Sting would be familiar to most of us. I was always partial to The Music Man. Classical story of a great con artist, but tempered with good music, romance, and a happy ending. A movie called The Captain from Koepenick was so popular it has seen five screen versions, including a silent one in the 1920’s. Maybe because it was based in a real person who convincingly filled the part of a military officer in Germany.
From the number of films produced over the years it seems we appreciate a good scam; that is as long as we are not the victim.
Politicians may be the ultimate con artists, or at least some of them. Many a good film has been made about the dark side of power: All the President’s Men, The Post, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Wag the Dog, All The King’s Men, and lots of others. Fiction, truth, comedy, drama; it is all there. Politicians tell us what they want us to believe is true. A movie like The Post reminds us of the thin line that is walked by politician and statesman at all levels. The con game exposed with the Pentagon papers reminds us that millions can become victims of deception.
Think of Ponzi and Enron. A good portion of the mess in Puerto Rico is due to financial scheming and con games that left the island bankrupt.
We live in a world of full of con artists. As a child I could put on the saddest look when I wanted something from my parents. Think how easy it is to fabricate a story, even as simple a one as why it is crucial that you be given and extra chocolate chip cookie.
Jesus, though, may have told the most famous story of all about a con artist and an unrepentant on at that. Image yourself living in turn of the first millennium Palestine. Life was hard for most people; it seems that the family with the father and two sons was one of the more wealthy, but apparently everyone worked hard. The elder son faithfully helped take care of the land and the animals, day after day, and asked nothing in return. That younger brother, though, was a piece of work. Despite a hard working, but also kind, father, he wanted to see the world and cared nothing for the family. Kinship networks were large and belonging to a group help insure one’s survival. However, when you are 16 or 18 you are often ruled by other thoughts and dreams. Why spend one’s life on the family farm when one could take the money and run. I suspect his life was more about testosterone and being a party animal than anything else. He did not want to end up like his stick in the mud older brother.
You know the tale from that point. Or do you? Is this a tale about repentance and acceptance and God’s never ending mercy and forgiveness? If so, why is the older son in the story at all? Aren’t we to rejoice because a sinner repented and is welcomed back into the fold? Yes, and no.
Jesus lived in a society where following Torah, in all of it interpretations, was important. More than important, it was the way of life. Different groups and individuals would see correct following of Torah in different ways, but it was still that: a rule of life and a way of life. Jesus is talking to those who were accusing him of gluttony and of celebratory living in the company of sinners who have repented. They refuse to rejoice and join in the party. We are being told it doesn’t matter when you joined the party, only that you did join!! As the father in the story asks the elder son to rejoice that the younger son has returned, so we are to rejoice over anyone and everyone who comes to the table, regardless of their past or how long they have been there. Been a cradle Episcopalian and faithful member of the church for years. Thanks be to God. Walked in the door last week for the first time after a life of missed changes and dashed hope? Thanks be to God. We are being addressed in the parable, in no uncertain terms; being told to welcome our brothers and sisters who come from sin to repentance.
But what about those who continue to be con artists? The elder brother knew the younger son all to well. The young man had, when he asked for his inheritance early, told his father “you are already dead as far as I am concerned” and then took off, exhibiting behavior that would make any parent cry. It doesn’t get much worse of a Jew than to work with pigs. But think about his decision to go home; it was not based on repentance at all but rather on practicality. Home is where the food is. He works on his con artist story all the way home. Was Dad fooled or blinded by love for his son? I don’t think so; I think the father just had the ability to love unconditionally and perhaps that made the younger son confess his sins in a real way rather than trying to figure out what the old man wanted to hear. Maybe he ceased to be a con artist at that moment when he realized he did not need to trick his father into loving him. His father knew him, knew his nature, and loved him.
But the older son? He remains practical to the end. He is bitter and unhappy that so much has been wasted on a wastrel. Do you think that Jesus was perhaps teaching his critics the most important lesson of all about the nature of God and that they, like us, don’t want to buy it? I have kept the rules all my life and this fellow still doesn’t care; he is only here for three squares and a bed. He knew his brother, knew his nature, and resented him.
There is a short story by Flannery O’Connor titled Revelation. The main character, Ruby Turpin, believes that she is like the elder brother: she has always done the right thing, behaved in the right way. She has an eventful day at a doctor’s office, where a patient threw a book at her, called her a wart hog, and tried to strangle her. She is forced to face her believes about her own sanctity. The story ends as the sun sets and she sees a vision of a road made of the rays of the sun, going from the earth to the sky. What shocks her is that the people entering heaven first are the ones she always had seen as improper or lesser, not deserving of the love of God. She and her husband are at the back of the line. Nevertheless, they are in the line.
God is amazing. God is the one who forgives us before we even repent; who shares meals with us and welcomes us even as we continue to be con-artists winding our way down some road trying to figure out what the best story will be. God is the one who reminds us that it is not our place to judge anyone, to try to play God. Our job is to celebrate. Yes celebrate!! Our brother and sister was dead and is now alive, was lost and now is found. Grace, amazing grace.