Saturday, 27 February 2016

Imaginative identification

Jesus attracted the disapproval of religious leaders and teachers because he kept company with people who were regarded as marginal if not outcasts from decent society. The parable he tells in response to his critics is about the prodigal son. (Luke 15:11-32) When the destitute young man comes to his senses, he realises how vulnerable he has made himself by his dissolute living. He is filled with shame and remorse at having turned his back on the family in pursuit of selfish pleasure. He has nowhere else to turn for refuge, so he rehearses to himself, then later repeats aloud to his father:

"I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son."

The father asks nothing of him. He goes out to meet him, delighted to know he is still alive. He is so relieved, he just wants to celebrate his son's return even though this causes resentment to the stay-at-home son who has never found a reason to call upon his father's generosity. 

Jesus is suggesting through this parable that God is this generous with all his children. Those who are successful in living respectable lives and meet all their religious obligations with ease, may never know what it is to be desperately needy, like those whose lives are full of adversity, under pressure from bad influences, weak willed and prone to failure. "I came not to call the righteous, but sinners." says Jesus in another passage (Matt 9:13), in which he is subject to criticism for keeping bad company.

The prodigal's heartfelt exclamation has long found a place in Christian penitential prayer, notably in the scriptural sentences which may be recited before the invitation to confession which opens the Anglican Book of Common Prayer daily services of Matins and Evensong.

'I will arise and go to my father and say "Father I have sinned against heaven and against you.".' 

Worshippers are invited to identify themselves with the prodigal son in seeking God's compassion and forgiveness. No way of reading and interpreting scripture is exclusively authorised by the church, and many different approaches are freely adopted, yielding a rich variety of insights into God's Word. 

This is an example of how scripture can be used as pathway into prayer. Imaginative identification with a character in a story from the Gospels or a parable of Jesus is a sound starting point for thinking about what its meaning for you. Asking yourself when listen to a reading a passage 'Who / where am I in this story?'  The answer from within can surprise us, for the Holy Spirit can prompt the working of the imagination matters concerning prayer.

'In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.' (Rom 8:26)

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