January 28, 2007

Caravan: Kiss
Luke 15:11-24

My first vivid memory of a kiss goes back to 1962. While Miss Stevens, my 2nd grade teacher, was attending to more important matters back at her desk, Ann Stead inexplicably snuck up behind an unsuspecting Paul Yakshe and kissed him on the cheek. Paul was horrified, acting as though a swarm of hornets had just attacked him. In his mind, a kiss apparently carried considerable significance, if not cooties! Other memories of kisses are less amusing or, in Paul’s case, traumatic. My grandfather often kissed me—I can still see him coming toward me with puckered lips. It sometimes felt awkward back then when I was a child, but I’m thankful today that he showed me his affection so freely. I also remember the first time that I ever kissed a girl outside of the family. Her name was Susan McBride, and we were at Bible camp one summer. I’m not sure how old I was—perhaps 12 or 13—and it wasn’t an overly positive experience. It kind of left a bad taste in my mouth.

But one, or perhaps two, kisses stand out in my mind above all the rest. I first kissed Deb one evening standing beside a brick post outside the main entrance to Bittner dormitory when we were first-year students at Messiah. I felt the effects of that kiss—we had been dating for a while and had waited for this moment—throughout my body, as though I had touched some invigorating power supply. I bounced back to Hess dorm, my feet never touching the ground, and announced for everyone to hear, “I kissed Debbie Marques.” And I of course remember “the kiss” of May 29, 1977. Just after Deb and I had shared our personally-written vows with each other before some 350 people at the old Grantham Church, Dr. Ives turned to me and said what I have now said to many other young men in recent years, “Now all we need from you is a big smacker!” I was nearly overcome at that moment. I was a different person after that kiss than I had been just a few minutes before. This was a kiss of transition, a kiss of transformation. I had a bride now. Not just any bride. I had “the” bride, and my life would never be the same.

Does God kiss people? It is a crazy question, I know. If you are anything like me, you find it much easier to think of God creating people, leading people, speaking to people, providing for people, and even disciplining people. We can perhaps imagine God walking beside us and even holding our hands—we do, after all, sing songs like “Precious Lord, Take My Hand”—but kissing us is another matter altogether, isn’t it? Kissing is too earthy—too human—a symbol to be associated with a lofty, powerful God, we might think. Our text here in Luke 15, it would seem, at least invites us to think otherwise: “But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him (v. 20).”

This so-called parable of the prodigal son is, of course, among the most familiar of the many parables that Jesus told. It is a story full of tension and emotion, twists and turns, common threads and surprising developments, but none more unanticipated than the response of the father to his run-away son. The son, you might recall, is a classic example of an individual obsessed with the physical side of life. The woman of Samaria understandably thought seriously about the physical world when she went to the well for water. She sought, after all, to satisfy the genuine needs of her family. The crowd in Galilee to whom Jesus offered the “true bread of life” also had good reason to think in physical rather than spiritual terms. They had just seen Jesus feed thousands of people by breaking into pieces a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish. The younger son here in Luke 15, however, is simply materialistic—earthly minded—through and through. He asked his father to give him his portion of the estate for no apparent reason other than to live high off the hog for as long as the money lasted. No mention is made of caring for the poor or even investing for the future. The son simply took what belonged to him, went to a distant country where he could act out his youthful passions in secret, and squandered everything that had been given to him. He had nothing left. As he lay helpless in the gutter, surrounded by hypodermic needles and endless litter, the thought came to him of returning to his father. “Better to be a hired hand on my father’s farm than a bloated rat on a garbage heap,” he thought to himself. So he picked himself up and headed for home.

Now according to Middle Eastern culture, this is how the parable should have continued from here. The younger son, by virtue of his scandalous behavior, had embarrassed both his father as well as the entire village from which he came. His father, as a result, was a wounded man who no doubt was subjected to at least some public ridicule. “Why did he give the money to an admittedly irresponsible juvenile?” some people might have wondered. “Didn’t he raise the boy well?” others asked. What the boy did in that distant country left a mark on everyone—a blemish on their good name—and now he wanted to return.

To return to the village and to his father, one relatively standard process was in place. The young man must come publicly to his father on his hands and knees, confess his evil deeds, ask for forgiveness, and kiss his father’s feet. This was no time for a kiss of profound appreciation, as when Joseph kissed the body of Jacob, his father (Gen. 50:1). This was no time for a warm embrace and a kiss of reconciliation between quarrelers, as when Esau kissed his brother, Jacob (Gen. 33:4). This was not a time for a kiss of respect, as when Samuel kissed Saul as he anointed him king (1 Sam. 10:1). And this was certainly not a time for a kiss of simple affection, as when the early Christians in Rome, Corinth and Thessalonica, not to mention the early Brethren in Christ, greeted each other with the holy kiss (Rom. 16:16; 1 Cor. 16:20; 1 Thess. 5:26). The son had made a mockery of his father and his estate—didn’t he? This was to be a kiss of deep remorse and repentance, a kiss in search of mercy and forgiveness. Those listening to the story would expect nothing less. Such a kiss was a type-scene back then that grew out of standard cultural practices, a type-scene as familiar to the ancients as a bride wearing a white dress is to us. You simply wouldn’t expect it any other way.

But in fact, we do find a quite different development at this point in the parable, a development that violates not only the type-scene, but every cultural norm known in that day. Rather than disowning the son or wallowing in disgrace, the father in Jesus’ parable stands watch by the window of his house in hope of the son’s return. When he finally catches a glimpse of the boy way off in the distance—this was no accidental glance; the father had been on the lookout—his heart is overwhelmed with compassion. Instead of maintaining his dignity and protecting whatever is left of his reputation, the father runs frantically to meet his son, trying no doubt to protect him from public disgrace as he makes his way back into the village. Men in the Middle East don’t run in public, and they didn’t back then either. Running is not only undignified, but it was risky given the robes that men typically wore. And finally, to top off this outrageous demonstration of cultural indifference, the father throws his arms around the boy and kisses him! Whatever happened to the son crawling in the dirt? Whatever became of his obligation to kiss the father’s feet? What about social norms? Peer pressure? The responsibilities associated with being a patriarch—a leader!—within the community? Throwing all caution to the wind, the father threw his arms around his wayward son and kissed him. In spite of all that the son had done, this was not a kiss of betrayal or condemnation, as when Judas kissed Jesus in Gethsemane while handing him over to the soldiers. Neither was this kiss flippant or disingenuous, like so many of the kisses casually passed from one person to the next in today’s world. The father’s kiss was instead an outpouring of love and grace that flowed from the very depths of his heart. When the father kissed the son, he offered him forgiveness, hope and a new beginning. This was a kiss of transformation.

I thought I was a new person after that wedding kiss on May 29, 1977. Can you just imagine the young man at the close of this parable?!? Without even acknowledging his son’s long-prepared apology—“Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son”—the father dresses him in a fancy robe, places a ring on his finger and sandals on his otherwise bare feet, and prepares a feast that would have made even the cooks at Alfred’s Victorian or the Hershey Hotel green with envy. “My son is alive,” the father shouts. “Everyone celebrate!” And the son—loved, forgiven and kissed—will never be the same again.

You can perhaps imagine God as an irritated father, standing stubbornly nearby, arms crossed, as you come crawling in after curfew. You’ve no doubt pictured him as a judge with gavel in hand, his face aloof as you cry out for mercy. Perhaps you have envisioned God as a corporate executive surrounded by his heavenly associates, ashamed of your irresponsible misuse of his resources. Or maybe you see God simply as an emotionless being worthy of study and analysis but unresponsive to human needs. These are too often the characterizations we live with, the characterizations of God we’ve either inherited from others or constructed on our own. But can you, in your wildest dreams, imagine God running recklessly after you, throwing his arms around you before you even have the chance to utter a word, and kissing you? Is such a picture too earthy—too human? Is it offensive to our sensibilities, an insult to our dignity? Why? Didn’t Isaiah and Jeremiah tell us centuries ago that God loves us with an everlasting love (Isa. 63:7; Jer. 31:3)? And didn’t Hosea go even further and announce so boldly that God loves his people as a devoted husband (2:16) and caring parent (11:1-4)? What devoted husband or caring parent fails to kiss his wife or child? Is the image of a kissing God that objectionable? Not for Jesus, the teller of this parable. The father, without embarrassment, kisses the son, and the son is forever changed.

In this way, the father calls to mind Prince Philip in the familiar old fairy tale, Sleeping Beauty. In the tale, Princess Aurora comes under the spell of the wicked Maleficent, and she falls into an endless sleep at the top of the tallest tower of the castle. The only antidote for the spell, and therefore the only hope for Aurora, is a kiss from Prince Philip, who has himself been imprisoned by Maleficent to keep him from rescuing the princess. Years pass, and the tower is eventually surrounded by tall thorn bushes. One prince after another attempt to penetrate the thorns and rescue Aurora, hoping against all odds that they too might be able to break the evil spell. But none are successful. Finally, three good fairies free Philip from his imprisonment, who then fights his way up to the top of the tower. In the quiet of the darkened room, Prince Philip kisses Aurora, and the princess awakens. They dance, marry and live happily ever after.

Does God, I’ve asked before, kiss people? If any doubts linger, and I confess that it is a relatively new thought to me as well, we need only reflect for a moment upon one of the New Testament’s more profound images of Christ and his Church. Caught under a spell like Princess Aurora, the human infatuation with the physical side of life—what we eat, where we live, and how we look—has left us asleep and inattentive to the spiritual life. One religious imposter after another comes to us, prince-like, and offers us the hope of new life. But none succeed. Then Jesus, the Prince of Peace, climbs down through the thorns and kisses us. Our eyes open, and our hearts and minds are transformed.

But neither the Father nor the Son are satisfied with that. As a climactic act, Jesus arrives yet again, dressed in a tux, a rose attached to his lapel, and standing on the stage in the center of the universe. The Church—forgiven people kissed back to life—are now the bride, standing beside him in our white robes. The songs have been sung, the vows pronounced. One thing remains. The Father turns to his Son and says, “You may kiss the bride.” A kiss of love. A kiss of new beginnings. Jesus doesn’t only call us to be aware that we are spiritual beings. He doesn’t simply assure us that he alone is food for the soul. Jesus, first and foremost, longs to be, not an abstract idea or religious system, but the love of our lives. A kiss is a symbol fitting of the Father. And a kiss is a loving act practiced by the Son.