Yesterday’s Gospel reading, Luke 15.1-3, llb-32, was, of course, the famous Prodigal Son parable. For those who don’t know, the story goes something like this: A man has two bratty kids. One asks for his half of his inheritance money then runs out and spends it all on all sorts of fun vices like Starbucks drinks (probably). Before long the bratty kid spent all his money and ends up working as a slave on a farm, eating alongside the pigs. He then realizes that his dad’s slaves get treated better than he does, so he goes back home with the intent to ask his father to be a slave, since he considers himself not worthy of being called his father’s son anymore. Before he even gets to his dad’s house, his dad sees him and runs out, embraces his son, and throws his bratty kid a big party. His dad says “The son of mine was lost but now is found, was dead but now is alive, yippee!” (Message translation?). The dad’s other bratty son gets all jealous and pissy and says “How come you never through me a big party and I’m a perfect goodie two shoes! (Also Message translation?). His dad shakes his head and says “Son, you are always with me, all that is mine is yours, but your brother was dead but now is alive again.” (Oh, and fun trivia fact while I’m on it-- prodigal means wasteful, not repentant or evil or anything else like that).
The basic point of the parable, which is part of a string of parables about lost things (a sheep, a coin, etc. etc.), is to say that God’s grace knows no bounds. One could say (and many Biblical scholars have) that the father (God) is the prodigal one, wasting all this fine food and drink and money on his bratty kid. In the lost sheep parable, a sheep wonders away from the fold only for the shepherd (God) to leave all the other sheep behind to find it. Or how about the missing coin, where a woman (God—yes, God is a woman in this parable. Deal.) searches through her whole house, tearing it apart, to find this lost coin. In other words, one cannot wonder far enough to be lost from God’s grace.
It’s kind of a neat story. God’s grace and love is so great that nothing anyone can do can separate themselves from it (now I’m paraphrasing Paul. Oh dear). It is unfortunate, then, that many preachers focus on some supposed repentance of the bratty son as the means by which he is found. This idea doesn’t really fit in with the story. In the context of the other two parables, the sheep and coin do nothing in order to be found. They aren’t having some change of heart. No! The sheep just wanders stupidly around til the shepherd finds it, the coin is just a coin so it can’t have a change of heart or repent. Even the kid in the parable doesn’t repent, because, by the end of the parable he still doesn’t get it! He goes to his father saying “I am not worthy to be called your son,” missing the entire point. Worth has nothing to do with his father’s\God’s love and grace. Our culture likes to think that one must prove her or himself to be considered worthy—the very opposite idea of the parable.
This idea is a common theme in children aimed programming. The protagonist, in a repeat of the Herculean Trials, proves her or his worth through a series of trials that often test the protagonist’s dedication, vision, and usually climaxes with an epiphonic change of heart. For instance, in Wreck it Ralph (2012), a Disney/Pixar film, the protagonist, Ralph, yearns to be a hero, and after a series of trials proving his worth—namely, willingness to sacrifice himself for others—Ralph finally proves to others and himself that he has what it takes to be a hero. This theme is common in Disney films—the protagonist overcomes many obstacles to finally prove her or his worth. In Mulan (1998), the main character, a young woman named Mulan, poses as a man and fights in the all-male army in ancient China. She quickly becomes one of the most well-liked and respected members of the army, only for her secret to be revealed. She is outed as a woman and is kicked out of the military. Only after saving the emperor at the end of the film is she welcomed back into the ranks and considered a hero. And, just to show that I’m not picking on Disney, the same themes can be found in films from DreamWork’s 2005 Madagascar to Martin Scorsese’s critically acclaimed Hugo (2011).
These films aim to teach team work, hard work, and following one’s dreams will make one successful. One can almost hear the moral of the story being pounded over and over into the heads of the young children: if you just work hard enough, your dreams will come true. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to add a few musical numbers and heartwarming epiphonic moments into the mix.
Few children’s films break out from this mold, but one franchise in particular seems to have been challenging this paradigm since its inception… the Care Bears (who of my Facebook friends could have seen that coming?)! These cuddly bears have appeared in two theatrical films, four distinct television series, greeting cards, toys, books, food… the list goes on. Their mission is to teach everyone about the value of caring, but also, apparently, about grace.
In The Care Bears’ Big Wish Movie (poorly animated by Nelvana, released in 2005), Wish Bear’s wishes keep getting her into trouble with the other Care Bears when they keep back firing. Frustrated, Wish Bear wishes for some friends who love wishing just as much as she does. Soon, three new bears come to Care-a-Lot: Me Bear (a selfish diva), Messy Bear (the Pigsty of Care-a-Lot), and Too Loud Bear (probably modeled after the neighbors who live in the apartment above me). These three bears are welcomed by the Care Bears into Care-a-Lot, who help build the new Care Bears an elaborate house and put up with the noisy, messy, and selfish bears (even though thee three new bears grate on everyone—even Wish Bear’s—nerves). Soon, the three new bears accidentally ruin Care-a-Lot, draining it of its color and even using up all of Wish Bear’s wishes. The three bears realize what they’ve done and apologize. The Care Bears ask Wish Bear to help wish Care-a-Lot back to its former glory, but Wish Bear declines, realizing that wishing is fun, but is nothing without putting in some work to reach one’s goals. Together, the Care Bears fix Care-a-Lot, and the three new bears—Me, Messy, and Too Loud—ask if they can remain living in Care-a-Lot, which, of course, the Care Bears happily agree to.
On the surface, it might seem like just another kids movie saying if you work hard enough, you will overcome your challenges and be accepted for who you are. And while that theme is certainly a piece of the film, I think the story bears (heh) much more resemblance to the Prodigal Son parable than one might think. First, the three new bears are welcomed into Care-a-Lot without hesitation. Even after they practically destroy the Care Bears’ home, the Care Bears do not kick them out. And when the three bears humbly ask if they are allowed to stay in Care-a-Lot after realizing all the harm they did, the Care Bears do not hesitate in saying yes. Because, their stay in Care-a-Lot was NEVER a question to the other Care Bears.
This theme goes back to the inclusion of Grumpy Bear in the original ten Care Bears. All nine of the other Care Bears were practically (and sometimes literally) the poster children for rainbows, butterflies, and Pepto Bismol pink happiness. But not Grumpy Bear. His surly expression and downer attitude made him a stark contrast to the others. But he was still very much a true, storm-cloud blue Care Bear. In the 2007 direct-to-video release Oopsy Does It (much more nicely animated by Kidtoon films), the protagonist, a new Care Bear named Oopsy, does not even have a tummy symbol. But he is still counted among the ranks of the Care Bears. And while the film features Oopsy going through many of the same trials and tribulations as we see in other films to learn to accept himself, he was always, from the very first moment of the film, accepted by the other Care Bears.
The lesson the Prodigal Son and, oddly enough, the Care Bears, are trying to teach us is not how to find ourselves back in the graces of God (or fantasy land of Care-a-Lot), but, rather, to learn to accept ourselves as is, knowing that God already has and does. That doesn’t mean we can’t try for better or learn some lessons along the way (after all, James says faith without works is dead… sanctification vs. justification for all those theology nerds out there), but maybe if we stopped asking God to treat us like slaves long enough to notice her open arms (oops, referred to the divine as a girl again. Whoopsie), then maybe we would be able to accept others with open arms, too.