I have been hesitant to write this post for two reasons that are related. The first is that sports and leisure are way overblown and overemphasized in American culture, and I say that as a sports fan. We spend much time complaining about the wasteful spending in government, the out-of-place priorities of politicians and others, but many of those same persons, who are sports fans, will think nothing of dropping a few hundred bucks at every professional sporting event they attend. They can't believe how much CEOs make, but are more than willing to have their beloved team drop the big money to get the superstar that could bring the hometown a championship. Right now we have a complicated humanitarian crisis on our southern border, Christians in Iraq are having to pay protection money to Muslim extremists, women and children are being trafficked everyday to become the victims of sexual abuse by unscrupulous individuals; and yet the real focus in the media has been whether or not LeBron James will return to play for the Cleveland Cavaliers. It is overkill-- but before we are too hard on the athletically obsessed, we human beings tend to do quite well in majoring in the minors of life-- and there are lots of minors to major in that cannot be categorized as sports. My first fear in writing this post that I am simply adding to the overkill of the story.
My second concern centers around something others have already done-- drawn a parallel between LeBron James and the wayward young man in Jesus' parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-31). I can understand that some might see a resemblance-- a hometown boy leaves home for a new life of success, hurting his family in the process; and after deciding that life in the "bright lights and big city" isn't what he thought it was going to be, returns home to family and friends where he is welcomed by some and also rejected by one who can not forget the insult and injury and shame he caused to others. It's understandable that such parallels have been drawn, and no one should find it odd that people have done so. As a preacher, who is constantly writing sermons seeking to illuminate Scripture with examples from the "stuff" of life, I get it.
The problem for me is two-fold: as much as I admire LeBron's talent as an athlete (and that he is currently the best player in the NBA is beyond dispute) I fear that drawing the parallels too closely between LeBron's situation and the context of the prodigal son story will trivialize the parable itself and the message Jesus was offering it in telling the story in the first place. (Trivializing the Scripture is always a danger in the application of the Bible.) The wayward son went off to live a scandalous life and squandered his share of the inheritance, his father's hard earned work, in the process; LeBron just went off to Miami in the hope of winning a championship. The wayward son returned home destitute, LeBron is set to become the first billionaire athlete. The father forgave his son for deeply damaging his reputation in an honor and shame culture; LeBron did nothing more than seriously disappoint fans. So, while I understand the comparison, we should be careful as to how closely the parallels have been drawn.
But, as a preacher who is always thinking of how to bring the Scripture into the everyday of the life of the church, and how the Bible makes the most sense when it is employed in a theological reflection "on the street," I also don't simply want to dismiss the comparison out of hand. People have seen the comparison for obvious reasons. So, the question for me is how can this over-hyped, sports event help illuminate the parable of the prodigal son, and how can the parable of the prodigal son assist us in understanding this over-hyped sports event?
If you are not a sports fan, it is difficult to understand how rabid sports fans figuratively "live and die with their teams." If it is true that art imitates life, it is also true that sports do as well. All of things that happen in sports-- competition, joy, disappointment, success, failure, winning, losing, risk, reward, discipline, teamwork-- are also things we deal with in life all the time. Sports can reveal how we handle such things; they can also teach us how to handle the many things in life larger than athletics. This can be seen, not often enough in the pros, but in high school and college sports where more than a few coaches understand that their task is not just to teach a players the game, but that in teaching the game she can teach lessons for life. I know coaches who believe that what they are doing is helping in some small way, at least, in preparing young athletes, not so much for a successful sports career, since most of them will not play professionally, but in preparing them for their future whatever that future may hold. Sports can imitate life and life can imitate sports.
The biggest mistake LeBron made when he left Cleveland four years ago was not that he left. Athletes leave sports teams all the time, and when fans get outraged over a superstar going elsewhere, I would remind those fans that they are the first to want to get rid of a superstar once age has caught up with him and he has lost a step. Sports is a "what have you done for me lately" kind of thing. The worst thing that happened four years ago was how LeBron left-- a big TV show, announcing his decision publicly, and letting down his Cleveland fans in front of a national audience. It's as if the wayward son announced to his father that he wanted his inheritance in the center of the village in front of friends and neighbors.
Here is the point-- in the midst of all the insult and injury that the wayward son caused his father-- the father welcomed him back with open arms, while the older brother could not. All he could remember was the insult and the injury, the shame, and the extra work he had to do in his brother's absence. (Can it be doubted that in the midst of the last four years Cavs players and coaches at times wondered how things would have been easier if LeBron had stayed?) There are those fans in Cleveland who can't get past four years ago. At some point, it is time to let go of the insult and move on. And for those fans in Cleveland who are ready to "kill the fatted calf" in celebration, please remember that there are fans in Miami who feel just as let down as you did four years ago. Let's tone it down and let the action take place next season on the court. That is where it counts anyway.
I remember how disappointed and angry Cleveland fans were four years ago when LeBron went off to Miami. It must have also been difficult for LeBron and his family to watch the news and see his jersey being burned, and the insults he also endured. In a letter explaining why he is returning to Cleveland, LeBron states he understands why fans were so angry four years ago. A necessary part of maturity is sympathy and empathy-- to be able to understand and relate to the perspective of the other-- even when it's not your current experience. Surely, if LeBron can understand and get past the vitriol from fans four years ago, surely fans can understand why he wanted to go to Miami and win a championship, since that is what all fans want to experience as well.
Somewhere in the midst of all of Bishop William Willimon's writings he suggests that the reason the Reverend Billy Graham has had such an appealing message over the years, and why he has been able to pack stadiums filled with people, is that in preaching the gospel he has proclaimed the God of the Second Chance. That is, Graham's core message in every crusade is that no matter what we have done, no matter how bad things are, no matter how much of a mess we have made in our lives and even in the lives of those around us, God is always willing, if we are willing, to give us a second chance, an opportunity to start over.
So, while not wishing to add to the hype and not wanting to trivialize the message of Jesus' well-known parable, I offer this parable as a preacher's attempting to grapple with the Scripture in today's world. We need to be careful in drawing parallels between both too closely, but neither should we fear making the connections. Surely, as Christians we can recognize our need at times to start over, to get a second chance; and if we want such a chance, we cannot be stingy in giving that chance to others.
The Bible is, after all, God's word to us too.