March 10, 2013
Today’s parable from Luke’s Gospel is a story about the ongoing need for and priority of reconciliation in God’s kingdom. In Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth we hear that it is the church’s job to serve as ambassadors of Christ’s kingdom because Jesus has reconciled us to God. Luke’s story gives that command some flesh, because at its heart—as it is in most stories of reconciliation—stands a paradoxical main character who is both almighty and powerless, kind of like God. Everything surprising that happens in the story comes from the behaviors of this powerful/powerless character.
This parable is often called the Parable of the Prodigal Son, but it seems to me that the main character—at least the most surprising and interesting one—is the Forgiving Father. The first surprise in the parable happens when the father’s younger son comes to him and says, “Dad, I wish you were dead, so I could get my inheritance now.” The father doesn’t say, “Too bad. I’m the Dad. I make the decisions around here, and I’ve just decided you’ll just have to wait till I fall apart at a very, very old age.” Instead, he does what he is asked. Though the older brother is quiet here, we can guess that he didn’t resist too much. At least, there’s no indication that he refused to participate in this process. This head of the household does not use his authority to subordinate the children. They are free to choose how they want to live.
So the younger son goes off “to find where demons dwell” as the hymn Borning Cry puts it. For awhile he has fun, but Luke shows us how low he sinks by telling us that eventually he ends up feeding the pigs. It can’t get much worse for a nice Jewish boy than to serve these religiously and culturally unclean animals. To add insult to injury, he only stays alive because the pigs are generous enough to share their food with him. That’s how bad it gets.
And here is a second surprise from the father. Although he has the power to command his servants to go out after the boy and bring him back home, he doesn’t. Maybe he knows enough about psychology to know that if he sent someone to bring the boy back the child would resent that loving gesture, and probably run off again as soon as he got a chance. So the father lets him go his own way, knowing he will struggle, but loving him enough to let him try.
Still, I’m willing to bet that both the boy’s father and mother have been out searching for him in all the local bars and brothels night after night. Perhaps they have worn themselves out trying to locate him. And maybe they finally did see him, but he wasn’t ready to return to them yet. Maybe, as our friends in AA would describe it, he still had to hit bottom. And the loving parents had to love him enough to let him find his own way home.
And when he does, he remembers that even his father’s servants live better than he is living. He begins his journey home, rehearsing his apology. And the father surprises us again. Clearly he has been waiting for the boy, because when he was still a long way off, the father sets off running toward him. Men in this patriarchal society did not run. It would have shocked Jesus’ hearers to imagine a distinguished head of a household throwing away his dignity like that. But off he runs, not caring what anyone thinks. And before his son can confess his sins and ask for pardon and a position as a slave in the household, the father is calling for gifts that can only be given to a free man.
He offers a cloak, ring, sandals, and feast. A cloak—a garment suggesting royalty, or at least a distinguished person. And sandals? In this country, and I imagine in others, slaves were often without shoes; it made running away less likely. Do you know that marvelous African American spiritual, “I got shoes, you got shoes, all God’s children got shoes….” It’s pretty ironic that his father would give him shoes, as he’d already run away once, but the father wants him to know that all is forgiven. It’s the ring that is the real surprise. Only a person with the authority to make lasting contracts would have had a ring–a signet ring. It would have born his father’s insignia, and–though he’d certainly not shown himself to be trustworthy of making good decisions–this ring would give him the authority to command whatever he wished in his father’s name. Finally, the father calls for the fatted calf to be killed and a feast arranged.
And now we approach an image that feels familiar and comfortable to us. God hosting a heavenly banquet, toasting the lost who is now found, and eating the fatted calf. Except the father is still surprising us. Because, where is he? Not inside at the head of the table. No, he’s outside the party, talking to his elder son. He could have sent a servant out there to command the older boy to come in. He had that kind of power. But he didn’t use it. Instead, he went out to be with the angry child. And there, when the elder brother refers to himself as a slave to his father, the father does not punish him for being disrespectful. Instead, he assures the boy that he is not a slave–he is as free as anyone can be. “All that is mine is yours,” the father assures him. My guess is that this son, too, had sandals and a cloak and even a ring. The citizens of the kingdom of heaven have all the benefits.
There are many things we still do not know when the story ends–does the elder brother go into the party? Or does that remain the younger brother’s welcome home bash? And most interestingly, what happens the next day? Does the older boy go grumpily out into the fields again? Does the younger brother go with him? Do they work hard to show that they have repented and live like children of a generous father now? Does the family ever return to a state of reconciliation, in which they trust one another again?
Maybe those questions are left unanswered so that we will have to wrestle with our own answers. Perhaps the characters we resent or identify with explain a little about where we need reconciliation. The religious people of Jesus’ time who first heard this parable were unhappy with how it portrayed them. It was clear they were meant to see themselves in the older brother, for they resented the fact that Jesus spent so much time with outcasts and sinners. And we have to see that he did not privilege the good church going people. Jesus commissioned a Samaritan woman at the well to be the first missionary, not a respected Pharisee from the congregation. After his resurrection, Jesus did not appear first to the high priest and the council members. He appeared to some frightened women in a garden. Are we the older brother, too, considering Christians more important than those who do not regularly attend a church of which we approve, or maybe no church at all? Do we think God should love us more than “those people”? Our gut reaction, I know, is to say, “Of course not!” But notice how you feel the next time it seems that Christians are not being privileged.
Are we the younger brother, running as far and as fast as we can away from all that we have been taught about being part of a “church family”? Are we seeking meaning without respect for how are behavior or speech affects those around us? Are we acting as if we were the only person whose desires and needs mattered? And when we come to ourselves, are we humble enough to ask for forgiveness, or do we try to earn it, as the younger son did, requesting that he be treated poorly, though it was the Father’s nature to be gracious?
No matter how well or ill behaved we are, or how disrespectful or respectful we are of our sisters and brothers or of our God, we are all embraced and called family. Our almighty God will not use might against us. Instead, God will always turn us toward reconciliation with each other and our Lord. In Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth, Paul says that if anyone is in Christ, he or she is a new creation. That’s us. We are new creations, no longer trapped in old ways of bitterness and self-destruction. In Christ, we can let go of whatever leads us to exclude our sisters and brothers, our parents and children, from being our peers at the table. In the kingdom of God, everyone has an equal place. We are all children of God through our baptisms, and given full citizenship in the kingdom of God. As new creations in Jesus, we are called to be ambassadors of Christ, to model the way of reconciliation and oneness.
So let us begin by being reconciled with one another. When we pass the peace in a few minutes, I invite you to look truly into the eyes of your sisters and brothers and say, “Welcome home!” And then let us feast at the generous table of a surprising God who keeps welcoming us home again and again. And tomorrow let us live out a story in which we talk the talk and walk the walk of reconciliation–hallmarks of the kingdom to which we belong.
~Pastor Sue Schneider