The Fourth Sunday in Lent: March 6, 2016
Preacher: The Rev. Katharine Flexer, Rector of St. Michael’s Church
Ok, so before we can really take a crack at this story, we need to take a poll. How many of us are youngest children? How many of you are oldest children? How many of you are parents? How many of you are the fatted calf? Just kidding. Revealing. At the vestry retreat last weekend we talked about our birth order in our families, and you will not be surprised to hear that many of your vestry are oldest children. The responsible ones, the ones who feel the need to be in charge, the ones who think they know best. That’s your vestry. Your rector, however, is a youngest child. Yep, that’s right. The spoiled one, the one the parents were too tired to set curfews for or say no to, the one who pretty much always got her way in the family and yet was still loved anyway. We’re going to have a great year together, the vestry and I.
So all of that, our own family situation, might just set the stage for how we hear this story, The Parable of the Prodigal Son, as we usually call it, or sometimes the Parable of the Lost Son, or the Parable of Two Sons. The Jewish New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine suggests a few other titles: the Parable of the Foolish Father, perhaps, or my favorite, the Parable of the Absent Mother. A good point. Where is the mother in this oh-so-dysfunctional family, anyhow? And what might she have said and done with her two difficult sons?
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Like any other parable, this story has many meanings, and is meant to provoke its hearers. The Pharisees and scribes grumble about Jesus spending time with the wrong people, so he tells this story, as well as two others, all in a row. The parable of the lost sheep, where the shepherd goes to look for one lost sheep even though the other 99 are safe in the fold. The parable of the lost coin, about a woman who searches her whole house for one missing silver coin, even though she has nine of the ten accounted for. And then, the parable we hear today. And that’s all the further we hear from the scribes and Pharisees in this particular encounter, though I doubt it made them stop their grumbling. It’s hard to stop people from grumbling by telling stories about how they are grumbling.
So who are these characters, minus the mother? Well, first there’s the younger brother, who gets most of the narrative space. The younger brother in Jewish stories is often the favored one – sorry, but it’s true – Abel to the older Cain, Jacob to the slightly older Esau, Isaac to Ishmael, and so on. So the audience listening to this parable is primed to think well of this younger brother. But they quickly realize he’s really a jerk. He tells his father he wants his share of the inheritance now, not later, and as soon as he gets it, he turns it into cash and takes off. Having spent everything in debauchery and wantonness, he finds himself in a sorry state, taking care of a foreigner’s pigs, and longing to eat the food the pigs eat. And there, he ‘comes to himself.’ Thinking to himself that life would be better back at his father’s house, he works out a speech about coming back as a slave, and heads back. He’s hungry and at his wits’ end, and he thinks of that famous line (of Robert Frost): ‘home is the place where when you get there, they have to take you in.’ Focused on himself from start to finish, he heads back, ready to repeat his rehearsed speech and get back some place in his father’s home.
Then there’s the father: he has agreed to his son’s demand for his inheritance without any complaint or comment. A sign of how well he’s disciplined him up to this point, perhaps. Then after years have passed, he sees this same son loping back into town. And instead of waiting for him sternly and with dignity inside his own house, the father races out to him while he is still a long way off, while he’s still on the edges of the village, to walk him back home in front of all the neighbors. He doesn’t even let the son finish his speech about coming back as a slave – he immediately gives orders to clothe him with the best robe, to put the family ring on his finger and sandals on his feet, to give him every badge of honor he possibly can, so that this son will come back home in state and dignity. He loves this boy, and he is thrilled that he is home.
And lastly, there’s the older son. He comes home, sees the party, demands to know what is happening, and refuses to come in. Again, instead of sternly waiting inside for this disobedient son to be dragged before him, the father runs out to him, again in front of everybody, and pleads with him to come inside. But instead of coming in, this son delivers his petulant, rude speech: ‘You never even gave me a goat so I could celebrate with my friends’ – so I won’t celebrate with ‘this son of yours.’ But instead of reacting, the father speaks tenderly to him, reminds him the other son is his brother, and invites him in to celebrate his return. And there the story ends – we don’t know if the elder son will come in or not. Usually we read this parable as an allegory – the tax collectors and sinners have been welcomed back and Jesus and all his followers are celebrating their return. The Pharisees and scribes ought to celebrate too and come into the party. They’re the elder brother in the story, the sinners are the younger brother, and God is the father trying to get them to all sit down together. Everyone should stop their grumbling and come in and join the party.
But we could also just hear this as a story of a family, one with a screwed-up younger brother, an overly permissive father, and a resentful older brother. Maybe a family like one you know. The thing is, both sons are estranged from home – both have left home either physically or spiritually and are welcomed back with love by their father. Only one of them ‘comes to himself’ and returns home; the other one, we’re not sure what will happen. So the story is partly about the welcome the father gives them. But it’s also about the relationship between the sons – how they treat one another. It doesn’t matter what kind of welcome the father gives – the elder son makes it clear that he is by no means ready to welcome back that no-good brother of his.
Depending on what’s going on in our lives, we might hear this story differently. When things are horrible in our lives, when we’ve hit bottom and despise ourselves and feel the lowest of the low, the story of the Prodigal Son comforts us with the hope of a second chance with God, that forgiveness is always available to us. When things are going better for us, when we’ve been good citizens, following the rules and feeling a little more satisfied with ourselves, this parable might serve as more of a warning. Because as members of a community – a biological family, for example, or a church family, a human family of any kind – we sometimes have a way of refusing each other welcome. It can be hard to really feel welcome enough ourselves to welcome others as well.
Here’s some of what the parable says, to all of us: No matter who we are and what we’ve done, we are always welcome in God’s eyes to come back. And the community should always be a place for that welcome. No matter our worthiness or unworthiness, we are invited to come to the table, to break bread together. And we are called to welcome others to come as well, to root out whatever in us wants to shut them out. None of us are perfect in God’s eyes. All of us have messed up. There’s no cause for being self-righteous and ungenerous here – the table is set for everyone. Whether we’re the host of the party or the latecomer, we are welcome, and our job is also to welcome others – without requirements for good behavior or expectations for an apology. This is what the human family could be, in God’s eyes – this is what the kingdom of God should look like. Grace enough to bring out the best in us.