The Fourth Sunday in Lent: March 31, 2019
Preacher: The Rev. Katharine Flexer, Rector of St. Michael’s Church
I’ve just come back from helping to clear out my parents’ home, the house they lived in for 53 years. They moved a month ago to a senior living place, and this last weekend my two brothers and I met at the house to gather things we each wanted to take. It was, as you can imagine, not an easy trip, old family dynamics mixing in with grief and sadness. So how interesting for me to have this parable of the Prodigal Son to work with today, with all of its family drama and complexity. Sibling issues and family dysfunction are nothing new, it seems – obviously Jesus and his audience knew them well, well enough to make a story out of them that has continued to be one of our favorites of Jesus’ parables.
But of course, however much it may make us think of our own families, this is a parable, not a story of an actual family. And as a parable, it’s meant to tell us something about how we are to live – maybe more than we at first expect.
I preached on this text here three years ago and talked about how this is a parable that strikes us differently depending on what is going on in our lives, whether we feel ourselves to be in need of forgiveness like the younger son, or whether we are being called to be more forgiving, like the elder son. As countless writers have noted, this is a parable about grace, our need for grace and our need to extend grace to others. But this time around in the midst of my own family transition, I hear this familiar tale also as a parable about what might lead us into the generosity of forgiveness.
I’m increasingly enamored of the Franciscan writer Richard Rohr, whom I’ve mentioned before. One book of his, Falling Upward, talks about the different tasks of the first and second halves of life. I think I’ve talked about it before, but to recap: In the first half of life, we need rules to follow. We function best when expectations and boundaries are made clear to us by our parents, and we grow up responding and reacting to those rules. The discipline and boundaries of childhood graduate into the goals and expectations of adulthood, as we establish our identity: find work and perhaps a career, settle to live some place or other, maybe find a mate and have children. Consciously or more often unconsciously, we try to perfect ourselves in whatever roles we have taken on, in order to receive affirmation and acceptance from others, from God, perhaps even from ourselves.
But at some point in life that all begins to shift. Fulfilling roles and expectations begins to lose its luster; our identities might start to blur. We find ourselves unemployed and so go back to school to learn some new trade; our children grow up and we are no longer a parent in quite the same way; the beliefs we grew up with no longer work and we find ourselves searching for deeper truth. ‘Who I am’ begins to shift; ‘who I am’ becomes, in fact, less interesting as a topic. This is the transition into the second half of life, what might happen in a midlife crisis or at a time of loss like retirement or our parents’ death, often when something that felt permanent ends in some way. Some people respond by trying to go back, to cling to what they knew before, with plastic surgery or fundamentalism or doubling down on the career ladder – not everyone can stand the suffering necessary to go through this kind of change. But if we allow it, we find ourselves living in a whole new way. And our relationships with God and others change.
Richard Rohr puts it this way, talking about the second half of life as the ‘second simplicity’:
Many who are judgmental and unforgiving seem to have missed out on the joy and clarity of the first childhood simplicity, perhaps avoided the suffering of the mid-life complexity, and thus lost the great freedom and magnanimity of the second [simplicity] as well…The great irony is that we must go through a lot of complexity and disorder (another word for necessary suffering)…to grow up and switch our loyalties from self to God. Most people just try to maintain their initial “order” at all costs, even if it is killing them.
So, to the parable: the younger son goes on a journey – the beginning of every heroic narrative. He leaves motivated by his reaction against the rules – taking his part of the inheritance, off to lead his own life, see ya. It’s a selfish rebellion that leads him to a place of suffering, starving and alone with the pigs. In his suffering he remembers the security he came from, the clear roles he had to fulfill – and so he goes back to those, returning to his father to provide for him again. But he goes back rehearsing and reciting a little speech, ‘Father I have sinned against heaven and before you’…and it doesn’t seem as though he’s changed one bit. His father receives him with open arms. But we don’t hear if receiving that forgiveness and love makes a difference for him.
The elder son, on the other hand, takes no such journey, laboring in the family fields and continuing to do what he’s supposed to do, playing by the rules. When that brother of his comes back he can’t accept him, and no wonder – he strongly suspects that the prodigal son is back just for the free lunch. But he also gets angry at his father for forgiving his brother and receiving him back. It’s like he’s saying, that’s not the rules, the system isn’t supposed to work this way, it’s unfair! He too suffers, but we don’t know whether he changes because of it in any way.
Both sons seem familiar to us, I think, one way or the other – because we see them in ourselves, or in others we know. But it’s the father who is remarkable to me this time around. He is generous to a fault, allowing his younger son to take the money and his ill-fated trip, yet receiving him back again with joy when he comes home. He goes out to find his older son when he won’t come in and hears out his bitter anger, but even so insists on the imperative to celebrate and rejoice as a family. He is able to give and forgive without strings attached. Somehow, it seems, he has come to the generosity of the second half of life. He is able to be as God is, freely loving and forgiving, unconditionally.
In our study of the Way of Love this season, our focus today is on blessing. The program materials put it this way: ‘We are empowered by the Spirit to bless everyone we meet, practicing generosity and compassion, and proclaiming the Good News of God in Christ with hopeful words and selfless actions – to give generously and share of ourselves with others.’ We bless others with our time and our care, with giving of our resources and our abilities – living today not to seek good things for ourselves, but to be a blessing for others. It’s what we do when we give money, whether in a check for the Haiti Project or in the plate here at church; it’s what we do when we go the extra step for others who need our help, in our families or with strangers on the street. Our world needs more generosity and compassion, I think we can all agree.
What is it that makes the father in the parable so ready to bless his sons with love and forgiveness, I wonder? He seems to feel he has nothing to lose. He seems to have let go of being the perfect parent, the perfect patriarch, the perfect figure of respect – he goes running out to each one of them, making a fool of himself before the servants. Is it simply that he has lived long enough and traveled far enough to live generously? Perhaps. But I think it is also that in some deep way he has let go of that need for others’ approval, let go of the need for success, let go of the fear of failure. He trusts God to work out the outcome; he allows the possibility that his sons will turn away from him; he loves them anyway. And so he is able to give to them freely.
Talking about the two halves of life makes it sound like a long, linear progression, birth to age 45, then age 45 till death. But it is not simply that – age doesn’t necessarily indicate maturity, and we seem to cycle through it all a few times over before we’re done. We are always working our way through those tasks, through the different practices of the way of love, turning, praying, learning, and so on. We are always called to bless and be a blessing to those around us, in our schools, our families, our workplaces. The more we remind ourselves to turn back to God; the more we pray and spend time in God’s presence; the more we study God’s ways in scripture and surround ourselves with mentors and guides who live in love…the more we are able ourselves to bless others – and to let ourselves go.
We might be like the younger sibling ready to grab all that is ours and flee, or coming back hoping for forgiveness. Or we might be like the older sibling, resentful of what others get, unable to count our own blessings. Or we might be like the parent who loves and yearns for those around us to be one happy family. But we are all on a journey of learning to love. God longs to turn our suffering into blessing; God takes our failures and makes them fruitful; God draws us always onward into growth and maturity. We may not succeed at life. We may not have the perfect job, the perfect marriage, the perfect children. In fact, we definitely won’t have that, any of that.
But when we stop grasping for it, when we can let things fall, when we stop focusing on and worrying over ourselves, we find God close at hand. Ready to embrace us in our loss and screw-ups; ready to forgive us and draw us into the celebration. And ready to use us to love and forgive and draw others in as well, to share the blessing. The invitation is always there, always extended, always offered – the party is always ongoing. May we step in and be loved.