Artwork: “New In Christ,"
created by Rev. Lauren Wright Pittman,
used with permission via SanctifiedArts
This morning’s parable is a beloved story – what has come to be known as the Parable of the Prodigal Son. A father has two sons. The youngest asks for his share of the family estate, and the father agrees. That son leaves home, goes to a distant land and squanders his fortune on what the King James Version calls “riotous living.” Then, famine hits, and he finds himself feeding pigs. He comes to himself and decides to go home, even though he imagines he will be crawling home and groveling.
But as the son crests the road heading home – while he is yet a long way off – the father sees him – runs to him – calls for a feast – “for the son I thought was dead, is alive!”
And there’s the other son – who has been there steadily, though not often noticed, who is not even called in from the fields for the party. He hears the music – finds out what is going on – and sits outside and sulks. Until the father comes out. The eldest son erupts – and the Father says, “Son, you are always with me, what’s mine is yours. My life is your life. AND this brother of yours and son of mine, is alive and home with us – so we will celebrate – together – come join the feast.”
Who knows how many times we’ve heard that story. I continue to be amazed by the power of story – the power of this story – how in each hearing there are deep resonances that reverberate in me; there are things that make me clench up; and there’s also – on every reading – something new and fresh. Maybe it’s that way for you too.
Let’s take a moment – a moment of quiet – and just honor how we are experiencing the story right now – whatever it may be stirring up in our Spirit. [TIME OF SILENCE]
The gospels are full of Jesus’s stories. This one, we find only in Luke. It is a Luke original. Remember, the Gospel of Luke is telling one big story: In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God is birthing a whole new world – a new creation. Into a world of suffering, God is finally setting the world rightside up. This is the new creation that Mary sings and that Jesus proclaims – God is lifting up those who are held down, good news for the poor, freedom for all who are oppressed, God’s cancelling of every debt. The old order is still clinging to its power – through systems of power-over that thrive by separating us one from another. But a new creation is breaking through – God’s reign – a new creation reconciling us to God and to each other – beyond every separation – and setting the whole world free.
Jesus announces all that, and then he gets busy. He moves through the villages and towns – healing folks – bringing healing to their broken places. He teaches. And, particularly in Luke, he gathers people at table and eats with them. Someone once said that, in the Gospel of Luke, it feels like Jesus is always either going to a meal, eating a meal, or coming from a meal. And he’ll eat with just about anybody.
That’s what gets him into trouble here. Jesus eats with everybody – sinners, tax collectors, his ragtag disciples, and Pharisees. All that... crosses boundaries. That bridges the separation of classes upon which the systems of power thrive – everyone at one table—this prodigal hospitality. And so as our Scripture opens, the Pharisees grumble, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
And Jesus tells them a parable. Last week we remembered that parables are stories that stir things up. They may seem like harmless fables, but there’s always a twist – a Huh? What? And so we try to hear them as they might have originally been heard by first century folks listening to Jesus, and we try to hear them as they stir up meaning in our day.
With this beloved story, there are also centuries of tradition and preaching and interpretation layered on the story we hear –that we have to sift through – even the name it’s been given – “the Prodigal Son.” That particular name focuses our attention from the start on the younger son – and not on the grieving parent, or the other son who doesn’t get invited to the party. The word “prodigal” – which can mean either wasteful and reckless (which isn’t too far off for what the younger son does here), or it can mean abundant and lavish – that word doesn’t appear anywhere in the text.
Sifting through those layers of tradition, Amy Jill Levine – a Jewish New Testament scholar – reminds us that the folks who first heard this story were all first-century Jewish folks. They were first-century people, living in first-century families, living in their first-century world of empire, and struggle, and survival. This story of a lost son, a grieving parent, and another son not invited to the party – she points out that there’s no reason – even across the centuries – to think that the love they experienced in family, and the loss and the hurt – would be any different than ours – a fundamental human experience – love, separation, and a longing for reconciliation.
Thinking of their experience of the story invites us into our own. And as we bring the story into our day, maybe we should name some basic things: First of all, not all families look like this. Just as a matter of configuration. Families often have women in them – different from this father and two sons. And, even more, in our day, we know a rich, diverse configuration of families that nourishes us, each in its own way.
And, not all families look like this, with regard to the particularity of family dynamics and experience. There is something universal here – love, separation, and the longing for reconciliation – and we each experience family in the particularity of our own.
When it comes to love, loss, and the longing for reconciliation --
Sometimes it is a child who leaves home.
Sometimes, though, it’s a parent.
Sometimes it’s a spouse.
Sometimes leaving is a matter of choice and decision.
Sometimes it’s more complex than that. Sometimes families are living with things bigger than us, like addiction – and the love and longing for reconciliation rests in the reality of the Serenity Prayer –
God give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.
Sometimes the separation comes from forces outside the home – unjust systems – like systems of mass incarceration – that keep families apart. Sometimes it’s a mother separated from her children at the border.
Or families separated by war.
It’s a little jarring for me to hear this particular story within the LGBTQIA+ community. I hear folks read this story with a certain amount of blame on the child who leaves. That “prodigal.” In the LGBTQIA+ community, though, when we share stories of children separated from families or from communities – sometimes it’s not so much because the child chooses to leave – sometimes it’s because they are driven away because of who they are. In extreme cases, they are disowned for being gay or trans or queer. Sometimes it’s just that they’re made to feel less than – and they leave to come into themselves. I should say that’s not my family story. But standing in the queer community, the word “prodigal” can seem... unfair.
When I did my hospital chaplaincy training at UCSF, the director there used a model that articulated three fundamental spiritual needs: the spiritual need for meaning; the spiritual need for belonging; and the spiritual need for reconciliation. We are created for love and life lived in relationship and community; that is how we live and thrive and become who we are. And we live in a world full of broken relationship and separation. In the particularity of us, we long for reconciliation – to be brought back together, to be healed.
In Jesus’s world of separation, the Pharisees grumble, “This man welcomes just about anyone, and eats with them. All those people, gathered at one table.” And Jesus told them a story. I wonder what that story would sound like today – in this world of so many families, and so many stories.
We might tell a story like this:
Once, there was a family who longed for children. When their first child was born, and the doctor placed the baby in the mother’s arms, saying, “Congratulations, you have a baby boy!” – they rejoiced.
As the child grew – and became a youth – the doctor’s words – “you have a baby boy” – for that child – for that youth – those words didn’t ring true. The gender expectations that came with that didn’t make sense; they knew that’s not who they were – and they discovered their own identity, including their gender identity – and they named that and claimed that.
Now the mother loved her child – now, her daughter. The father struggled – and eventually, the father left. The grandmother moved in to help raise the children – a hurting and a healing home.
At some point the daughter knew it was time to leave home – to find her own way – to build her own life – and so, with tears all around, she set out – and her mother and grandmother let her go, knowing it would leave an empty chair at the kitchen table.
In the years that followed, the daughter became fully herself, and she thrived. Now, the world around her was in no way altogether friendly. There were those in the world who responded to her with violence and hate – because of who she was – even as others responded in love. And the life she embraced was her own.
As she came to herself, she thought of her family often –– and one day she thought to herself, “Why shouldn’t I go home – where perhaps I can return the love I have known.” She thought of what she’d say – her regret, perhaps, for staying away so long – but her abiding love nonetheless.
One day, the grandmother and mother – after a long day’s work – were sitting out on the front porch as the sun began to set. As the daughter crested the road coming home – while she was still a long way off – the grandmother squinted into the light – and grabbed the mother’s arm – “Is that...?” And before the mother’s eyes could focus in – she saw the grandmother bounding down the drive, and she ran after her – until the three women met and embraced and wept and laughed – and the mother called for a party, for this daughter of mine is alive and well!
Now the mother had another child – a son. (And at this point, he usually points out – “Yeah, I don’t ever get mentioned until late in the story.”) He heard the sounds of music and rejoicing, so he went near the house and saw the celebration underway. He sat down outside on a stump. The grandmother noticed he was nowhere to be found, and went out looking – and when she found him, she sat down next to him. They sat in silence for a while, and then he said to her – softly – “You didn’t even come to get me to tell me she was home and that we were celebrating.” The grandmother paused before she said, “I’m sorry.” She paused again, and said, “You are always in our heart. We love you, and we will always celebrate you, just as we are celebrating your sister. Come join the party.” And she kissed his forehead, and went back in – and left the door open, so he could come in too.
As he welcomed and ate with anyone who would come to the table, Jesus told this story of a father and two sons. The father gives them all they have – one goes away and squanders all he has and comes home to say sorry – the other stays at home, working away, often unnoticed. As soon as the lost son crests the hill coming home, while he is yet a long way off, the parent breaks into a run, embraces him, kisses him, calls for a robe and a feast. But the father and the lost son forget about the other brother, and leave him out in the field. When he confronts his father with that, the father says to the son, “You are always with me – all that I have – all my life is yours.”
My friend and colleague – Rev. Ashley DeTar Birt – who will preach with us next Sunday – she writes about this story and notices this: In this story of broken and hurting people, everyone gets some grace. The son who wandered off is embraced by a parent’s unshakeoffable love; the son who stayed is offered again all the parent has; and the parent has both their children home. This story is full to the brim and overflowing with a prodigal grace that reaches out beyond every separation – to each of us while we are yet far off – and draws us back home.
In this ancient world and in ours,
there are so many families,
and so many stories of the deeply human experience
of love, loss, and the longing for reconciliation
so many stories –
and there is one story that undergirds them all –
the story of this God, who from the beginning of time,
seeks us out, beyond everything that keeps us a part.
and calls us to come home –
this God who comes to us in the fullness of our humanity,
and touches our broken places and heals them whole –
this God who breathes their Spirit into us
and says, you can do this too.