Sermon preached at WBB on January 11
Reading: Luke 15:11-32 (Parable of the lost son)
Many people feel connected to the parable we read today. No matter how wild or tame we’ve lived, we recognize how we’ve wandered from God and gone our own ways. We’ve demanded our share of what is coming to us and chosen to live as we’d like.
Yet, when we, like the youngest son, come back to our right minds, we return to God. And who is not deeply moved by the image in the text – the image of a parent who is waiting for us, who runs to us and throw their arms around us to welcome us home? Especially in this difficult pandemic season, this image of being embraced and welcomed is a powerful one.
But is the point of a parable only to comfort us? Shouldn’t it also challenge us and even make us a bit uncomfortable? And this is often where the interpretation of the second half of the parable moves: those of us who have followed God faithfully all of our lives – who have done all that was asked of us – are challenged to be less bitter and judgmental.
And while Jesus certainly commands people not to judge – and this is a real problem in the church and world – such an interpretation misses part of the messiness of the text and part of the invitation of the text to give and receive grace.
I want to acknowledge that it is the work of Amy-Jill Levine that helped me question my own understanding of the parable – her knowledge of the Old Testament helped me see that we should be surprised about the direction the parable moves.
First of all, Genesis tells multiple stories of two sons, like Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau – and it is the younger who chooses to do what is right. Yet in this parable, the younger son chooses for himself, choosing here to ask for as much as the father could give. There are questions about how appropriate it was that the younger son ask for his share of the inheritance – the version we read today provides, in italics, the interpretation that he ought not to have done so. The text here further explains that the father was good-hearted and loved his sons – and so the father gave in to him, allowing him to make a choice that had the potential for a lot of negative consequences – for both the younger and the older son.
You’ll notice that I’m gently prodding at what the text says about the father. One of the hardest challenges I find in interpreting this text relates to the beautiful image in the parable of the father’s welcome and loving embrace ––this image might shape our understanding so much of the text that we find it hard not to identify the father in the text with God. And thus it is difficult to question how good a father they actually are.
And while I can appreciate the image of God being a parent full of abounding love, I wonder how much of that appreciation has to do with my implicitly centering the story on me. Such an interpretation can easily center on how, on the basis of my own efforts, I came to my right mind and returned to God. Such an interpretation can easily shift to focusing on how I deserve the lavish gift of a banquet and being clothed in the best clothes while the consequences of our actions are ignored, including any harm done to others or how others might be excluded by our centralizing ourselves in the story.
When we look closely at the parable, we see that the older brother, as he is returning from a hard day’s work in the fields, hears the music and dancing. There was a feast going on without him – a feast that would have taken hours to prepare – to prepare the food and gather the guests. And no one in all that time had thought to let the brother know or invite him. And then, to add insult to injury, he needs to ask a servant what is going on: “Well, your father has prepared a great feast for your brother, because he is alive and well.”
And so, not surprisingly, the brother is angry. And he refuses to go in. The First Nations Version says that he refuses to go into the lodge, which helps me understand the weight of the brother’s refusal – he is refusing to go into the place that is home, the place that symbolizes welcome – for it has become a place of not-welcome, a place where he feels he has been excluded.
And so the son speaks angrily to his father: “Why can you not see?!? I have done all that you asked of me.” And in his anger, he distances himself from his brother, naming him not brother – but ‘this son of yours’ and accusing him of wasting all his money on sexual favours with women, an accusation that is not backed up earlier in the text. And so the older brother lashes out at the family who had wrongly hurt him.
And his father looks kindly on him. He does not address his son’s accusations, nor does he even acknowledge that what he or the younger brother did was wrong. Instead, he reminds him of the family relationship: my son, you are close to my heart. Your brother was dead but now he is alive. We must celebrate this return of the lost, we ought to celebrate the restoration of the family.
As Levine notes, the father’s words are an invitation to reconciliation. More specifically, she notes that in a family with two sons, “if we lose one, the family is not whole.” And so, she asks “Can we recognize that perhaps they can reconcile — perhaps not from repentance, but perhaps because of expediency? There might be something here as well — do we have to wait for someone to say ‘I’m sorry’? Perhaps we can be generous enough to say, ‘You’re welcome. Welcome home. You’re part of the family.’” [Levine: ‘Prodigal son’ forces reassessment of Bible’s other brother pairs]
I find this a beautiful invitation: choose grace, choose reconciliation, choose celebration and God’s abundance. For God is deeply abundant – and it would be so deeply costly to lose a member of the family.
And yet, such an interpretation makes me a little uncomfortable if I place myself in the shoes of the older brother. The words don’t entirely sound like an invitation to grace and reconciliation and even God’s abundance. Instead, they sound like words of expediency and a sweeping under the rug of things gone wrong. How much do these words not echo the words spoken too often by white people to people of colour – can’t we all just get along and move forward? We’re all one family, right?
In light of these questions, the words of the father feel empty – there has been no apology and no talk of consequences, an empty promise of land and freedom with no true listening to the brother’s hurt regarding how the rest of his family had taken from him.
How often must those who have been harmed cry out: Can you not see?!? Why are you not listening?!?
The parable has no happy ending. Sure, there is a feast and celebration – but there’s no guarantee that the family will come back together. No guarantee that the younger son and father will provide restitution for their actions or that the older brother will be reconciled.
It is a messy story, and yet, because of that it fits with our world today.
For many things in life, there are no simple explanations and no simple solutions. Even our pictures of God are not as simple as we’d like – even if I believe the image of God as loving and abundant is true that does not mean all have experienced God to be that way.
And there is no simplistic solution for resolving the damage that we as humans have done to each other.
And yet, there is hope in that. For it forces us to long for grace – grace given to us by God, who when asked to reconcile always says yes. God always works to bring us back to their open arms and welcomes us home – and yet that welcome is also an invitation into the hard work of restitution and forgiveness, of pointing out to each other when we do not see and responding humbly when we recognize how we have not listened to others.
Thankfully we have the Holy Spirit working in us, and we have the rest of God’s family, who are spread from east to west, to help us as we make this challenging journey.
May we trust that God’s ever abounding grace will be with us along each step of the way.
In the name of the Father, the son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen
– Brenda Kronemeijer-Heyink