|"The Return of the Prodigal Son" Rembrandt (c. 1661-69)|
So, okay. We all know the parable Jesus preaches in the Gospel lesson appointed for Lent 4, Year C in the Revised Common Lectionary (Luke 15: 1-3; 11b-32). It’s been lovingly called “The Parable of the Prodigal Son,” and I have a sneaking suspicion that it’s the most famous of Jesus’ parables because it’s the most relatable.
Yeah, for good or ill, we all have families. And for good or ill, just about every family with more than one kid has a kid who gets more attention from Mom and Dad than the others. And there’s always that one kid who ends up looking after an aging parent, doing the shopping, driving Mom to the doctor’s, or cutting Dad’s lawn when Dad gets too old to do it and buying his Depends for him.
When Mom and Dad go home to their Heavenly Rewards, leaving the estate equally divided between faithful you, your dead-beat brother, and your junkie slut sister—I won’t be surprised if you feel a little bit slighted and resentful. Just like that older brother in the parable. You did all the work, darn it! Why should they share in the profits..?! It’s just not fair!!!
Because we include verses 1-3 in this reading text, we assume that Jesus is casting the perpetual “bad guys,” the scribes and Pharisees, in the role of older brother. They resent that Jesus should honor a bunch of sinners, traitors, whores, etc. with his presence and his charitable gospel. But Jesus sums it all up in verse 10 by saying:
“Just so I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
Pretty much speaks for itself, doesn’t it?
But what’s so cool about this particular parable, I think, is that it works on many levels. Any one of us could play any of the three major characters in this story. You may, indeed be the faithful one who has played by the rules all your life and goes a little whack-o when you see someone you think is “undeserving” being shown mercy or compassion. We’ve all felt jealousy or the injury of being overlooked and under-appreciated. It’s not that easy to tell yourself that the good fortune of another is no threat to your sense of self-worth or dignity. Elections have been won by playing on people’s sense of wounded entitlement. But God asks more from us. God asks older brothers to look with the Father’s eyes.
Looking with the Father’s eyes may not be an easy trick if you happen to be playing the role of Prodigal Son. Maybe you’ve been in this part yourself. Maybe you’re in recovery, you’ve gone to jail, or you’ve been bankrupt, divorced, fired, expelled, or screwed up in the infinite number of ways human beings screw up. Or maybe you just haven’t been to church for a really long time, and you’re afraid people will judge you and ask where you’ve been when you slink your backsliding butt back in through the church doors. Maybe you know you haven’t pulled your share of the load, and you’re ashamed to face the folks you think have done. Maybe you wonder if arms will still be opened to you.
And maybe you’re playing the role of the Dad in this story. Ya think? Yes, you may be saying, “Wait, Old Religious Guy, isn’t the Father supposed to represent God? I would never presume to cast myself in this role.” Oh no? If we’re honest, we all either are, will be, or in some way cast ourselves in the role of a parent. Personally, I never mind when folks in Northeast Philly address me as “Father,” because a pastor, like a parent, is a person who has complete responsibility for something over which they ultimately have no control. Although I have no biological kids of my own, I still feel a little sting when one of my Confirmation kids affirms his or her baptism in a solemn liturgy and then disappears out the church door, never to be seen again.
Like the dad in this parable, we all have the potential to feel the pain of someone we care for who goes and runs their life into the crapper. We know what it’s like to be looking toward that foreign land, scanning the horizon, in the hopes that an angry, addicted, confused, or obsessed child might one day make his or her way back into our lives and our hearts.
We all play the dad role. We all feel the pain, and we face the challenge to pray and hope and welcome and rejoice for a restored relationship. May God grant us the courage to come to ourselves, ask forgiveness, and accept the forgiveness that’s granted. May we be willing to put compassion for others above our selfishness. May we learn to love through the hurt of our humanness.
God’s peace be with you. Thanks for visiting me this week.