Rev. Matthias Peterson-Brandt
Sunday, Sept. 22, 2019
A retired clergywoman I know from Kansas City once, after reading through the parable we heard today got to the end, shrugged, and opined: “The moral of the story seems to be: if you want a goat, just ask for a goat.”
As someone who doesn’t care too much for passive aggressiveness or emotional manipulation, I can appreciate that take. Just ask for what you want.
There is so much going on in this parable. It is long; the protagonist shifts over the course of the telling—starting with the younger son moving the plot, then the father, then finally shifting the focus onto the older son towards the end. There are many possible meanings to take away—including “just ask for a goat”—and in large part that is because Jesus does not explain what he intends by this parable. This leaves the parable open to many potential valid interpretations.
Perhaps the most common of which refers this parable as the “Prodigal Son.” We’ve all heard this term. Even outside of religious settings “prodigal” gets used as shorthand for someone who sallies off on their own, reckless, in need of return and repentance. In fact, as a kid hearing the word prodigal as associated with this story, I thought the word itself meant wayward or lost. When, at some point, I finally looked it up in the dictionary—“having or giving something on a lavish scale; wastefully extravagant”—I thought, but, but there is so much more going on here than just the son spending all his inheritance.
There is a famine—totally out of the son’s control. There is real hunger and hardship. There is the very painful realization of his mistake, and the big moment of having to own it, prepare for the consequences, and humble himself. The humiliation of feeling like a failure, of coming home empty-handed.
We also have the relatable resentment of the older brother. We who work so hard at our jobs, in our families and communities, and yes, at church too, we can feel the sting of feeling overlooked, unappreciated. We know the desire to withdraw in face of these feelings, pull further apart. Sometimes we really do resist reconciliation. We resent the lavishing of Grace upon total screw ups when we are the ones trying our hardest not to need that Grace, to be perfect. As Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber says: “This is exactly, when it comes down to it, why most people do no believe in grace. It is F***ing offensive.” (She drops in an expletive to emphasize just how offensive Grace is).
This parable does start out as a story about a prodigal son. More central, however, is the prodigal father. When the younger child comes home, ready to endure disapproval, parental disappointment, and permanently destroyed relationships, he is met with the parent’s exuberant greeting, finest clothes, and a party. The parent running out lavishes love on this child who feared the worst.
Meanwhile, we might also see the parent’s generosity towards the older child, though it takes a slightly different shape. With the eldest it is a giving of time, attention. A noticing of his absence and a pursuit. It is a willingness to put aside all the guests, the festivities, the hosting responsibilities, to listen, to reconcile, to seek completion of the joy that has begun, a wholeness for the family.
At different times in our lives, heck at different times of the day, we might see in ourselves these different characters—the younger child, the older child, the parent. It remains true, however, that each of these characters, as with each of us, has need of grace. We all need to be reminded we belong. We all seek to have our mistakes made right and not held against us by those we love most dearly.
On a Pastor’s message group online once, a colleague introduced an evangelical pastor to the group who had, just days before begun the process of reconciling with his gay son. It was a frightening place for this pastor to find himself, but he told this story of going to the big midwestern city where his son now lives. It was the first time they’d seen each other in eight years. The son hosted a dinner party with a dozen or so friends. The pastor wrote in a post: “Knowing these young people were mostly gay, I assumed I would be hearing their personal stories and/or having to answer some hard questions about the years of estrangement from my son, their friend. I knew many of them had experienced the same thing with their parents and have been a support to my son when he was most sad and no doubt needed to talk. I was worried how they felt about me.”
To the dad’s astonishment, instead of being on the receiving end of anger and grilling, his son’s friends met him with love and grace and even honor. A short way into the dinner, he realized that he was in the parable of the prodigal son, but that HE was the lost son being welcomed and celebrated and rejoiced over. Throughout the dinner, each of the friends shared with the dad all the good things about his son, about the things in the son’s life he had missed out on, the amazing moments and the hard ones, over the past eight years when there was no relationship. These friends who could have every right to resent the father’s absence and hard-heartedness and the hurts he caused, each friend, in turn, told the dad how much the son loved him, how he always believed his dad was a great person, how he never gave up hope knowing this day would come.
He said he wept until there were no tears left, sitting there with his son and his friends, listening, immersed in a grace he could not comprehend.
Sometimes we discover that we are not the character we thought we were in the story of our lives. Sometimes, we find ourselves overwhelmed by a grace and a love that we don’t have words to describe.
Whoever you identify with in this parable, the ending of this parable is unwritten. The characters in it are not perfect; each has their flaws and quirks and moments of good. Yet it remains to be seen how we will write the ending to this parable. Will we seek to be reconcilers, extenders of grace, willing to admit our wrongs and seek to make amends? Will we celebrate with those who find new life, new wind in their sails, even when it feels we are tired of toiling away? God urging us towards more grace in this world that is often parched from resentment and hurting; her hand rests atop ours, pen in hand, ready to write what comes next. Amen.