Jim Hopkins, pastor of Lakeshore Baptist Church in Oakland, CA reflected on the Prodigal Son story this way: “We are the prodigal, known to wander. We are the brother, living lives of joyless duty. We are the father, wishing we could rewind.”
We are all like the Prodigal every once in a while. We all stray from the way we would want to go. We all squander our goods, our benefits, our status as we experiment in our lives. It is healthy to distance ourselves from our parents as we grow up. And some of us bottom out and get lost when we do that.
At the same time, we are like the parent from time to time. We throw all caution to the wind and rejoice when things finally go our way; when we finally relax from the rigors and the worries of our lives. I think the prodigal’s father rejoices as much for the saving of his son as for the saving of his worries.
Then at times we are like the brother. We are infuriated by injustice. We are enraged by the thought that unfairness might be part of God’s plan. And we find it very difficult indeed to join the party for the one who has the most media hype.
Now here’s a question: Would any of us want to be like any of these? I would imagine if we were honest and certainly if we were healthy, we have played all three roles at different times in our lives.
Since this parable is set in a family, let’s look at the story in relation to popular concepts of family.
Now, families are supposed to be places were everything is just right and hunky dory. That is at least what the popular media would have us believe, and many of us try to project that image a lot. With the rise of the awareness of family dysfunction we are becoming more and more able to name and claim the brokenness in that idea. This brokenness is mirrored in our Biblical texts.
Jacob and Esau didn’t get along too well. Esau had a lot of trouble with forgiveness when he was cheated out of his inheritance by his sly younger brother Jacob. It took 20 years and the intervention of armies to get those two back together.
Cain and Abel had a more difficult time, and Cain dealt with his rage and his own self-righteousness by killing his brother.
Joseph’s brothers left him for dead because they were jealous daddy’s favorite son. Joseph, probably played that role too well and rubbed it in his brothers’ faces. So, who could blame them, right?
Jesus told this story of family violence and hatred and forgiveness to the Pharisees who were hassling him yet again. In this story, there were two brothers, but it could be told just as easily with two sisters. One was doing things right and the other was not. In this day and age when we are so quick to demonize the single mother, the poor, those on welfare, those who are calling to be treated as equals, it is worth noting that Jesus got into a lot of trouble because of his own prodigal existence.
Jesus, we know, was a good son. He was the oldest, He was probably supposed to have taken over his father’s carpentry business. But he did not. He took his inheritance, if there was one, and headed out from Nazareth in Galilee in order to carouse with that beatnik group of Essenes who hung out near Jericho with their charismatic leader, John the Baptist. Watch out if your child goes to a foreign city and hangs out with a bunch of Baptists. You never know what can happen.
Jesus hung out with unmentionable people, with lepers, with people who didn’t know the meaning of a bar of soap or the rules of etiquette. And I bet he had a real good time doing it. I bet he laughed at his own stodgy upbringing and he just revel in being free to hang out with whomever he felt like, who happened to be the ones in the most need. Jesus befriends the likes of you and I when we are in our prodigal existence.
The Pharisees, on the other hand, were those who did everything right. They stayed behind and tended the fields. They took care to watch out for the orthodoxy of the community. They took great pains to pray that they were righteous. They were good people, at least they tried to be. They never got in trouble. They never made waves, unless someone was violating the law. If there was anything in their lives to make waves, they repressed it for the sake of the unity of the family or the community. They were basically boring people. The older brother or older sibling in the story reminds me of the Pharisees.
You see, their attention to order blinded them to the incarnation of God. And in the story the older brother never got it. The older brother never repented. The older brother never changed. And the older brother never really got a chance to rejoice.
He was too dang serious to dance. Too stuck on his righteousness to recognize the new thing that God was doing. Too pent up with anger to forgive his own brother and rejoice that he who was lost is now found.
A lot of us are like that. We are taught in most churches that we should be concerned about righteousness. We love to tout our orthodoxy about justice around here. But inside every stuck-up, priggish, good church person, there is a prodigal itching to get out.
Many of us go through prodigal periods in our lives. Some of us exist there all the time. And it is great to let that freedom roll, sow those wild oats, live freely with no one watching. But eventually the money will run out. The stink gets old. Growing up means finding balance in our lives. It means following the path when it leads up and when it leads down. It means integrating the prodigal side of you with the Pharisaic side of your and the loving worrying parent side of you.
I preached on this parable way back in 2002. Thor Kommedahl wrote me an email back then that I came across while preparing for this sermon. Here’s a part of what he wrote:
“in the parable of the prodigal son, I think some blame can be passed on to both the brother and the father. Most sermons I have heard on this parable heap blame on the son (and her deserves blame) but I wonder if the father hadn’t given favorite status to the older, and I wonder if the son had been all that honorable in his dealings with the father and his brothers. The prodigal son might have thought “Father likes you best” (referring to his brother). The prodigalness of the son may never have taken place had the father and brother behaved differently. I know there is only so much a father can do to a strong-willed and wayward child but I have always wanted to know more about them before heaping all the blame on the one son. Maybe their attitudes toward him, drove the younger son away from home. But who knows??”
After the prodigal son had squandered all of his inheritance, he went to live among the pigs, and eat out of their troughs. But there was a famine and there was no food for the pigs either. The prodigal son had bottomed out. He had a lot of time to think about the past. He felt like he no longer belonged. He was lonely. He felt like he was no longer worthy to be a son of his father or even be allowed back into the family.
That is the way many of us feel about the sins we have committed. We believe that we are so despicable that we are beyond the love of God. We may not believe this rationally, but somewhere below our consciousness it may just be true for us.
The prodigal son does something amazing. He makes up his mind to say the hardest words this formerly arrogant, now mud-soaked son could ever say. He makes up his mind to say “I’m sorry” to his father. He is willing to repent. He says “I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”
Jesus, we know by now, was no longer talking about a father and a son, but how God relates to those of us willing to rise to the challenge of forgiveness.
Forgiveness is the essence of what Christianity is about, says Jesus through the story to the Pharisees. And only when you repent and forgive can you truly start to rejoice.
So we need to make a home to which all prodigals can go to find hope, forgiveness and rejoicing. Our prodigal existence, our prodigal dimension is our risk-taking. It is what causes us to be human. It is even the incarnation of God.
So we need to take care of our prodigal tendencies. We need to pay attention to them and integrated them in a healthy way. This is the hard work of maturing. Growing up is more than attaining a birthright, and inheritance, a legacy. Growing up means distancing yourself from your parents in a healthy way so that you can become the person God wants you to be. The key for us, like the prodigal, is to come back when we have gone too far and try to make it right. That’s the hard part and it’s the important part, too.
So let us integrate our prodigal side, our self-righteous brother side and our rejoicing forgiving parent side.
The church can sometimes serve as the rejoicing parent. We welcome back all of the prodigals and even the stalwart pillars of faith and we say, we’re glad we’re all together. Let’s lay aside our burdens and work together for the common good. It is in the church that we lift up the older siblings and their call for justice. It is in the church where we nurture the searching, creative and flamboyant side of us. It is in the church that we learn to repent, how to forgive and how to rejoice. And it is here where we are finally welcomed home.
So, my prodigal friends, my delightful non-boring friends, my spicy exuberant friends, my sorrowful and repentant friends, my searching friends, it’s good to have you home. May you all feel God’s ecstatic welcome of you, warts and all.