2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
There was a man who had two sons. No, this is not the start of a bad joke. It is a story that is well known to many of us with layers of meaning etched into it. But like someone who tells a good joke and wont explain the punch line, what this story means is not clearly explained to us.
There was a man who had two sons. Our minds may jump to other sons we have heard about in the Bible – Cain and Able, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers. There are lots of family stories to think back on. Unlike many of these other brother pairings in the Bible, in this story the younger son is not painted as the good guy but neither is the older brother.
So instead of resorting to simplistic interpretations and letting our eyes glaze over because we’ve heard this one before. Go with me as we take on the challenge of seeing what this well-worn text might hold for us today, in this space and in your life.
For those of you who prefer visual learning I invite you to gaze at the painting here at the front; a Rembrandt that tries to depict a piece of this story. Looking at this painting we ask together who are the character in this story? Where is God and where are we?
Jesus often played on his listeners’ familiarity with something. He would take stories that made sense and felt like real life, drawing us in, taping into our own experiences.
There are lots of characters here. The three main stars are the father, the younger son and the older son. As a youngest child, I can easily insert myself there. If you ask my brothers I was spoiled and I know how to get my own way. But there is more then birth order that may draw us to identify with one of these characters. Have you sown your wild oats like the younger son? Have you nurtured a child who has turned away from your love like the father? Do you harbor frustration, jealousy or judgments towards others like the older son, feeling like you have been overlooked and misused? What in this story calls to you and draws you in?
There are others here with more minor roles. There are the slaves and hired hands. They are the message bearers, the workers, the ones the sons compare themselves to.
As Jesus tells this story we may also see ourselves as the hearers of the parable – either the Pharisees and scribe pushing Jesus to justify his actions. Or there are the tax collectors and sinners –we may see ourselves with them. Sitting with Jesus sharing food yet feeling the disapproving eyes of those in power.
There are those who are sidelined almost as props in this story. The citizen of whatever country the youngest son went to and the pigs. Do we feel like we are on the outside looking in on the parables of Jesus or on life itself?
And there is one last group – those who are unnamed yet implied. The disciples who heard this message while sitting near Jesus and following him. And those in the story that are never named and we are left wondering about – like the mother. Where is she in this father/son drama?
We are not told how we are to see this scene or who we are in it. So where do you see yourself?
We may assume we know who God is in this story but that is never pointed out. Throughout time we have called this story “The Prodigal Son”, but who really is the Prodigal? Prodigal means “wasteful extravagance” or “one who spends or gives lavishly and foolishly”. If we look at this story with that meaning of the prodigal in mind, it could be the sons or the father. The reading we had today was three verses at the start of the chapter and then it skips over 8 verses that tell us the parables of the lost coin and the lost sheep. It makes me ask who is lost in this story?
If we place ourselves with the youngest son for a minute, how do we feel? After he has taken his half of his father’s wealth, gone to a distant country and squandered it, he ends up feeding pigs and longing for someone to offer him something to eat. What I find most interesting here is that when he comes to himself he practices a phrase that he could say to his father. Once he returns home he says these words: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”
What are the voices that we practice to ourselves? What do we repeat to ourselves about our own self worth or needs? Some think that this son was not truly repentant but slightly conniving knowing that his father would take him back. What words do we say to God because we think that is required, instead of the true confession we really need to speak?
Luke is a master at capturing stories and relaying them to us. In this parable there are several repeated phrases and themes that emphasis things we may need to pay attention to. The father welcomes the younger son with a phrase he then repeats to his older son. “For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” The father does not repeat the wrongdoing but repeats his joy at new life and at restoration. Do we let that voice repeat in our heads – God celebrating because we have been found?
If we do see God as the father then we see a God who keeps coming towards us. When the younger son approaches the father runs out to meet him. Filled with compassion the father puts his arms around his son and smothers him in kisses. And also with the older son, the one who has stayed, still working hard. The older son who hears the music of the party and instead of rushing in to join the excitement hangs back angrily. Here to, the father approaches with openness. The father goes out to the older son and pleads with him and then listens to his concerns.
In this father we see images of God going out, God reaching out, God opening the door of welcome, God throwing an over-the-top party – God longing for reconciliation with us and for us.
We are about half way through our Lenten journey. On this road through the wilderness traveling towards the cross and Easter. In Lent we are often invited to give up something or take up something. This intentional setting down of something is meant to allow space for us to focus on our relationship with God.
As a woman I have often struggled with giving things up in Lent because I feel like our society asks or pushes me at every turn to be less, smaller, quieter – to give up more of myself and who God has created me to be. So the practice of taking up an activity has been much more helpful. How do I take up a practice of only speaking to myself positively, take up giving myself space just to be instead of always needing to do or produce.
This Lent we have been asked to focus on our hunger. How are we in touch with our hunger – what we long for and asking why that hunger is there?
Looking at this parable through the lens of hunger I can see why it is in the lectionary here in Lent. The younger brother hungers for possessions and getting away. Then the land itself has a famine – the earth mirroring the waste and lack of means in the younger son’s life, painting a dire situation. The son is in what feels like a helpless state as he looks at the pigs food eagerly and yet no one gave him anything. Then he can name his hunger and realizes that his father has enough bread. When the son gets home the father kills the fatted calf and they celebrate with meat and eating. Then enters the older son and part of his argument is that he has not been given even a smaller animal to host his friends and for them to eat. He even uses the language that his younger brother has devoured his fortune.
Hunger and longing are things we can all relate to. Real hunger in our bodies but also longing like these brothers. Longing for freedom and adventure, longing to be seen, valued, affirmed and recognized. And the father is also longing. Longing to bring his son home – to welcome both his sons and draw them in to the warmth of his embrace. To reconcile them to himself and to each other.
What in ourselves have we lost or surrendered that we are now hungering for? How is God coming to us in our hunger? Are we welcoming God or pushing ourselves away from the table, staying outside the party.
For both sons they have to find their confession. The father always comes towards them but what is the response. This is not answered in the text – we do not see how either son responds.
I have been having conversations about baptism with several people lately. This past week as we talked we circled back to how baptism is a turning away from something and a turning towards God. How are we letting our hunger turn us in the direction of the God who comes towards us or is our hunger sending us to things that will not satisfy?
As we keep looking at the characters in this story I wonder how it would feel to swap the genders. What would it feel like if this was a story of mothers and daughters. How does that change the feel or the resolution? Many fathers in the Bible welcomed their children, loved them, gave them bread instead of a stone. Yet we live in a world where macho attitudes are projected onto males that rob them of the emotional connections and depth that they have. How does it feel to see a daughter walking down the road and a mother running out to meet her? A mother’s love, a mother’s compassionate embrace both in our longing and in our pushing away. A mother’s understanding.
As we look at this story – who are you and who is God?
The words of today’s Psalm are matched beautifully with this prodigal story.
“While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength dried up as by the heat of summer.
Then I acknowledged my sin to you,
And I did not hide my iniquity.
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,”
And you forgave the guilt of my sin.
And hear the response: “I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go;
I will counsel you with my eye upon you.
Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding,
Whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle, else it will not stay near you.
Many are the torments of the wicked,
But steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the Lord.
May we abandon stubborn selfishness and fall with trust into the arms of our loving parent as we find our confession.
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