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The power of a good parable is that it can meet us wherever we are whether in first-century Palestine or in twenty-first-century Harrisonburg.
Our trilogy of parables from today include one of the most beloved and familiar of stories--the prodigal son. All three parables refer to something or someone being lost and the jubilant, if not excessive, celebration that happens when they are found. Yet it is the last one that packs the most powerful emotional punch.
We all can resonate with the yearning for a home where the welcome mat is always laid out for us. We all can inhabit the complicated love of familial relationships when love is spurned, or when forgiveness is called for not just once but many times over.
Depending on what title you give this parable can alter the focus. Is it the “parable of the prodigal son” or the “parable of the two lost sons”? Or is it the “parable of the extravagant father”, or even the “parable of the prodigal father”? It could be, as Barbara Brown Taylor suggests, the parable of the dysfunctional family!
But no matter the title assigned, this parable looms large as a cultural icon. It is like the velveteen rabbit that is well worn from being inhabited by so many prodigals. Perhaps the challenge for us is to slow down enough to let it sink in anew. To recall or recognize the prodigalness or the lostness within each of us. Where do these parables ring true for you today?
As a young lad, I had my own story of being lost with pigs. My family farm had a menagerie of animals at any given time but to my dismay we never had pigs. For some reason I loved watching pigs muck around in the mud in all their messy piginess. Fortunately, one of our neighboring farms, also the Stoltzfus’, had pigs. It was about ¾ a mile away by way of our back lane. So one morning, I found myself wandering back that lane to sit on our neighbors pig pen fence to watch the pigs in all their piggy glory. It must have been enthralling because I stayed there through lunch and into the waning hours of the afternoon. By that time, my parents had started calling around the neighborhood to see if anyone had seen a lost boy. Unfortunately, these Stoltzfus’ were Amish and didn’t have a phone and didn’t get the message right away. Eventually I was found and brought back home to my parents' great relief. I remember my mother saying something to the effect that she was worried that they had lost me. And in my young mind I wanted to object that I wasn’t exactly lost...I knew where I was and I was right where I had wanted to be. Obviously, unlike the prodigal son I hadn’t come to my senses yet.
I suspect that if you asked the Pharisees that day who were listening to Jesus’ strange parables of lost things they would be equally adamant that they were not lost. I wonder if we are sometimes lost and do not know it. Or maybe we think we are doing just fine meandering the roads and villages far from home. Or maybe we do feel lost and don’t know how to get back home. We have lost our way. Being lost comes in many different forms. Hello to feeling lost.
And to all who feel lost or to those who feel locked in a room of fear Jesus says 'Hello,' welcoming us to a place of deep encounter with ourselves, our fear, our shame, and to discover the incarnate God who is never far from us no matter if we travel to the far side of sea.
One way to tell these parables is to focus on the “lost” and the extent to which the farmer, the woman and father will go to seek and find the lost. The economy of God’s grace knows no limits! This is a good and necessary story to tell.
Yet, if we are to focus on the event that precipitated these stories (And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”), maybe we are invited to locate ourselves at a different place. We are the older sibling who stands outside the house watching through a window and grumbling while a great feast is thrown for the formerly lost.
Rembrandt’s famous painting of the prodigal’s return offers us an opportunity to find ourselves in the scene.
On the left, the elderly father, clothed in a robe of red, and his younger son, in tattered clothes (maybe not unlike our rough frayed Lenten sack cloth) reunite in a tender embrace. On the right, a large figure towers over them, thought to be the older son. He too is clothed in rich red robes and he appears to clasp his hands in displeasure. His eyes mirror puzzlement if not disapproval and judgment as he looks down on the unfolding reconciliation,
Henry Nouwen in his book The Return of the Prodigal Son: A story of homecoming wrote this in contemplating this painting and reflecting on Rembrandt’s life story:
Rembrandt is as much the elder son of the parable as he is the younger. When, during the last years of his life, he painted both sons in Return of the Prodigal Son, he had lived a life in which neither the lostness of the younger son nor the lostness of the elder son was alien to him. Both needed healing and forgiveness. Both needed to come home. Both needed the embrace of a forgiving father. But from the story itself, as well as from Rembrandt's painting, it is clear that the hardest conversion to go through is the conversion of the one who stayed home
From looking at a variety of encounters Jesus had with others in Luke from the woman who anointed his feet to the woman who touched his cloak in the crowd it seems like he responded more generously to people who were aware of their own needs. To those who came with agendas and traps concealed as questions, Jesus would tell these stories that exposed their own complicity, hostility, and prejudice.
What was it that made the religious leaders so angry and bitter about Jesus associating with sinners?. Were they really concerned about Jesus’ reputation as a prophet? Probably not. They were more concerned about what it would reveal about themselves; their own place in the halls of power deciding who was in and who was out; determining who was right and who was wrong. Jesus was inviting them to come to terms with their own needs, shadows and unforgiven corners of their lives.
Yet, the religious leaders were caught in a web of power that defined belonging in terms of who was excluded. They were not as interested in examining their own complicity or need for grace and mercy. Jesus exposed their games of power by throwing wide open the doors of welcome to all those who came with open hearts of humility and need.
When they grumbled that Jesus ate with sinners, Jesus took it up a notch. He told a story of a father who disgracefully showered love and mercy on a wayward son who was welcomed back into the fold.
Poet Padraig O’Tuama reflects that “belonging creates and undoes us both.” Belonging can be the most wonderful of gifts giving us identity, comfort, friendship and manna for the journey of life. But on the shadow side, belonging can also lead to hostility, unexamined bias, rigid boundaries and projecting our own fears on others.
Jesus was inviting the religious leaders to see the prodigal as an opportunity for learning about the generosity of God that was already available to them if they would but receive it.
We are transformed as we are welcomed into God’s beloved community and we are not left the same as we are invited to be reconciled to all the other wandering souls who also belong.
As a church community we have an incredible responsibility of helping create belonging to all who seek a home; to all who hunger and thirst for goodness, to all you seek the tender embrace of the One who welcomes us home.
Perhaps the unspoken invitation that Jesus poses to the listening crowd at the end of telling these parables is the theme for this Sunday--”Why not celebrate?” In communion, let us humbly and gratefully celebrate the lengths to which God has gone to welcome each of us home around the table reconciled with ourselves, with one another and with God.
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