Lectionary Passages for March 6, 2016. Joshua 5:9-12, 2 Cor. 5:16-21, Luke 15: 1-3, 11b-32, Ps 32:2
"Oh great. Of course it had to be this story right now. God must be laughing."
Those were my initial thoughts when I realized the prodigal son was the main story for this Sunday, a Sunday I am scheduled to preach. For the last 3 weeks I've been quietly chewing through some personal resentments I would rather not admit to having and this story has been niggling at me. My sympathies reside with the older son. I don't like the idea that I might be standing in his pouting, immature shoes. I don't like the idea that I might be very much like him right now. He doesn't come off very well in the parable. We never do find out how he responds to his father's assurance that "everything I have is yours."
Perhaps I'm even a little annoyed that God would fill my head with this story for 3 weeks, and then toss it into the preaching rotation at exactly the time I don't want it. My Dad used to use the phrase; "rubbing your nose it in." Yup, that's what this smells like to me. I'm kind of forced to deal with my own mess here even though I'd rather stay outside of the "prodigal's party" and continue my self-indulgent pouting, thank you very much. (I suppose I could preach on one of the other pieces...but no. Preaching isn't all about telling other people what they need to hear, often its the preacher grappling with her own stuff, letting God speak through the scripture, and hoping that in the sharing we all grow.)
Our Lenten theme is "living ink", and this story is certainly alive for me. When I read, I always find myself identifying with a character, trying to feel and think like them. When I write, I try to put myself in the head space of whichever character I'm working with at the moment. As I read this story again, I started wondering about Jesus as it's author. Did he put himself in his character's shoes? What would that tell us about Jesus and his message for us?
This was a new way to think about the parable for me, as the author inhabiting the characters.
Jesus tells this story to Pharisees and scribes who are complaining that he "welcomes sinners and eats with them."
When Jesus talks about the Prodigal son, he puts himself in those sandals. Like the prodigal, Jesus is heir to a great wealth. He walks away from it and goes out among people considered to be very much "lower" than his own family. He is accused of gluttony and drunkenness and he talks to women that he shouldn't be seen anywhere near. He is a servant to others. When he returns home, he is welcomed without reservation. "My son was dead and is alive again, was lost and is found." (verse 24)
Jesus can also understand the dilemma and resentment of the older son. After all, he never wavered from his service, he worked like a servant, never asking for anything for himself. His reward?
Finally, Jesus puts himself into the character of the loving father. Although mistreated and rejected by his sons, he continually invites both of them (the one lost away from home and the one lost at home) to take part in the celebrations, to be part of the inheritance. The father is an incredibly complex character, nothing like what the Pharisees expect. This father is not dignified. Instead of disciplining his son when he rudely asks for an early inheritance, (as was expected), he allows himself to be humiliated. When the son comes back-he precludes any apology by running to him and kissing him. Running, hugging, and kissing, these are more "motherly" than fatherly in that culture! It is even possible that the apology offered by the son is insincere. His words in verse 21 echo the words Pharoah spoke to Moses after the final plague-those hearing this parable would know that Pharoah was a liar! This son might be lying too-out of self interest/survival. Even with this possibility, the father still throws a party for the miscreant! Jesus does not hold up the normal respectable middle-eastern patriarch as a model for God-instead, this father is kind of prodigal himself. Unbelievable unconditional love on a scale that doesn't make sense! This love does not hinge on proper behaviour or contriteness.
Henri Nouwen has an incredible little book called; The Return of the Prodigal Son. In it, he thoroughly allows the parable and it's characters to "read him." He recognizes his own failings in the failings of the sons, especially the older one, and he realizes that we are called to get over ourselves and grow up. God loves us no matter what, however, we are meant to be heirs. To be an heir means we are to emulate the father, eventually doing what he does.
Nouwen asks; "How will the elder son look when he is free from his complaints, free from his anger, resentments, and jealousies?"
This week I will allow my nose to be "rubbed in it". I'll read and research and soak in it. How will I allow this story, this ink, to live in my life, turning resentment to wonder? Will I allow myself to be found by God in this, and accept the responsibilities of a heir?
Question: Which character do you most identify with at this point in your life? Why?
Check out this link for an interesting "new" take on the parable as author, Debie Thomas, writes "Letters to Prodigals." journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay
Thanks to Elizabeth Wall for drawing my attention to Debie Thomas' article!