Text: Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
The title of this sermon could have very well been, “The Tale of the Prodigal Son: A Story We Love to Hate.” As I sat down with the lectionary lunch group this week to discuss this familiar story I was struck by the strong emotional response people had, not to the older or even the younger brother, but to the father. While one individual did resonate with the younger brother, most everyone else felt a stronger kinship with the older brother and all that he represented—acting responsibly, doing what was right, following duty rather than desire. As the conversation deepened, feelings of downright frustration over the actions of the father began to surface. The issue of fairness quickly became a central theme. How could the father have responded so graciously and with such seeming disregard for how irresponsible the younger brother had acted? I listened with interest as the group gave voice to their frustration, if not anger, at the father’s elaborate and excessive homecoming for his lost son.
I personally came to the lectionary lunch conversation with an experience that I had had less than 24 hours previously that shaped my own response and reflection to the story of the prodigal son. On most days, I carry in my pocket a keepsake that is very important to me. Tied to one end of a piece of twine is a ring engraved with the names of my children. On the other end is a small charm that holds the ashes of a beloved friend. While I cannot fully explain it, this keepsake offers me comfort and reassurance on difficult days. Often, in moments when I feel out of sorts, I can put my hand in my pocket, feel the ring and charm and be reminded that I am loved and safe.
On Tuesday, I had a very busy day. An early morning appointment, a funeral service, a call that another church member had died, and preparing for a “Conversation with Nancy” had been my focus. Somewhere in between my late afternoon visit with Barbara Buchanan and returning to the church for the evening conversation, I realized that my keepsake was not in my pocket. I knew that I had left home that morning with it and now it was gone. Panic set in as I began re-tracing in my mind every step I had taken that day. I called the church and had the staff combing the hallways and parking lot looking for my lost treasure. I returned to Oakwood Cemetery where I had been earlier in the day. I called Springmoor, where I had visited with Barbara, and asked Barbara Volk and Jim Epps, who were also there visiting, to check the couch I had sat on. And God bless Jim Epps, he even went outside and re-traced my steps through the parking lot of Springmoor. My keepsake was nowhere to be found. As the realization began to set in that I may not find my ring, I began to cry. Honestly, I began to sob uncontrollably.
Because I didn’t know what else to do, I decided to return to Springmoor and look for myself. I carefully inspected the hallways and the room where I had visited with Barbara. I stopped by one of the nurse’s stations and inquired as to whether anyone had found a ring tied to the end of a string. Nothing. As I was leaving, and trying to accept the fact that I had truly lost my keepsake, I stopped by one last nurse’s station just to say that if anyone did find a lost ring tied to a string, it was mine and I could be reached at Pullen church. As I struggled to tell the kind face staring at me my story, she reached down in front of her and held up my keepsake and said, “I knew that this was really important to someone.” As our eyes met, we both burst into tears. She told to me that an employee had found it in the hallway and had brought it to her. I asked if I could thank the person who found it, but to my disappointment the employee had already left for the day. What struck me in that moment was how hard it was to walk away without being able to express my gratitude to the individual who had found what I had lost. Had I been able, in that moment, to plan an elaborate and excessive celebration, I would have.
So as I came to the story of the prodigal son the next day, it was the father’s joy in having found what was lost that I identified with the most. And I thought, how much deeper God’s joy must be when we make our way to God in our moments of lostness and separation. I had lost a keepsake, a talisman; for the father in the parable, for God, the loss of the beloved is profoundly painful, and the return of the beloved is profoundly joyful. And yet, we have such a hard time with how the father responded to his younger son. Why?
It is for certain that much of our fascination with this parable lies in its ability to resonate with our own life experiences: adolescent rebellion; alienation from family; the appeal of the new and foreign; the consequences of foolish living; the warmth of home remembered; the power of forgiveness; and the contrast between relationships based on merit and relationships based on faithful love. The story reminds us of possibly the most basic principle of the Christian faith: no matter how far we may wander from God’s love for us, God is always ready to welcome us back into God’s elaborate and excessive love. No matter to what foreign place we go and no matter how irresponsibly we may act, when we “come to ourselves,” as the prodigal did, we find God is running toward us, welcoming us back with unlimited grace and excessive joy. It is the measure of God’s love for us.
So, in the face of a story that tells of a fatherly love that overcomes even earlier rejection and wrong-mindedness, why it is that so many of us identify with the older brother? We are told in the parable that the older brother is equally loved and embraced. There is no reason to suspect, based on the story, that he was mistreated, or that his father favored his brother. Yet, we accept and sympathize with his disbelief and anger at his father’s response to the prodigal. I wonder if our alignment with the older brother has to do with what we know he did not do. The older brother did not ask for an exception to the duties of his life. He did not leave home in search of his fortunes. No, he did exactly what was expected of him. And it would appear that when his younger, impetuous brother re-appeared, he believed firmly that his brother should be held accountable for his actions and punished, or rejected. He followed the rules and was treated fairly, and his brother did not follow the rules and was still treated like a son. Why does that anger us so? From the schoolyard to the boardroom to the dinner table, why do we focus on what happens or does not happen in response to someone else’s actions? Could it be that when we make choices, particularly those that follow “the rules,” we deny some part of ourselves, some impulses of our own, some attraction to step outside the establishment? And when we make those choices, and deny those internal pulls to freedom of some sort, we suffer the loss of those freedoms; but we do it because it is what is good and right, and that is how we believe we earn our place and our love. And could it be that when someone else does not follow the rules, and then does not suffer sufficiently—or as we see fit—our anger comes from our own lost opportunity to have chosen a different path?
Maybe the most significant question raised in this story is, what does it mean to “come to oneself?” We are told in the story that when the prodigal came to himself, it was at that point that he began his journey home. In making that decision, he understands that he can not assume the same place he left, that there will be a price to pay, and yet he returns to his father and his family and his home to face those consequences. These are our humbling moments in life: when we fail, and examine our choices, and yes, our freedoms, and decide what we can live with and what we can not live without.
But there is another side to this coin, another journey that is not taken, but that we are left to consider, and that is the journey of the older brother. Although he has not left home, and retains his rightful place, there is bitterness in his heart, and he struggles to appreciate all that he has. These are different kinds of humbling moments in our lives. Moments when we realize we have done what we set out to do, and yet are not able to embrace or enjoy the outcome because of the distraction, and sometimes fixation, on what has or hasn’t happened to others. If it is true that the freedoms we withhold from ourselves are the places where we judge others, then these moments offer us opportunities to come to ourselves and examine our feelings and our frustrations, and decide what we want to hold on to and what we want to let go of. Regardless of where that journey takes us, God awaits us. It is not about how closely we follow the rules or how remorseful we are when we don’t. The story of the prodigal son is about the decision to “come to oneself”—recognizing all that we are—and to know that the measure of God’s love for us is infinite.