Text: Joshua 5:1-9, Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
When Nora, my daughter, was in preschool she had two favorite movies: Disney’s classics The Fox and the Hound and The Little Mermaid. The former featured the tale of an unorthodox friendship between a baby fox and young hound dog. As the story goes, after his mother is killed, Tod the fox, is taken in by the kindly Widow Tweed. He soon befriends the neighbor’s new hound dog, Copper. The two are inseparable, but their friendship is hampered by their masters and by the fact that they are, by nature, enemies. They grow apart as they grow older; Copper has become a strong hunting dog and Tod a wild fox. In the end, the pair must overcome their inherent differences in order to salvage and redeem their friendship. Now, years later, I can still tear up thinking about the last scene of this movie. As the movie fades out, a voice-over of young Tod and young Copper affirming their lasting friendship is heard in the breeze. It is mix of reality and hope. Nora watched this tale so many times that she and I both could quote full scenes of the movie as a bedtime ritual.
The Little Mermaid didn’t elicit the same kind of emotion from me as did The Fox and the Hound. But for Nora, the story of a little mermaid named Ariel tapped her imagination and fantasy world like nothing else in her young life. So much so, it felt like for three years I actually lived with a little mermaid. Nora would spend hours drawing pictures and making books about Ariel. She would dress up like the little mermaid and dance around the house singing the songs that Ariel sang.
I thought about Nora’s fascination with these two Disney stories when I read again the story of the prodigal son. While it has never been on the big screen, it is a story that has captivated the imaginations of religious and non-religious people alike for centuries. It is a classic tale that has us returning to it again and again because of its images and theme of redeeming love. In the vast world of literature, there are those few narratives and plots that touch something so deep in us and speak of a truth in such a way that we keep going back to them again and again. Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Hemingway’s The Old Man and The Sea, Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and yes, the gospel story of The Prodigal Son.
When I think about all of these narratives (excluding The Fox and the Hound and The Little Mermaid), there seems to be a thread that runs through every one of them that binds us to the story. The sometimes fragile, sometimes bold thread that represents those moments when we experience our lives being redeemed—those moments when our best selves overcome our not-so-good selves. Whether in Thorin’s relationship with Bilbo; or that moment when Manolin sees Santiago’s wounded hands; or when the bishop offers to Valjean the silver candlestick; or that moment when a parent sees their struggling child in the distance coming home and runs out to meet that child with arms wide open, these redeeming moments change our lives forever. They are those powerful moments in our lives when mercy is paired with justice, when the hard truth is spoken with compassion, and when love reaches beyond retribution.
Our lectionary readings for this fourth Sunday in Lent offer two narratives that highlight the thread of redemption. We begin with the Joshua text; and at the heart of Joshua 5 is the fulfillment of a promise—a truly redeeming moment for a people who has been wandering in the wilderness for years. Joshua emphasizes in our text that the sign of the covenant is restored—the people have found redemption. Thus, the command to celebrate the Passover is fulfilled. The temporary provision of manna is proven truly temporary and now the people can fill themselves with the produce of the land. It is a redeeming moment in the life of the Israelites.
Think about, for a moment, this narrative against the backdrop of our contemporary world—it is not a pretty picture. The contemporary State of Israel and the occupied people of Palestine are more than a narrative stop to Joshua’s entry into the promised land. We might ask today, “Is this situation, which has flesh and blood people created in the image of God on both sides …the modern fulfillment of God’s promise?” While distinctive, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not unique. There is an ugly human tendency to wall-up, wall-out, expel, segregate, and dispossess. We should always remember the observation of Pascal, “[People] never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.” Nowadays, this rhetoric is disturbingly commonplace, especially in North America, and particularly in the US presidential campaign. Instilling fear of “the other” has become the strategy. A cold, hard reality is that both parties participate. And in these places we still await redemption. We still await a redeeming moment.
Which brings me to the familiar story of the prodigal son. “We’re used to focusing on the younger son in this story, often identifying with his taking off on his own, realizing he [messed] up, and being overwhelmed by grace. It’s a classic story of forgiveness and repentance [and redemption].” (David Lose, Working Preacher) That is, if you believe the younger son was truly repentant. It’s hard to know from the story if he is actually sorry or just conning his father one more time. But today, we will give him the benefit of the doubt and proceed with the belief that he truly was sorry. But that point really doesn’t matter.
It is the landowner that I want to draw our attention to for a few moments. The landowner in Jesus’ parable one theologian writes: “does something landowners never do. He runs out to meet his wayward son the minute he spies him coming from afar. He doesn’t send a servant. He doesn’t wait for his son to come. He dashes down the road like no respectable landowner ever would, making a complete fool of himself. Why in the world, after all, would he be so eager to see a son who claimed his inheritance early (which is kind of like he said he couldn’t wait for his dad to be dead) and then wasted it all. Not only that, he doesn’t even give his son a chance to explain or repent but interrupts his sincere (or maybe half-baked, it doesn’t really matter) speech and embraces and restores him immediately.” The redeeming moment is palpable. Who of us hasn’t longed to be that younger son in the not-so-good moments of life? To have someone love us so dearly, to see us at a distance and come running to us to offer grace and mercy and compassion. Who doesn’t want the experience of that kind of redeeming love? That image, and that image alone is what makes this story so powerful.
And if that’s not enough, he then does something a landowner would never do yet a second time when he goes out into the field to speak to his elder son. He doesn’t call his son inside. He doesn’t relay a message by a servant. He goes out to the field to plead with his son to come into the party. What should have been a command performance, in other words, turns into an embarrassing occasion where the landowner must beg his son to celebrate with the family. And that is where the story ends. Not at the celebration of the younger son’s return home. It doesn’t end in the power of a redeeming moment. It ends with the father and the elder son still in the field awaiting the moment of redemption. For, you see, the father has two sons!
I have, in my life, experienced the power of redeeming moments. Having spent almost half my life with you, many of those moments have been with you. And there are places in my life where I still await a moment of redemption. The readings this morning tell us this – that redemption, that wholeness, that reunion with the Holy is real, it is available, and it is God’s deepest desire. Israel is not redeemed through its noble actions – quite the contrary! Israel struggles from the beginning to honor its covenant. Yet, God abides with them, patiently renegotiating and reengaging with them throughout the narrative. With the prodigal, we have not one but two sons who wrestle with the blessings they have received from their father. But we have a father who is consistent – the thread throughout this story is that the father longs to be in relationship with his children, who will bend his own rules and those of his culture to be present to them in their pain, who will run to them, even when they are in the wrong. Across both these texts, God yearns for our redemption, our reconciliation. Not because there is a right path and somehow God is redeemed when we find it – how egocentric of us! But rather because God wants to be near us, to be with us – and the pull to relationship is palpable, profound and powerful.
I want to end with a challenge to be critical readers of this text, and to take it out of its literal context. In these stories, redemption means quite literally, finding (or returning to) home. There is a concrete place of safety and reconciliation or reward. These stories are true in our own lives too. But let’s extrapolate. If redemption is deeply connected to relationship, which it seems to be, then where can we recognize redemption in our lives – both moments when we experience God’s redeeming grace and where we long for it. And if the lesson of God in these stories is not that God waits for us in a designated place (the grand foyer of the main house), but that God runs to greet us, or to console us – if the message is that God inherently and persistently seeks us, then where can we recognize the powerful redeeming moments of God’s arms open wide to us?