Martin Copenhaver tells the story of two old friends who “meet in the park. Upon seeing each other they don’t say a word. They sit on a park bench in silence for the longest time. Then one finally breaks the silence by saying, ‘Oy.’ The other responds, ‘Oy.’ To which the first replies, ‘Well, enough about the children.”’ We may not know the details, [Martin adds] but we know this: family relationships are perhaps the most challenging of all.” (God is still speaking, 3/9/13)
Where to start – or end – with this rich, well-known and well-loved parable that has come to be known as the Story of the Prodigal Son? It’s not a helpful title, really, as the word “prodigal” doesn’t appear anywhere in it, and if prodigal means “extravagantly wasteful” or “profusely giving,”as the dictionary says, it could apply to both the father and the younger son. And then there’s the elder brother, who– an argument could be made–the parable is really about. “A man had two sons” would probably be the best way to refer to this story, as it leaves open all the possibilities.
The choir anthem told about the inner story–the story of the younger son and his father. It’s the heart-warming part of the story–the rebellious, younger son, feeling stifled and constrained at home, with wanderlust in his bones, asks his father for his portion of the inheritance. By rights, the first-born son would get 2/3 of his father’s estate, leaving one-third to be distributed to the remaining children. But to ask for one’s inheritance while the father is still alive is to say, in essence, “Father, I wish you were dead.” Right there the young man has broken the commandment to “Honor your mother and your father.”
Furthermore, the law also says,
If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father and mother, who does not heed them when they discipline him, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the gate of that place. They shall say to the elders of his town, ‘This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Then all of the men of the town shall stone him to death. So shall you purge the evil from your midst, and all Israel will hear, and be afraid.”
Those listening to Jesus tell this story would not have identified at all with the father, but would have thought of him, as one commentator suggests, as “stupidly lax to pamper his immoral son.” (Stan Duncan, If You Lived Here…, 3/7/13)
But the younger son is an American hero, isn’t he? “Go west, young man!” we encourage him. Make a name for yourself. See the world. Drink the finest wines, see the sights, gather your rosebuds while ye may…
But his story is also the American story…of thinking that money can buy happiness, that the more thrilling experiences I can wrack up–make sure I complete my bucket list–I will be happy. If I just consume enough–stuff, food, drugs, alcohol, success, power–I’ll be great, I’ll be happy. I’m entitled to the freedom to do what I want–without responsibility to anyone else. Alas, ending up slopping pigs is also too frequently where this American dream ends. All that “stuff” doesn’t buy us happiness. Instead of “finding”ourselves, we discover that we have lost ourselves. Not only do we find that we are starving for food that truly nourishes us, we find that we are starving for relationships that nourish us, for work that is meaningful and humane, for a way to get through the day that doesn’t involve a bottle or a pill. “When he came to himself,” is how Jesus describes the younger brother’s realization. He came to himself.
Patriarchs did not run. It was not a dignified or honorable thing to do, to lift up the bottom of one’s robe to free up the feet, to move one’s aged body more quickly than it had moved in years, let alone to do all that to rush down the road to greet one’s good-for-nothing son. The townspeople would have come out to witness this errant, shameful boy drag himself with his tail between his legs and grovel in the dirt before his father, but this father runs through the gauntlet himself to greet and embrace his son. “Quickly, bring out a robe–the best one–and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” Talk about prodigal–”extravagantly wasteful,” “profusely giving”!
All of that, it could be said–this whole inner story–is just a set up for what happens next. You’ll recall that David read the beginning of this chapter, the comments that prompted this story in the first place–”Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes, the reverends and the good people of the church, were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ So he told them this parable….”
If the younger son’s story is the American dream gone bad, the elder brother’s story is the established church’s sorrow and challenge. Of course we love the stories of people who’ve been “redeemed,” who have found themselves, by the grace of God, and turned their lives around. That is the story of some of you sitting here. “Amazing grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me!”–written by a redeemed slave trader. It’s a story told over and over in testimonies in storefront churches, at AA meetings, in prisons, in support groups. We want to be part of that story–maybe part of helping people to find themselves, providing space in our buildings for meetings, wearing our t-shirts–”Second Congregational Church–Changing lives since 1865”.
But how many of us are the elder brother or sister, not able to hear these stories of transformation without pursing our lips, just a little bit? How many of us are the elder brother or sister–the obedient, faithful ones who’ve been keeping the building open, who’ve sat in more meetings than there are hairs left on our heads, who look upon all the drama with more than a little skepticism and, may I confess? more than a little judgment? “It must be nice,…” we mutter as the story of journeys to exciting-sounding places unfold. “Yeah, while you were sipping bordeaux, I was pouring grape juice into tiny little cups.” “Nobody knows half the things I’ve done for this church, while you get your face on the front page of the newspaper as part of a great ‘turn-around story.’”
How many of us elder brother and sister types find that we too have ended up in a “far country,” estranged from joy, estranged from our best selves, estranged from those who would love us as we are, let alone estranged from any kind of a loving God?
Father Greg Boyle is a Jesuit priest who works in some of the roughest neighborhoods in Los Angeles, and is the founder of Homeboy Industries. Homeboy Industries works with and hires gang members, teaches them skills, provides them with therapists, gives them hope, blesses them, loves them. Last Sunday morning he was on Christa Tippett’s public radio program, “On Being,” and if you missed it, I urge you to listen to it or read the manuscript at onbeing.org, or read Fr. Boyle’s book “Tattooes on the Heart.”
“The measure of our compassion,” Fr. Boyle said, “lies not in our service of those on the margins, but in our willingness to see ourselves in kinship. [Here we go–family again!] So that means the decided movement towards awe and giant steps away from judgment.” The decided movement towards awe and giant steps away from judgment. “So how can we seek really a compassion that can stand in awe at what people have to carry rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it?” That, Fr. Boyle says, is the measure of health of any community, church community or otherwise. When we take the time to really listen to people’s stories, to allow them to unfold in our presence, it has certainly been my experience that I am more often than not in awe of how much people are carrying around, and you’d never guess.
“If you presume [Fr. Boyle said] that God is compassionate, lovingkindness [and that’s a big IF–do you?], all we’re asked to do in the world is be in the world who God is.” As Christa Tippett remarked, “But that’s huge!” To which Father Boyle replied, “Yeah, so you’re trying to imitate the kind of God you believe in. You want to move away from whatever is tiny-spirited and judgmental…you want to be as spacious as you can be [so] that you can have room for stuff and love is all there is and love is all you are, you know. And [he said] you want people to recognize the truth of who they are, that they’re exactly what God had in mind when God made them.” He went on to say, “Alice Miller, who’s the late great child psychologist, talked about [how] we’re called to be enlightened witnesses…people who through your kindness and tenderness and focused attempt of love return people to themselves and in the process, you’re returned to yourself, you know.” “And when he came to himself…”
Fr. Boyle then told the story of Louie, an exasperating, whiny, difficult kid who “works” for Homeboy Industries, “though work may be too strong a verb,” Fr. Boyle says. On Louie’s 18th birthday, he came to Fr. Boyle’s office and asked him for a blessing, as many of the homeboys and homegirls do. “Hey, G [Greg]–give me a bless, yeah?” they say. “Hey, G–give me a bless, yeah?” Louie asked. So, Father Boyle put his hand on Louie’s bowed head and said, “You know, Louie, I’m proud to know you. When you were born, you know, the world became a better place and I’m proud to call you my son, even though–and I don’t know why I decided to add this part–at times you can be a huge pain in the [butt].’ and he looks up at me and says, ‘The feeling’s mutual.’ And, you know [Fr. Boyle said] you’re not sort of this delivery system,…but maybe I return him to himself. But there is no doubt that he returned me to myself.”
So spacious. God is so spacious, so vast, so “great and wild,” as the poet Hafiz says. So prodigal. Always greater than we can imagine. “Whenever you land on a God who’s tiny or judgmental or exacting or concerned with some kind of purity code,” as Fr. Boyle says, this sense of God as spacious and vast and always greater “sort of blows it wide open and knowing that there’s a need to have this blown wide open all the time.”
Where do we begin and where do we end mining the depths of this brilliant, amazingly rich story of the father and his two sons that Jesus told? We are not told what happens next–whether the younger brother returned to being manipulative and selfish after he got some of that fatted calf in his stomach, or whether the elder brother ever came in to the party, or whether the father ever had his honor restored in the village. We don’t know. We can only choose the next steps in our story, whether or not we will come home, to who we are and Whose we are. But, what I know for sure is, there is a party going on.
Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark