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Psalm 32 1-2 & 8-11
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Rabbi Lawrence Kushner tells the story of leading a tour of the prayer hall with the preschool children from the congregation. He takes them to the front of the sanctuary to show where the ark is, where they store the torah scroll behind a large, floor to ceiling curtain. He was just about to ask what was behind the curtain and do the big reveal when he notices the preschool teacher looking straight at him and tapping her watch which, he says, is an old Talmudic gesture meaning to wrap it up, bucko! So he tells them that at their next meeting he’ll show them what’s behind the curtain, and it’s very special…and sends them off with a shalom and they walk behind their teacher like little ducklings back to class. Well, the next day the teacher shows up in his office to tell him that apparently the preceding day’s hastily cancelled lesson has provoked quite a discussion of what is indeed behind the “very special” curtain. She told him there are currently four possibilities, according to four different kids.
The first kid, obviously destined to become a philosophy professor, suggests that behind that curtain is absolutely nothing. Such nihilism at such a young age. The next kid imagines a Jewish holy thing of some sort, fairly non-descriptive but important. Another kid, probably from watching too much morning TV says that behind that curtain is a brand new car!! And lastly is the kid who tells them they’re all wrong…behind that curtain is a giant mirror. A four-year old somehow knows that in the words of ancient scripture she would encounter herself, for this is the role of this old, old, stories, some of which make little sense to us anymore. It’s not rulebook or instruction manual, it is a mirror, helping us to see ourselves in new ways, with old words.
This is indeed what must happen with this parable of the lost sons, most often known as the parable of the “Prodigal Son”, though the word prodigal is never used in this passage, it’s a title added much later. Though it is one of the most commonly known parables, next to probably the “Good Samaritan,” Luke is surprisingly the only gospel where this parable can be found. It is familiar to us –veryfamiliar. Likewise it’s meaning is already clear – this is a parable about repentance and forgiveness, right? The younger son is us, the father is…well, THE Father, and the older son is the “bad guy,” not finding the grace that the father gives so freely.
Well, not so fast. The lectionary cut we have for today makes sure to place the parable within it’s context, as part of a conversation between Jesus and his critics, who are shocked by his dining companions. They are scandalized by who he has decided to welcome to his table, these “sinners.” And, you know, birds of a feather flock together – you’ll be known by the company you keep. That’s not just a saying from our time, but actually written in Proverbs 13. So, Jesus was hanging out with the “wrong” kind of people. And in response to this charge, this utterance of what was common sense, found in scripture, Jesus tells this parable, turning the conversation on its head.
In fact he tells three parables, just to drive his point home, the lost sheep, the lost coin and then the lost sons. And in all three cases, the theme is notcontrition and forgiveness, it is welcome and grace. The sheep isn’t apologetic, the coin never says, “I’m sorry,” and there is no forgiveness given, only celebration of the lost being found. And the same is true of the prodigal. The son never apologizes, the father never forgives. It is as if the parable is not meant to teach us some easily digestible message, but rather reminds us of the way that God works, that infuriating, grace-filled love, which is something we already know, but just can’t quite swallow.
When we begin this story with the father as protagonist, the younger son as pitiable foil and the older son as callous jerk, then the mirror that a parable could be becomes more of a script, with all of the parts playing out predictably. Parables, however, work best with the game of “what ifs.” As a colleague, the Rev. Jes Kast, said on Twitter yesterday, “What if the story of the Prodigal Son is not about a son who messed up, but about a Father who messed up and disowned his son who was gay or transgender and finally repents and the celebration is a Dad who says to his son “I see you and affirm YOU. I was wrong. I love you?” What if it’s about how eachchild feels righteous, and stands firm, demanding the other side come to them, when all God wants is for us to eat dinner together? What if it’s about the mother, who is never mentioned, who laments teaching this boy to have such willfulness, leaving her wallowing in her prideful inability to show her wounds and her shameful dedication to the expectations of culture over her son’s direction? There are a lot of “what ifs” to be had in this single story.
So, maybe I ought to treat this like a therapist – so when you ask me what this parable means, I answer – I don’t know. What do youthink it means? And then, of course, as you come up with answers, I’d ask you to consider the version of the story that is the least palatable to you. If the reading only makes you comfortable, then perhaps you look again. For this is what a look in the mirror does, it might make us notice that our hair looks particularly good that day – well, at least someof us – but it likely also reveals the flaws we know and try to conceal or deny. So, who are you in this parable? Which son are you? Are you the father, or the absent mother? Are you the grumbling religious authorities to whom these stories of the lost are told? Are you the narrator, speaking to someone about the complicated scenarios that face us as human beings, trying to share how things aren’t always so cut and dry, and our morality or sense of justice not so easily “right” or “wrong?”
We live in times of great moral confusion. And while we are most often offered a binary solution – right and wrong, good and evil, neatly packaged and separated, the ethical and moral dimension that Jesus always presents us with resists such simplicity. Jesus encourages us not to refine our sense of judgment, but to hone our capacity to love, which stands quite against our inclination to pick and side and to win the battle, whatever that battle may be. Those battles, I’m afraid, are often fought in the dark, and in the light of day things can look quite different than they do when we are flailing away with our sword of righteousness.
As the work was happening for not only this sermon, but the artwork that you see hanging up here this morning, the good Rev. Curry emailed me a selection from some of the reflections that inmates at David L. Moss produce, this one from a guy named Brett. Brett, in reflecting on his own journey of healing, writes that alcoholics and drug addicts often have “the opportunity to have two lives, one on self-will and one on God’s will.” It is those people who truly understand the language of coming to their senses, as the text says, of coming to their selves, as the Greek actually says. They understand, if they are lucky enough to find someone else to receive their newfound sense, what it means to be dead and then alive again, the true essence of being “reborn.”
Brett says that, “I was lucky enough to experience a life full of “myself” will;
living on my terms, my attitude and actions and the consequences one receives living a life of self will and pain.” Of course, not many would look at that as “lucky,” but Brett’s “rebirth” came when he, “had a spiritual awakening.” “I now,” he writes, “get to live a life on God’s will doing what is in front of me working to become a better person,
asking for God’s guidance and direction in every part of my life.”
I’m not sure that this is what is going on with the youngest son. To be frank, I don’t really trust him. I still feel, even after he returns, like he is again taking advantage of his father’s love, like he is doing what he has always done. But for any of us who have been used by someone, someone who we know has a sickness but still makes us angry, this younger son sets off some alarms. And the older son seems so lost in his own bitterness and resentment that he can’t take even the smallest of steps in a positive direction. From this perspective, both sons are lost. Perhaps this is why the father reacts the way he does.
Dr. Amy-Jill Levine, Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt. Dr. Levine urges us not to rush to read repentance and forgiveness into this parable. We have been programmed to think thatparables draw a contrast between what Jesus taught and what “the Jews” generally understood. Thus, the Prodigal Son teaches about a loving God, whereas Judaism teaches an angry, vengeful God. But a loving, forgiving, gracious God is not an invention of Jesus, it is part of the Judaism from which he preached and taught. Dr. Levine suggests we ought to let parables provoke us more deeply, to consider how Jesus was provoking his own audience to things they were already aware of and, in the case of this parable of lost sons to a pretty radical idea of just how subversive welcome can be. It’s something we already know about. What happens when we choose to invite someone in first, before we deem them worthy, before we see an olive branch in their hand, before we know that everything will work out the way we want it to? What is the best way, one might ask, to get the wayward to return?
Dr. Levine writes, “Do whatever it takes to find the lost – sheep, coin or child, – and then celebrate with others…Don’t wait until you receive an apology; you may never get one. Don’t wait until you can muster the ability to forgive; you may never find it…instead, go have lunch. Go, celebrate, and invite others to join you. If the repenting and the forgiving come later, so much the better. And if not, you will still…have begun a process that might lead to reconciliation. Take advantage of resurrection,” she writes, “it is unlikely to happen twice.”
I don’t know if I can hear that interpretation, much less implement it. Such a selfless approach takes a hard look in the mirror, my friends, though I think that we know it is true that we welcome before we belong, before we forgive, before we repent. Nevertheless, such a way of reading this parable is challenging and difficult and doesn’t really make sense in my way of structuring relationships, values and my own sense of righteousness. Which makes me think it’s probably pretty close to Jesus’ intent…showing us a God who’s love is different than ours, who’s goals are different than ours, and who’s grace is much wider, much broader that ours. It’s hard, maybe nearly impossible to expand our hearts that much, to extend ourselves so far out onto that branch, all in the name of God’s kin-dom.
Can you imagine what the world would look like if we did?