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A few years ago, Disney put out a movie called Maleficent, which was the story of Sleeping Beauty from the evil witch’s point of view. As it turns out, she was a gentle but powerful fairy whose generosity was taken advantage of by an ambitious young man looking to be king. It is his daughter who Maleficent casts the evil spell on as an act of revenge. But when his daughter is sent far away from any sewing needles that might enact the curse, she happens to be sent right next to the forest where Maleficent lives and they begin a chance relationship that grows into deep friendship, even a parental connection. It changes the whole story, really.
DC comics, the originators of Superman, once put out a comic book called, Lex Luthor: Man of Steel. The comic is written from the perspective of the arch-nemesis of Superman, and demonstrates that it is not evil that he is up to, but protection of the world from Superman. Superman, in Luthor’s eyes, is not a human being, but an alien, with vast and unstoppable powers. He could turn on us at any time. And, it is that greatness that starts human beings looking to Superman to save them instead of learning to save themselves. Superman, Lex asserts is both a physical and an existential threat to humanity. At very least, Lex says, he makes us lazy.
From Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities to Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None to these later movies and comics, stories are often told from different points of view. This parable, one of the most famous that Jesus ever told, provides us a chance to look at it from different angles. For when we do, it becomes quite different with every interpretation.
The classic interpretation, at least for us Western, Protestant Christian types, is this: The younger son is the repentant Christian, the older son the Pharisaic Jew and the father is, of course, God. This is cast as an allegory, in Luke’s version, rather than a parable, with repentance and forgiveness, or, perhaps more explicitly, grace, as the “morals” of the story.
You might note that nowhere in the story you just heard read does the term “prodigal” appear. The earliest reference to that term is from the 4th century when the church father Jerome writes about the “prudent and prodigal sons.” And for us, prodigal has a positive connotation, I think. It infers “daring”, “risk-taking”, even “ambition.” Maybe we hear that word and think “prodigy”, which is something different altogether. But, as Jewish New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine writes in her book, Short Stories by Jesus, “The word ‘prodigal’ indicates wasteful spending, financial recklessness.” In the etymology of the word, the origins are not complimentary, but have to do with “base” people with no self-control or discipline. So, while we actually have Christian publications called Prodigal Magazine, which I assume is not monthly instruction on how to indulge your base instincts, and global hedge funds called Prodigal, which promotes “innovation in financial services” rather than the greed that more often lies at the root of hedge funds, this is not what the word has meant for the vastness of its history. In fact, I would argue, the shift in meaning comes from a shift in how we interpret this parable. But now I’m getting ahead of myself.
We have to remember that this parable, along with two others that the Lectionary committee left out, probably to reduce the reading a bit, they come as a response to a statement directed at Jesus, one that we assume he overhears from people not really trying to keep him from overhearing…”Look at him, he welcomes sinners and eats with them…”
Luke is the only gospel writer who puts these three parables together. The first two are also about lost things that are found…a lost sheep and a lost coin. This is important to us because those first two parables are not about repentance and forgiveness, sheep don’t repent. Neither do coins. They are simply stories about something that is lost being found. Matthew places the “lost sheep” story in a different context, as a demonstration of God’s desire that none of us be lost, but that even the one sheep in a flock of a hundred would cause God to leave the ninety-nine in search…
But we rush right ahead in Luke to this parable – the “prodigal” son, and the emphasis on this one of the three is enhanced by the Lectionary cut this morning. It is the only one we hear. And when we hear it in isolation like this, I think that we lean on perhaps the only way it has ever been explained to us, the “easy” interpretation. God is the father, forgiving even our most reckless and base sins and welcoming us back into the fold with open arms.
But even that is not a clean interpretation. After all, what does it say about God that God seems foolish, manipulated by the half-cooked apology of the wayward son, an apology that seems self-serving at best and smells a little insincere? And what if we think, as is often the case, that the older brother represents Judaism, infuriated by this display of forgiveness and grace, as if that were something that Christianity thought up all by itself, rather than an import from centuries of Jewish thought? Or, what if God is not the father in the parable, but the “prodigal”? What if God comes to us in the guise of the outcast, the debauched, the unclean, the enemy, the one who has lied to us? Do we then respond with open arms and grace, or as the brother does, maintaining society’s values but closing off our life to loving the Other, perhaps even rejecting that as a value in the first place?
How we see this parable, from what angle, really makes a difference. The older brother’s point-of-view has to include some dissatisfaction, maybe even some disdain. It’s a tale of bitterness. Who among us has watched someone we know doesn’t deserve any decency get rewarded for their terrible actions and grimaced? From the father’s perspective, a son who was lost is now found. This is a tale of redemption, or at least reunion. If you are a parent or a guardian of a young child, or you have special children in your life, you know the pain that comes with watching them make mistakes and then helping them pick up the pieces. You may know about broken bones, but broken hearts are much worse. From the younger brother’s position, perhaps this is genuine repentance. Maybe not. But it is a story of dysfunction. I’ve known too many people who loved themselves so little that they did not know how to love anyone else and they were left taking advantage of the ones they love over and over, like they were in the grips of an addiction. And we haven’t even asked – hey, where’s mom in all of this?
This story resists easy interpretations, which is Jesus’ point, I think. When confronted with the simple accusation of embracing those who are supposed to be rejected, Jesus responds with complexity, with ambiguity, even with confusion. When met with the assertion that his love is too inclusive, he uses timeless Jewish images to say that love is not something we control. He seems to leave us with no simple solution, just the hard, imperfect work of being agents of love in a time of chaos…no answer but the humbling, sometimes even humiliating task of grace. There is a reason that the apostle Paul claims to be a “slave” to this “Jesus path”…because this kind of love you have to be subject to, not master of…
We are told that Jesus once said, “Come to me…my yoke is easy, my burden is light”, to which I say – bull-honky. This love is demanding. Always having to extend courtesy is super hard. Always having that angel on my shoulder reminding me to be loving and kind when I feel like punching someone in the teeth – someone who really deserves it – that’s a pain in the butt. Even being merely respectful can be a real challenge, especially at a time when people have some really stupid ideas. See, there I go.
And yet the fact that this parable can be looked at from so many directions helps us to see that this is true of life. No one in this parable has expressed sorrow at hurting one another, and no one has really pronounced forgiveness. There is only the return. There is the open door. There is the celebration that something lost has been found…something broken has been restored, or at least the possibility exists because of proximity. The ability to make room for another person’s perspective can sometimes be the difference between connection or division. In that space of possibility lies the beautiful, haunting, disturbing, annoying, beautiful, unimaginable possibility of a love that is free – free of boundaries, free of cost, free of strings. That’s the beauty this story offers us…it is not contained in things working out the way that we want them to, or on our own timeline, not confined to simple answers or single solutions, but in our capacity to leave room for God to work…in our ability to harness the wind, and to know that we never control it.
It’s the same with this table, you know. Everyone can come. Everyone is welcome…unrepentant child, foolish parent, hard-hearted sibling. God’s food is for everyone. No exceptions.
Come to the table.