Hearing today’s gospel – this old familiar story – is like hearing from a long-time friend. We are eager to resume conversation with a familiar voice.
And on my end of the conversation, I find myself of late, looking at parables through a series of lenses, all of which are formed by Jesus’ own words:
• The first is this:
o “The Kingdom of Heaven can be compared to…”
This signifies that something about paradise and our eternal reward is contained in the story – what could it be?
• The second is this:
o “The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”
Which tells me it’s within my ability to grasp
— How, then, is this kingdom defined and, if it’s so close, how do I bring it into reality?
• And the third is this:
o The greatest commandments, from which hang all the law and the prophets
These commands being to love God with your whole heart, soul, mind and strength, and, love your neighbor as yourself.
— This lens bids us, then, to look at a parable with an eye for where the love is – or is not, I suppose: “Where’s the love?”
I’m finding these thoughts to be very helpful in drawing out a deeper meaning from this story of a Father Reconciling Estranged Brothers.
You see, to call this parable “The Prodigal Son”, and to focus on either of the sons, is to risk missing the extraordinary and, frankly, overwhelming love of the story’s father figure.
It’s also helpful to know that this parable comes at the end of a series of similar stories of the lost being found, and that this story in particular actually focuses on how the lost one’s metanoia, or change of heart, is received by God – how God receives the younger son when he “comes to himself”.
And while many of the elements that make this story so memorable have to do with the two brothers, for example:
• The depth of estrangement the younger son gets himself into – estranged from homeland and even faith, estranged from loving relationship, he personifies the universal human perception that being lost is worse than death, especially when “lost” comes at one’s own hand
• And the risk of estrangement facing the elder son, who can see the situation only according to his own understanding of justice, especially as it is shaded by torment in the lack of appreciation he suffers.
No. In order to gain the greatest meaning from the story while using our three lenses of interpretation, we’re best served focusing on the father in this story who, defying convention, runs to greet his once lost son – perhaps with hope in his heart that the seeds he once planted in love might now be bearing fruit.
This parable of a father who reconciles, points to God’s deepest desire, God’s greatest yearning for us – God’s most vivid dream for all God’s children and all of creation.
• We are made to be in loving relationship, each with every
• Which is, of course, at the heart of the message of salvation ever since Adam and Eve who, as long as they remained in loving relationship with God, remained in paradise.
So, remaining in loving relationship, regardless of external conventions that may seek to divide, is what the Kingdom of Heaven is all about. And it’s, apparently, within our grasp. This is knowledge that can, quite rightly, make us uneasy.
And James Alison, prominent contemporary theologian and author of “The Joy of Being Wrong”, will not let us shrug off such uneasiness. Instead, he would lead us deeper into discomfort.
When speaking of this gospel story – and, frankly, all the New Testament – Alison insists that what is central, is not so much what the text says about what the characters say and do. Rather, he would have us be aware that what is more important is the hermeneutical – or analytical – starting point of the one doing the interpreting. This starting point, says Alison, must not only be intellectual, it must also, to some degree, be self-implicating.
• To make the text alive means to make one’s own truthfulness to be perceived in such a way as one is found to be involved in the narrative, and the long-term consequences – or benefits, really – of that involvement.
Tough stuff. But I’m moved to share with you how I became involved in this story of fathers and sons.
I didn’t get along very well with my dad. Oh it’s nothing tragic. Really. Neither of us wished the other any harm whatsoever. Of his three sons I’m named for him. And yet my two brothers – Paul and Peter – both star athletes in their youth and both with scientific minds like our dad the research chemist – well, they seemed to me to have a bit of an easier, more understanding way with each other somehow. It might not be a surprise for you to learn that I had that easiness with my mom. Shocking, I know.
I did have one area of pretty deep discomfort, though, and I took it out on my dad. I’m one of seven siblings and we all went to catholic school for twelve years each. My family did not, however, pay tuition, as my dad didn’t make an enormous amount of money – the upside of which was that he was around a lot. We were “scholarship” students and performed well.
We went to school with, mostly, very privileged children, some from families who were quite wealthy, and it was difficult when I was a child, not to feel a kind of resentment. It wasn’t fair, this resentment, and neither was it clear how to manage it. Nonetheless, I can recall, while still in grammar school, discovering that my dad had overheard me on the phone gushing to a classmate about how lucky he was to have all the nice clothes, vacations, and the spending money he seemed so bored with. When my dad tried to talk to me about the nature of covetousness, I was too embarrassed to engage and, instead, I think I allowed a wall to go up between us.
He died when I was seventeen. We never did have a chance to reconcile in a way that could heal this part of the heart we shared.
Some thirty-five years after he died at age fifty-two, I found myself at age fifty-two, after a career in local government, in seminary, preparing for the General Ordination Exams. At the same time, one of my closest and most loved ones, a child really, was failing at entering into recovery. And because so many of my loved ones have struggled in this way, I took myself to another round of Al-Anon meetings. It was a men’s meeting at Rutgers Presbyterian Church at Broadway and 73rd. And for the first time I entered in, committed fully to having my heart open and my mouth shut. Were there guys in the room that didn’t make sense? Sure. But I had no trouble, now that I allowed God to sit in the chair next to me, only really hearing when wisdom was spoken.
And then it happened. I was blessed beyond my imaginings.
There was an older Jewish guy – looked to be in his 70’s, maybe early 80’s – who had shared often in the months I’d been going. He spoke of his younger son who struggled with addiction. He and his wife had done everything to help him, and he spoke of finding some peace at times, even though the son’s recovery never quite succeeded.
On the night in question, the man told of his elder son, who was a fine and upstanding young man, happily married, father of five, and very much enjoying his rabbinical studies. The elder son, it seems, had recently called his father to ask about getting some money from him. They were expecting a sixth child and had already outgrown their living space and hoped to buy a larger home.
The man shared lots of details and, as he spoke, I thought of today’s parable, even though the details in the two stories – Jesus’ and the older Jewish guy who might not even know Jesus’ story – even though the details were a little rearranged, it all sounded so similar.
The old man wept as he told how he’d had to say to his elder son that, while he’d happily help him, there was nothing left. The family resources had gone to the care of the younger son. The most heartbreaking part, he said, was that the elder son had been so understanding and kind.
The old man was crushed. And I found myself weeping with him. Not only for the tenderness of his situation, but as much because, as he spoke, somehow I heard my dad’s voice in his words. And somehow, I understood my dad more than I had ever before, even though the details were a little rearranged. I somehow understood all I needed to about where the love is in my dad.
Jesus uses a marvelous turn of phrase to describe the younger son who found himself cast out of the paradise that is loving relationship – he says “he came to himself.” This boy came to his deepest self – the core that is not influenced by the changes and chances of worldly existence – not influenced by material desires. And in that Al-Anon meeting, I think I came to myself too.
Grace lies at the heart of this parable – grace that defies all earthly rules and social conventions.
The good news here, then, is news of hope as the young man who has separated himself from his family, homeland and faith, is able to utter the single word by which his misadventure began. Father.
And if we perceive that being on the outside of loving relationship amounts to being lost, and lost being worse than death, we might now proclaim a faith that living in the knowledge that we have been found is greater than life itself. And knowing this, what could possibly bring us down?
James Alison likes to say that we may each be bound to Adam’s sin – the sin of exercising our free will and choosing to turn away from God. And yet it in the end, it is the Spirit of God that enables us to utter the single word “Father.”
And God runs to greet us.
This sermon was delivered by The Rev. Edwin Chinery on March 6, 2016.