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On the Churchill River, image by Allysha Larson
The Prodigal Son

Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

March 6, 2016

Lent 4

Year C

There are few of us who don’t relate to the story in Luke. We all have family backgrounds, family history. We all have stories just like this one.

Like the boy’s in Luke’s story, we too have felt at times, as though we were being treated unfairly and like the eldest in the story, we’ve hoped for fairness to be acted out on our behalf. We want to be sure about this justification, don’t we? After all, a lot hangs on how that unfolds. We want to be sure that life will be fair and somehow we believe that life will work out and at the same time, we know that there is no perfect way through life.

Like the eldest brother we’ve probably all been angry because there have been times when we felt treated unfairly. The older brother could hardly believe that his younger sibling could just come home and there would be a party for him to celebrate his return. The older brother would have lived through the years of grief and anguish. He would have listened to stories of fear, regret and longing. Yet through the whole time, he was a dutiful son who did what his parents expected him to do.

In the midst of the brother’s return, we learn quickly that the father will give his younger son a second chance.

We know this story; we know the feelings that surround it.

We know that the son who left home fell on bad times. He got mixed up in wild parties, drugs and alcohol. After a year or two, he had no way even to buy food. He had lost everything. So, in a desperate moment, he comes home, or at least he hopes he can. He believes he can return. Something inside of him says that returning is possible. It’s a gut instinct.

So, in many ways the act of accepting this boy back is an extremely gracious act. I know families that haven’t spoken to family members for thirty years. They likely never will speak. There will be no coming together. Theologically, this coming together in the story would be called “grace.” Grace is not easy to come by. Grace eludes us. We hang on to our losses because we don’t know what our lives will look like without them. Sometimes, when it seems like there is no other way than to give something up; we fill up that space with the loss of something else.

It’s important to remember that “prodigal” simply means “extravagantly wasteful,” a term that doesn’t apply to either brother as much as it does to the father. It is the father who didn’t make good business decisions regarding his wealth and how it got used. Maybe it wasn’t wise, according to how we usually think, to welcome his son home and throw a party with no questions asked.

There is no mention in this parable of confession, nothing about repentance, nothing about how forgiveness happens. In fact, the father sees his son long before he even makes it home and he rushes out to embrace him before he can get out a word of his well-rehearsed admission of guilt. That is our sticking point; while few of us would deny the possibility of forgiveness, we want it to be earned by a healthy dose of penance. Our sense of what is right is violated by this extravagant example of instant, no-strings attached forgiveness.

What kind of world would this be if we all made a practice of rewarding sinners while the god-fearing folk are still out in the fields? How about us, those of us who are trying to serve God, follow the rules, and never get any credit for it while the ne’er-do-wells seem to get all the attention? Because we believe what we do about life - the older brother boots himself out of relationship with his father. The father knows that he has lost both his sons, the younger to the life of recklessness, the older to a life of self-righteousness. The younger has returned, but the older is still out there, wanting his father to love him as he deserves to be loved because he has stayed where he belonged, followed orders, played by the rules, did the right thing.

The father in this story makes room for something new, new life.

We are headed down that road to new life on this year’s Lenten journey. Before we go any further, where do we position ourselves in the parable?

Are we planning the party, then are we at the party, celebrating; or are we outside, with our arms folded, fussing and fuming with the older brother, who is upset because his father doesn’t play by the rules? You can choose to be in a few places in this story. You can be the one returning – the one who doesn’t have much choice – the one who understands he needs to seek forgiveness, or you can be the older son standing outside the circle – the one who chooses to continue being angry – the one who believes he has been hard done by. Or, you could be the father who simply wants his son back, whether it seems fair or not, whether it is even “right” or not, as we usually judge these things. So he attempts to make it a great homecoming with a huge party and everyone will forgive everyone and all will be well. Not likely, right? Very unlikely.

In 2009 I was the spiritual director on an eight-day canoe trip in Northern Saskatchewan. There were 19 of us on that trip, all women. I had just finished the course work for a degree in
Art Therapy, and I was using art as a way into the spiritual dimension and I had also asked the group to read, She Who Changes, Re-Imaging the Divine,” by Carol Christ. There was a fair bit of angst because they hadn’t all read the book and those who hadn’t read it were quickly catching on to the reality, that if they were going to participate in this spiritual quest, they were going to have to read it. On about the fifth day a small faction, about four women, decided they weren’t going to participate in the book conversation because they felt as though this book was about something they couldn’t believe and they would never dream of going down the path that is held up in the book.

So on that beautiful sunny morning on the banks of the Churchill River I read to the group and I read the story of “The Prodigal Son.” I said, indeed, you have a choice. You can choose not to participate, you can stand with your arms folded outside the circle and complain about how this doesn’t suit you, it’s not what you believe, it’s not what you expected and you are not going to participate because it’s not where you want to be right now. Or, you can consider this to be something like an academic study, you can enter into the conversation and participate in a way that will offer meaning to the entire group. You can take on the role of the younger son and find ways to be part of something that is no longer familiar. Or better yet, you can take on the role of the father and throw a party in the hope all will come. Whatever you do will have an impact on the entire group, the entire family. Then I invited them at the end of the afternoon, when we were finished paddling for the day, to write 500 words or less on where they were at on their spiritual journey. Later that afternoon, when we were back in camp, they did that, all 19 of them, wrote down where they were at spiritually and in a circle we shared what we had written.

This story leads me to believe that we can be reconciled. However, I realise we were on the Churchill River and we were 400 miles from home. How much choice was there? The younger son didn’t have much choice either and neither did the father by the time he saw his son coming down the road toward home. Perhaps the older son had to stand outside the circle until he was finished with his anger.

It’s like that in the church. The church is struggling to find itself in a culture that is no longer very religious. Some of us will choose to stand outside the circle. We will need to grieve our loss and find ways like the younger son to come back home and be comfortable in that returning. Or maybe, we just need to throw a party and in the midst of the party we will find our way through this process to wholeness. It would need to be a big party.

Jesus doesn’t finish the parable. Perhaps because it’s up to each one of us to decide how it ends. He leaves it up to us to write our own ending. If you were to write an ending to your church story – what would you say?

Would you seriously look at our history, and see where we have been, and where we have come? Would you carefully consider what our future could be? Would you remember that it is a very big story and it involves many people, whose perspective will you write it from? Will you write it from the perspective of the one who is lost and is returning? Will you write it from the perspective of the one who is angry and outside the circle, the one who wants his father to get it right? Or will you take on the role of the father, the one who throws a party in the hope everyone will come.

Or maybe, you will write it from your own unique perspective. Each of us has a story and our stories are equally important. I invite you this week, on your Lenten journey, to write down your story, or at the very least, to give it some thought. Make it a big story so there is lots of room to move around in it. Make it a story with history, joy and love. Make it your story of return, your party and don’t forget what made you angry.
Sharon Ferguson-Hood