This week we have the parable of the Prodigal Son. It is one of the “tough” parables for many, because it often strikes us as unfair.
The eldest son stays home and is obedient to his father while the younger one goes off into the world and squanders the money. When the youngest son has lost it all: has no friends, no money and no way to take care of himself, essentially he “hits bottom.” The passage says, “when he came to himself” he finds trust that returning to his father in service will be safer than continuing to struggle without him. “When he came to himself.” When he awakens. That’s when he finds trust.
And when he returns - the father welcomes him joyfully with open arms, and more so brings him back into the fold, not as a servant, but as a beloved son. The resentful older son does not understand such rejoicing.
And we may wonder about it too. But in the context of the Gospel, Jesus is telling this story in order to explain the depths of God’s love to the Pharisees who are questioning him. The father in the story is modeling the ultimate expression of love and forgiveness. God’s love is not based in human ideals of judgment.
To quote Isaiah: My thoughts are not your thoughts says the Lord.
Let him turn to the LORD, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will freely pardon."For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways," declares the LORD."As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.
Sometimes this parable is called the "forgiving father.”
But the Prodigal Son like many parables offers us several ways to interpret it. (If we climb into the story.) There is a Christological interpretation of this story that was described by theologian Karl Barth. He equates the young son with Jesus specifically. Jesus comes out into our World to live as one of us. He found himself exposed to the messy and chaotic world of human beings. He chose to be in it with us, in the depths, to be challenged and transformed. And he humbled himself in service to God the Father and was raised to new life.
Like the youngest son, when we find ourselves out in the messy and chaotic world we can’t help but be altered by it. The child then, who returns “home” to be reconciled also brings back a self that has been influenced by ideas that were once foreign, experiences that were alien, as well as unanticipated joys and pain. The reconciliation that takes place not only restores the long lost child, but restores an individual who is carrying all of the burdens of a life lived. A life lived expands our perspectives, teaches us about the suffering of others, humbles us with greater knowledge. We learn that life isn’t “fair.”
Perhaps it makes us, like Jesus, want to help build equality where he found (and where we find) it doesn’t exist.
Jesus commissioned his disciples to go out into the world. To go out with nothing into the world and be with people where healing was needed. That is known as evangelism which has taken on different forms over the centuries. Today many Episcopalians shirk from the word evangelism because it has become associated with fundamentalism. They are however two very different things: Fundamentalism takes the Bible literally. Evangelism is about spreading the good news which is part of every Christian’s call. But this doesn’t mean you have to stand on the street corner with your bible. There is a phrase attributed to St. Francis: “Preach the Gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.” When we take our Christian ethics into the world, it is through those actions and interactions that we can meet others with the love of Christ, which is the Good News: touching, healing, feeding, supporting our neighbors as our selves.
And we are changed by such work. We are transformed: We come closer to others and begin to find the humanness in one another and those who are different from ourselves. We become more expansive and our boundaries become more permeable. We begin to integrate and carry within us a new awareness. We become more awake as Jesus was. When we reach outside of our safe homes or insular communities we are changed. Like St. Paul, our namesake, we might be blinded by the light.
We might open up like Paul and allow ourselves to be touched and changed by a stranger. When Paul was blinded, he was taken in and healed by those very people he had been persecuting. That experience awakened him to God and continued to awaken him towards others - to the foreigner: the Gentile, the Samaritan, the Greek. He is so converted by this love that he states in another famous passage to the Corinthians:
"There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."
We are one body. The transformation that comes through connecting with others is manifest when someone else’s struggle becomes our own.
We seem to be born with an acute longing for what we consider “fair” and “equal” treatment as the parable elicits. Yet ironically we often still manage to live blindly to the predicament of others when things are going our way.
As some of you know I am on the anti-racism committee at the Diocesan level. We host anti-racism trainings, events and summits. The trainings are very expansive. They are held three times a year and they only involve a few sessions. The videos teach us about our history and help us come to understand why there is such a cultural and economic divide among people of different races in a country in which we believe we are all made equal. What has happened to corrupt our very highest ideals? I can tell you the videos teach what we don’t already know. They will broaden your perspective. They speak to the experience of African Americans, Asian Americans, Native American, Latinos. They will awaken you. Our human points of view, judgments and understandings of things are often misinformed and flawed. I encourage you to take one of these trainings. (Some people take them several times because you have an opportunity to meet new people and hear new perspectives.) Take that step into the messy world with Jesus where healing is needed.
Caring about someone else and their predicament starts to work on our own identities too. It starts to reform us into that Christological Body where we all may be one. It is not just the small child, but a community drawn into forgiveness.
Pauls tells us:
From now on, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!
We cannot go unscathed by the messiness of life. It changes us. But it also has the ability to awaken us to a reality that is greater than what we had previously perceived - with the potential for a profound healing that is exponential.
When we bring all of ourself and our experiences to God: Returning: we may find that it is not just our small selves that are reconciled - but that we bring with us a “ripple effect” drawing us all into the body of forgiveness as Christ calls us to. We are made whole and integrated through a love born through Christ in us who gives us a “new creation.”