March 31, 2019: Lent IV
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw
The Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA
How great is the story of the Prodigal Child?! It’s one of those stories that we all know from our childhood, and, from the center of our humanity. It’s a story that is familiar both in our life’s literature and in our life’s experience. It is a story about faith and forgiveness, about repentance and hope; and it is, as are all of Luke’s best stories, about loving each other from our toe bottoms. Loving each other the way God love us. ….no matter who we think we are or what we may have done. Where we have left home and frittered away the family inheritance or sacrificed our own dreams to stoke and tend the family hearth. Either way, we are loved, and meant to love, beyond measure.
Actually, we might more accurately call this parable the Prodigal Family than the Prodigal Son. In Latin, the word prodigal means: wasteful. And that description does indeed fit the behavior of the younger son with respect to his inheritance. He is said to be as wasteful as a drunken sailor. But prodigal also describes the love of the father when his wasteful son returns. Lavishing him with love and acceptance as though there were no tomorrow, as though there were no yesterday. As though the only thing that mattered was the moment before them. And so nothing needed to be held back. Nothing saved for another day. Nothing spared for retribution. This is a story about the sort of wastefulness that comes when love is the only issue; the sort of wastefulness that can change the world.
This parable is exclusive to Luke’s Gospel. It doesn’t appear anywhere else. The upside of its exclusivity in Luke is that it is not worn out in our lectionary. The down side is that we only get a crack at it every three years.
This longest parable in our Gospels is always in the season of Lent. …at least it has been since the introduction of the RCL in 1992. Always, we hear this story in the context of our walk with Jesus through the wilderness. …the season when we are reflecting on ourselves and our own walk with God. And so we are set up to hear this parable as a commentary on ourselves, and not just on the world at large. Unlike many of the parables in Matthew’s Gospel, this parable is not about how we must overturn the systems of injustice in the world – there are other parables for that. This one is rather about how we are to behave with the ones that we already know, the ones who are already in our midst, and the ones that we already…..love.
This parable is not about the system, it is about the family. About how we reconcile our flaws and failings and feelings about each other. And about how we can welcome each other home. Unlike the lost sheep and the lost coin in the stories that immediately precede this one in Luke’s Gospel, the lost son is not sought….no one is looking for him. He is the agent of change in this story. He comes home of his own volition.
We are invited to try on all three of the main characters in this parable. One at a time. There is the child who has strayed and suffered and returned…not a wild success, but a destitute failure. Poor. Hungry. Humbled. Many commentaries call the return of the young son an act of repentance. But I doubt it. I think he was simply at the end of his rope and just had nowhere else to go. Then the parent who has lost a child and then found that child, who has suffered and forgiven and welcomed and sacrificed the fatted calf for the one, the beloved who has caused the suffering and feels unworthy of such a grace. And finally, the stay-at-home-follow-the-rules- sibling who is so blinded by rivalry and jealousy and fear of his own inadequacies, that he cannot see the forest of love for his own trees of competition and regret. And I might add a fourth character. The beckoning, judgmental unforgiving world that taunts us and calls us to disconnect. The wider world that says, I have something that will make you greater than you are. And all you have to do is leave home and find it. Yes, this is a story that has it all….all of our possibilities…..and all of our demons.
As with Luke’s other famous exclusive story of the Good Samaritan, I think that probably we all embody a part of each of the characters here. We all have at least a smidge of the wasteful son. We have all wasted something of our lives on frivolous impropriety at one time or another. And surely we all have a dose of the loving forgiving father who is delirious with gratitude at the return of the son whom he had taken to be lost forever. And I will bet that we also have a bit of the begrudging older sibling who receives the same inheritance as his philandering brother, although keeps his half in the family; the older obedient sibling who grumbles about the wasteful behavior of his younger disobedient rival; the older sibling who grouses about the unfairness with which his younger sibling is accorded comfort and kindness and prime-grade-A nourishment and forgiveness. The scripture says:
“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. The slave replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then the older brother became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But the son answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given meeven a young goat so thatI might celebrate with myfriends.
You have never given me so much as a young goat to celebrate with my friends. Ouch. Can you feel it? I can. Because this is where this simple parable gets very complicated. I am guessing that we can all understand and process the first two parts of this story. We can all relate to and maybe even teach the lessons of returning when we have strayed and forgiving when we are able, but what do we do with this last part? The part about our own anger with the unfairness of it all. The part where we are incensed by the way some of us seem to get away with bloody murder, figuratively speaking, of course. The part where we feel our own worth challenged by the “worthiness” of those who who fail to measure up to …..us? The part where we measure our worth by ……well, anything other than our capacity to love as we have been loved.
Through this lens, this is the Parable of the Unfair Heir. Through this lens we are treated to a ring side seat of the pettiness and the rueful bitterness that I suspect most of us know all too well, the feeling that we and our accomplishments are somehow diminished when someone else is accorded what we feel is an undeserved or unearned….anything; an accolade, an award, acceptance, credit for something well done, a better job, a higher position, the presidency, you name it. We seem to be wired to want not only what we need in this world, but what we “deserve.” And not just what we deserve, but we want some sort of fairness quotient applied to what everyone around us deserves, as well.
We might relate to all three of the characters in this parable, but the righteous indignation of the older brother seems to me to be the Gospel pay dirt. Lest we miss the connection between the Pharisees and Scribes at the preamble of this parable who are grumbling that Jesus is treating tax collectors and sinners as though they were……as entitled to hospitality and respect as are the religious elite.
This parable starts: All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
It is the grumbling of the religious elite that prompts this parable. It is that familiar grumbling that often comes almost automatically when we feel that there has been an injustice, and that we are not getting what we deserve. The Greek word for “grumbling” is diagonguzo. And it recalls the connotation of the Israelites in the wilderness when they were hungry and thirsty, and took the injustice of their discomfort out on Moses and Aaron in the form of some seriously sensational grumbling (Exodus 15:24; 16:2, 17:3, Num. 14:2, Deut. 1:27). It is the grumbling that we tend to do when we feel that we are not being well-served…..that we are not getting what we “deserve.”
For some ungodly reason we featherless bi-peds measure our own just desserts by the just desserts of our fellow featherless bi-peds. We tend to measure others by the standard of what we believe we have earned. And the grumbling that comes with our anger over what we perceive to be the unearned privilege of others is often coupled with our abject blindness to our own unearned privilege. That could just be at the heart of every systemic evil that plagues our common life. This notion that there are hierarchical levels of deserving may be at the heart of our panoply of social dis-eases: Racism. Poverty. War. The destruction of creation. Our national immigration policy. This notion that some deserve more than others is……well, maybe this is the root of all evil; this delusion of our deserving.
This delusion of our privilege, which of course is no delusion at all. Privilege is quite real. But it hangs on the coattails of the notion that we deserve what we have. And so I think it is well worth asking the question: what exactly do we deserve?
Is what I deserve different from what you deserve? Is it grounded in justice or in my own human concept of fairness? Do we deserve only what we earn? What if what we earn is a function of what we inherit? Do we deserve what we inherit? And what if our earning power is derailed or impeded by no fault of our own? Does what we deserve change? Is that fair? And so calibrating what we deserve can be very complicated.
Can we quantify or even know much less articulate what we deserve?
Because that may well be the question that is at the very heart of this Holy Season of Lent; a season that begins with the imposition of ashes reminding us that we are dust and to dust we will return. And the litany of penitence in which we confess that we are deserving of ……absolutely nothing. In fact, we have quite a negative balance on our tab that we acknowledge needs to be forgiven before we even think about deserving anything.
I think the truth about what we deserve is buried in the semantics of the word itself: de-serve. When we think we deserve something, we are actually de-serving it. That is, we are not serving it. When we think we deserve more credit for our work, or more appreciation for our effort, or a goat for our obedience we are de-serving what we seek….we are diminishing it. When we grumble that we are not being properly served, we are actively de-serving everything that we value…..or say that we value…..as Christians.
Because de-serving is the opposite of what Jesus came to do. Jesus came to serve, not to be served, not to de-serve. In fact, if we believe Jesus, we don’t deserve a thing. Everything of value that we have and that we are is freely given to us by God, none of it is in any way deserved. And the fastest way to stray from our faithfulness in God’s goodness is to shift our attention from whom we are serving to what we are deserving. And the most reliable way back to God is to shift our attention from what we think we deserve to the what we can do to serve others.
And so here we have our parable that juxtaposes the seemingly undeserving son who returns home and the self-professed deserving son who grumbles upon that return. And in between, in the connection, the serving father – wasteful beyond measure with his love for his two sons; neither of whom have earned their inheritance or their privilege. But both of whom are equally loved and served without judgment or regret by the one who welcomes them with open arms.
And that is both the Good News and the exhortation in this morning’s reading. That we are to turn our attention from what we think we deserve ourselves to how we know we can serve the other. And sometimes, sadly, we who think we are first will be called to serve by moving to the back of the line.
So my friends, let us go forth into the world serving each other with prodigal love…that is, wastefully loving each other until the cows come home!
© March 2019 The Rev’d. Dr. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw
All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying,
“This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
So Jesus told them this parable:
“There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”‘ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe–the best one–and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.'” – NRSV