11 Then Jesus said, "There was a man who had two sons.12 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.13 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.14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need.15 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.16 He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything.17 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!18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you;19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands." '20 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.21 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.'22 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.23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate;24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!' And they began to celebrate.
25 "Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing.26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on.27 He replied, 'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.'28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him.29 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.30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!'31 Then the father said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.32 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.' "
Two Typical Temptations
This morning we will be looking at one of the better known teachings of Jesus - typically called the parable of the prodigal son. And mostly it's thought of in terms of two typical temptations - the temptation in the case of the younger son to be prodigal, wasteful and extravagant, and the temptation of the older brother to be pious, self righteous and unforgiving.
But this is a rich, complex story. It has many facets and different ones will sparkle and shine depending upon how you hold it up to the light - or, another way of saying the same thing, depending upon which player in the drama you put center stage.
Let's begin by putting the younger son in the spot light.
Here he is - the prodigal - the baby of the family who wants to run off and have a good time. Won't face his responsibilities; doesn't want to work; maybe he just needs to grow up.
But the writer Thomas Merton sees in this prodigal a deeper problem. The prodigal, he says, suffers from a war within. He wants the love of the father, but he feels he can only have it if he earns it. He cannot accept the love and gifts the father wants to give him because he needs to divide the world up into the things that are his and the things that belong to another. He cannot enjoy anything unless he feels he owns it by right of conquest. The prodigal takes his part of the inheritance, and travels as far as he can from his father's house. His selfishness and withdrawal bring him to life among the swine and eventually to his senses. When he returns to the father he must seek the fathers love as a gift of grace, a gift of love unearned.
Merton sees in the prodigal the dilemma of humanity - resisting the grace and peace of God because they cannot believe it is a free gift of love. Unable to understand the heart of God, humanity demands judgment, dominion, retribution, payment in full. Yet what God wants to give is forgiveness, service, redemption, paradise.
All right, we're done with the younger brother for now. Let's bring the older brother out in the spot light.
Being a younger brother myself I have a lot to say about the older one. I'm sorry your perfect world was ruined. I know you were the center of attention and you were displaced. Get over it!!!
But let's stick to the Bible - I can tell you more about my brother at another time. The older brother seems to have a lot in common with the Pharisees and the scribes who were criticizing Jesus, grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them."
I want to look at this brother through the eyes of John Sanford, an Episcopal Priest who is also a psychotherapist and has written a book "The Kingdom Within."
From a psychological point of view, Sanford says that the Pharisees and the older brother are unforgiving because they are hypocrites - that is, they are people who hide behind masks, who don't reveal their true face - who not only want to look so much better than they really are, but who have forgotten who they really are.
The older brother represents the temptation of becoming actors instead of authentic human beings.
An authentic human being acknowledges and admits to the conflicts, weaknesses, failings and shortcomings of their own life. They understand their own inner adversary, they have confronted the dark side of their own personality. Their self righteousness and rigidity has been worn down by their struggles. The mask is off and the human being shows through. The awareness of the battle within has given them the capacity for forgiveness. It is more important to be merciful than to be right.
Sanford says that those who have given in to the temptation of the older brother, face a difficult path to wholeness and health.
So reluctant are people to see themselves as they really are and to face their inner contradiction, that it is only by the greatest of efforts that most people can be brought to this self confrontation. The vast majority prefer ignorance of the inner adversary. This is destructive because ignorance of the inner enemy by no means resolves the problem. To the contrary, the enemy now appears in the guise of other people, and the hostility which has its origin in ourselves takes the form of hostility to others.
Look at the parable of the prodigal son in this light. The two brothers are not separate people, but two halves of a whole personality. Some may identify more with one than the other, but to be fully alive we must stay in touch with both. When we drive the younger brother away we rob ourselves of our joy for life, our compassion for others, our humor and spontaneity. Responsibility becomes rigidity. When we drive the older brother away we rob ourselves of conscience, connection, relationship and duty. Pleasure becomes compulsion.
As long as the two brothers are divided against each other, one defeats the other. But, Sanford says, if the two brothers can be reconciled into one personality, the negative qualities of each will give way to the positive, and wholeness and health will emerge.
Well, that's a little different reading of the text, don't you think!
Let's bring the father into the spotlight for a minute, now that the two brothers are off on the sides trying to figure out how they are going to pay their psychotherapy bill. One commentator has said we shouldn't call this the Parable of the Prodigal Son, but rather the Parable of the Waiting Father.
With the father as the focus, it is the patient forbearance of God that is the central message of the parable. God gives freedom. God allows the younger son to go off and seek his way in the world; God does not contain or condemn. God waits. God waits for the younger son to live his life, make his mistakes, come to his senses, and decide, of his own free will, decide to turn around and come home. God is waiting, God is ready, God is looking for, even yearning for, this change of heart and change of direction, but God does not coerce nor rush nor grow weary.
When the father is in the spotlight, the story is about the love of God and the welcome God prepares in heaven for the sinner who repents. As Jesus said: there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
Well that about covers it, doesn't it. We've gotten all the main characters to center stage; they've all had their time in the lime light - but wait. Isn't someone missing?
Erik Erickson, another reader who looked at the parable from a psychological point of view, asked this question "Was there no mother, either dead or alive? And if alive, was she not called to say hello, too?" From this question came yet another name for this parable - The Parable of the Missing Mother. What might the mother have to say if we brought her out to center stage. For this we turn to the book Hidden Women of the Gospels by Kathy Coffey. She gives the mother's story.
It didn't have to happen that way. We could have sat down and talked it over. But my husband is a hothead, and my sons - one fumes; one sulks. The tension between them had been building, probably since Nathan grew taller than Philip. Something shifted in their relationship when my older son felt threatened.
Philip couldn't see that Nathan still copied every gesture, walked with a similar stride, even tried to comb his unruly hair in the same style as his older brother. It was poignant, how Nathan counted on Philip for approval. When it wasn't forthcoming, Nathan would act unthinkingly, and take a risk he'd later lament. Claiming his share of the inheritance was the ultimate insult to Philip, as though in one bold stroke he could reverse the birth order! My husband capitulated, as if to tell Nathan, "I'll pay anything to get you out of here and restore the peace."
I will always regret not being home the weekend of the explosion. I returned from my sister's to find an eerie quiet in the house, and Nathan's empty room. "What have you done?" I accused the men who looked guilty. It had escalated, perhaps because I wasn't there to settle it with a little humor, some time apart, a good dinner.
By the second week, the thrill of the combat had worn off. They were no longer boasting how they'd gotten the better of him, and were starting to worry beneath the cool camouflage of unconcern. Nathan's absence was gnawing away at me; Was he safe? How long would his money last? The questions prodded me awake in the middle of the night, as my husband snored beside me.
After a month, I noticed my husband taking long walks down the road, usually at twilight when there was no reason to work there. Was he starting to miss Nathan as much as I did?
After four months, I went searching. If that boy was ever to be found and brought home, it was up to me. I spoke with one of the servants planning the celebration that should take place if Nathan returned while I was gone. She had a detailed list: chilled wine, fatted calf, music. I made sure that Nathan would have a proper welcome. Above all, I warned the servant to notify me and gave her an outline of my travel plans.
That was the easy part. I knew that any true celebration required more than party favors. So I drew on my confidence that no matter how messy things look, it can all come together in the end. I began to talk with my husband.
It emerged in our talks that my husband recognized his own impetuosity in our younger son. They both had the nature of a spring storm: intense and fierce. They would hurl furious words, then all was calm. Except this time. No one had intervened; no one had suggested a time to cool off. My husband felt terrible about the damage done, and grieved that the loss was permanent.
My servant was true to her word and followed every last direction. By the time they found me, exhausted with the futile search, the wine had gone flat and the leftovers of calf had been discarded. No matter-both my boys were safe. I slept with a deep security I hadn't had in months. As I drifted off that first night home, I reviewed the story the servant had told me.
According to her, the first sight of that unbathed boy galvanized his father. He ran down the road with the energy of his youth.. Typical of my husband's style: He drowned the boy's apology in his huge embrace.
My husband called with exuberance for the ring and sandals. As the serving woman brought the gold and leather, she heard my husband bellow, "This son of mine was dead and has come back to life; he was lost and is found."
Of course tomorrow the euphoria will wear off and I'll have to deal with Philip. He's still filled with the poison of resentment and I'll need to find out what's really causing his anger. But I don't know if I can top what my husband told him. The servant reported that he said, "'You are with me always and all I have is yours." If that doesn't reassure the boy, I don't know what will. The words have been for me a lovely pillow, the cornerstone of our house, the surety of my husband's good heart.
Yes, the mother's voice. We will not find it in the script. We have to use our imagination. But what questions she raises. What does she teach us about the craziness of families, about the necessity to go outside accepted conventions to keep the family together, about the possibility, even in the most dysfunctional of situations, the possibility that people can learn valuable lessons and find necessary security. Perhaps when we hear the parable from the mother's point of view we can more fully appreciate our families for what they are, not just for what we think they should be.
Now I really do think everyone has had a chance to tell their story. I'm sorry if it hasn't come to a single concrete conclusion, but, as I said, this is a rich and many faceted teaching. Perhaps that's why it has been remembered for two thousand years. Perhaps that is why we call it the word of God.