This Sunday’s lectionary passages are Psalm 32 and Luke 15:1-3, 11-32; the following is my working draft (and draft title) for my sermon this coming Sunday at Saint Paul’s United Church of Christ in Dallastown, PA. Commentaries used include the UCC’s SAMUEL resource, the Girardian Commentary on the Lectionary, and Anne Howard’s blog post (cited below).
Most of us know this story of the lost Son or the prodigal Son. In fact, I was just thinking about this story as I was watching the Disney movie Pinocchio a week or two ago with my kids. The scene in the movie where the boys, including Pinocchio, are taken away to Pleasure Island before they are kidnapped is especially disturbing to me, partially because it seems to have an undertone of how child molesters groom children they are about to abuse—to the point that it really made me cringe watching this film. Consequently the children are all turned into donkeys, which I think is symbol of the child abuse, after they are given a taste of alcohol and tobacco, representing in the story addictions that adults have, offering them to children as a kind of forbidden fruit.
The other thing that Pinocchio reminds me of in this story is what Pinocchio is most famous for, which is the lying. In our Bible story, the youngest son exploits the father’s money, comes back home and is extravagantly welcomed back. In fact, the Father sees the son coming home in a distance, and the son begins telling him the speech that he has been rehearsing. The Son had rehearsed this whole speech about how the father’s servants were eating better and so on, but the Father was so happy that he didn’t even let him get to that point. All the Son said was “Father, I’ve sinned against God, I sinned before you, I don’t deserve to be called your son ever again.”
Of course, the father welcomes him home, puts good clothes on his son, places a ring on his finger, and calls a banquet. This part of the story is important, because the ring is a symbol of the inheritance, the banquet here is a symbol of heaven, of the banquet that has no end.
The way I have always heard this story and the way I have always been taught to interpret this story places emphasis on the banquet, that the prodigal son is an analogy or allegory about how God welcomes home sinners. I’ve actually heard this story preached at funerals for people who were pretty clearly not Christians as a mean to comfort the grieving, that God welcomes home everyone who returns. To be honest, I really like this interpretation of the story, that no matter how far away we’ve gone from God, when we come back we are welcomed home. (In fact, to follow my connection to Pinocchio earlier, this theme is a lot like another Disney movie that some of you have surely seen, Finding Nemo, where the Father does everything he can to get his lost son back.)
But then within the Bible story we have the older brother, who is not only jealous but upset. This brother did everything right and was always faithful, and probably wasn’t unhappy that the younger brother returned but he felt that there was an injustice against himself happening here in the extremes the Father was celebrating the brother’s return. The father’s response was that before the son was as good as dead, but he has now returned—that’s worth celebrating.
Something tells me that the older brother probably wasn’t so convinced. We all know that there is a big difference between the older child and the younger child in a family, right? With the oldest child the parents want to take the child to the doctor every time they sneeze, they are much more strict on the rules, and they are far more cautious about how they let the child go in the world. But when it comes to the youngest child the rules are more relaxed, there is a lot less hand-holding, and the youngest child generally gets away with a lot more. From a psychological perspective, the youngest child usually is the “baby” of the family because the parents realize that this child is the last one who will call them “daddy” or “mommy” and the child never really gets out of their childhood. Many of you surely have stories in your family of people for whom the coincidence of being the youngest child and the way the parents treated the youngest child affected that person for the rest of their lives.
So in the Bible story, the baby of the family comes home, smelling like pig slop and loose women, with a sad story and saying to his father all the right things: My life doesn’t mean anything to you, and it doesn’t mean anything to God, and I want to be your slave, and I’m sorry. The older brother is hearing this and saying, ‘we’ve heard this before, haven’t we?’ Isn’t this the same speech you gave when you wrecked the car?
The tension between the older brother and the younger brother is all over the Bible—beginning with Cain and Abel—so we should remember that this dimension is going on here, and the bottom line here is that the younger brother probably was being dishonest and was lying to his father. The older brother is listening in to the explanation and saying—that’s the biggest lie I’ve ever heard! The older brother knows that the younger brother is lying, and says that the younger brother is playing the old man like a fiddle. The reality is that the younger brother has said it all before, he’s given all the excuses before—this is what is implied in the way Jesus tells this story, that the brother was even rehearsing the speech, which, of course, was interrupted by the father.
So it would seem that the father wasn’t so smart and that he got duped by his son, who has a history of exploiting the father—we should remember that it was the son who asked for his inheritance before the father was even dead! When I was researching this story this past week it was interesting for me to discover that the early Christians interpreted Jesus’ teaching here a little differently. What the ancient Christians focused upon was that the older son represented the old-order Jews and the younger son represented the more liberal, generally younger Jews who came into the faith as converts rather than by birth. Those who converted broke the laws before they were Jewish, but then they expected to be equal with those who were born into the religion—and sometimes the rules were bent by the priests to include the younger people more than what might have been tolerated in the past.
Therefore, Jesus’ parable was interpreted by the earliest Christians to be about the tension between generations within the faith community, how the older people like their rules and their traditions and don’t like to accommodate or make room for the newer and younger people. All faith communities face this struggle at some point, and we in this church are facing this right now in some ways as we are growing and we want to continue to grow, knowing that history always shows that religions and churches that do not adapt do not grow. Giving the ring to the younger son suggests that whether the older generation likes it or not, the younger will outlive them with or without the temple or the church. Whether the older generation likes it or not, the younger generation is future of the temple.
So in this interpretation the focus is taken away from the banquet at the end of the story, as we often place emphasis on, as the feast typically represents the next life; but rather, the focus here is the duped father placing the ring on the son’s finger. In other words, the father isn’t forgiving the son simply because he always has; and not simply because he is happy to be alive, even though he clearly is happy that he’s still alive; and the father isn’t only forgiving his son out of a legal obligation or out of a social concern that he should not take his own son as a slave—which is what the manipulative son asks—but that forgiveness is implied simply by virtue of the fact that he is his son. The father does not give the son the opportunity to lie his way out because his lies, and even the truth of what happened is largely irrelevant.
We don’t know if the son got any inheritance after the old man died later, and the focus of the story is no longer on the justice or economics of the situation. But we can be assured that the son kept the ring as the outward sign of his inheritance—the same inheritance that he blew, but also the fact that even though he burned through it all, family is more important than money and that the son will always be the father’s son.
We also don’t know if the younger son ever disappointed the father ever again—my guess is that he probably did. The younger son might have complained years later that he never really got equal treatment like the older son; most of us know how sibling rivalries go. We don’t know if the younger son was ever sincere in his repentance to his father. But what we do know is that the father accepted him back, at least initially, and offered him a welcome to prove himself worthy of the welcome.
And this is where I find meaningfulness in the story. The father gives the younger son a family ring as a symbol of his inheritance and return welcome, and he essentially puts the ball in the son’s court. It doesn’t matter whether the son really was sorry when he got home, but he is now in a situation where repentance must happen with his hands and feet and not just with his mouth. The son can now live up to the family name, or he can take it off and walk away, or he can go pawn it off and go back to the liquor and women. It’s now his choice.
The line that strikes me the hardest is the verse in Jesus’ parable where the son has some kind of epiphany, or realization, that after blowing his money on wine, women, gambling, and who knows what else. He is sitting in pig slop, ready to eat the food given to the pigs. In fact, the exact language of the Bible is that he would eat the “pods” that the pigs were eating. A “pod” probably refers to the fruit of the carob tree, or carob pod, which was a common shrub throughout the Mediterranean region. Carob pods were probably a food people resorted to during extreme famine because the pods are eaten dry. In fact, I found in my research this past week that during World War II, people in Malta began eating carob pods to ration scarce resources. Even though they’re high in protein, they don’t taste so good, but they last a long time. So a farmer would have carob pods around for emergencies, or as a crop to sell during emergencies, but if there was not a famine that year or extreme need, they would be given to the pigs. Part of the subtext here is that when the son went away to blow his money was not in a time of scarcity, but in a time of plenty, meaning that had he invested his money or used it wisely he might have prospered, and he was spending his money along with others who may have had money to burn because of the better than usual economic situation. He got caught up in the moment, and got caught up in thinking the money will never run out because it’s high times.
The other thing that strikes me about this image of the boy sitting pig slop is that he is a Jewish boy, contemplating eating food meant for the pigs, sitting around pigs who are eating. Most people know that Jewish law prohibits the eating of pork because it is an unclean animal The image of eating with pigs is apt— he is an outcast, not by birth, or an outcast not because of some sexual status like a eunuch, or an outcast not because of his family situation, or his race, etc., but he is an outcast because of his choices. At rock bottom, as a total outcast, even from the people he threw money at (because he had no more money to throw), he can make the final choice to completely divorce himself from his identity as a member of God’s chosen race, and eat with the forbidden animals, and live in their slop. He could choose to reap what he sows, or he could choose to come back and at least be given some dignity as a human being or as a slave.
The Good News is that we could debate where the son experienced grace, whether sitting in pig slop, or when his father embraces him. Or even when the enabling father enables him. The son’s redemption and forgiveness is offered despite his sincerities. He experiences extravagant forgiveness, as his father throws a big party for him. He may fall short again, and very likely may, but forgiveness is offered unconditionally. The bottom line is that the son has to allow himself to be honored as the special guest to the party as more than just a party but as a reality of the community his father is trying to establish.
We should be quick to notice here that the son is accepted to his father in Jesus’ story without any crucifixion, without any resurrection, and without any pretext of a messiah. The father interrupts the son’s rehearsed speech of repentance. The message is this: the forgiveness and grace of the father does not require repentance. No amount of repentance or apology will ever be good enough. The repentance itself is not so important as is the authentic desire to simply return, to be accepted, and to be bound back to the father.
The word “religion” literally means “to be bound.” Sometimes when we bind ourselves to the cross, we get crucified—just ask anyone who has been in a leadership position in a church or on a school board. God does not require us to be crucified. Some religious folks bind themselves to the Bible, but sometimes binding oneself to scripture just becomes a narrow experience of life, one where we cut off people from our families when they don’t measure up to whatever Biblical standards we make up at any given time. Others bind themselves to an agenda, being part of the church is to be seen, or for business purposes, etc.
But here we have Jesus telling a parable where being bound to a community is the result of the father disposing grace. The father’s grace at the son’s return did not come with money, but of an embrace. This is to say that we are bound as a community, no matter what we smell like, no matter where we’ve been and what we’ve done. Practicing the graceful community is not popular. It’s worth noting that the faithful son was angry, but this is the point: the older son was in the wrong, too, because he was not practicing the graceful community, but wished for a community of vengeance, and a community of merits.
So our message in this church is that it’s time to let God out of the cage and out of the prison that we keep God in with our rules and with our language. It’s time to stop arguing about who’s in and who’s out in a Kingdom that we falsely believe to be under our own authority to decide. It’s time to stop arguing about what minorities are not allowed in and who is to be kept out. It’s time to proclaim loudly: “God is loose in the world and God will not be contained by your codes, your rituals, your rules, your institutions, your hierarchies.” (From “Prodigal Welcome,” Anne Howard)
What does this risk? It makes us risk our comfort zones, our privileges, our rule books, our egos. Our desire to get ahead and our desire to point out the smell on those returning home. We need courage to approach the risky areas where these questions hit the fan: Will I have to not have so many guns? Will we have to find a new language for thinking about mental health and illness in our culture? Will this require me to find or invent a new language for my faith or for my desire to dispense grace and forgiveness, and to ask repentance, and acknowledge that words will never be enough for the love of God reflected upon us by Jesus?
Many people in our culture, many in our families, are asking: What’s the point? Why bother with Christianity? I believe this is the answer. Imagine what this world would be like if we Christians practiced Christianity!