Pondering the Prodigal

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Celebration of the Community Eucharist.

The written version of the sermon is here:

We’ve just heard one of Jesus’s most famous stories, the Parable of the Prodigal Son. It’s one of those stories that finds its way into popular culture and would easily end up being an answer in a crossword puzzle or on Jeopardy.  But if someone asked you what “prodigal” means, how would you answer?  If you explained that “prodigal” usually means wasteful, and describes someone who is a spendthrift, you’d be close to the original definition. It comes from the Latin word, prodigus, meaning extravagant or lavish. And so the younger brother in the story is certainly “prodigal” from the perspective of the older brother.  A secondary definition of “prodigal” is “one who returns after an absence,” which might be the understanding from the father’s standpoint in the parable.

I think it’s interesting for us to consider which definition comes more easily to our mind, and then to ask why?

And then, there’s the question of if we are the one who has left home and returned, would we even USE the word, “prodigal” to refer to ourselves?

The nuance in definition around the idea of “prodigal” points to the power of a parable. A parable is different from an allegory, in that a parable has several points and can change according to one’s point of view. The same story can change in meaning over one’s life, which is the fun of reading scripture over and over again.

The story is a welcome one for those who relate to the prodigal—St. Augustine related to him, having spent some of his early years running, living beyond his means, using people to rise socially, fathering a child out of marriage, joining an heretical sect. But Augustine came home, and he came to know the welcome of his mother Helena, who had been praying for him, and he came to know the welcome of his spiritual father, Ambrose. He spent the rest of his life coming to know the heavenly father—who is the combination of all that is maternal and paternal, the one who seeks us out and finds us. Augustine writes, “The prodigal son was sought out and raised up by the One who gives life to all things. And by whom was he found if not by the One who came to save and seek out what was lost?”

One could also pretty easily step into this story and understand something of the older brother. Some of us might relate to the older brother who has stayed at home and done his work—and yet gets no feast from the father. But I wonder if there’s not more than resentment in the older brother—but perhaps also, isn’t there just a little bit of envy? Notice that he assumes the younger brother has spent time with prostitutes, though there’s no other mention of that little detail in the story. Charles Wesley, the great hymn writer, once thanked God that in his youth he had escaped the more “grievous sins” and that he had not been one of the “young corruptors,” as he put it. But, he said, the reason he didn’t sin more was because of a kind of “sacred cowardice.” It was not his goodness that had kept him from sin, but the only the fear of the consequences. (Do we ever stop to wonder what trouble we might get into if there truly were no risk of getting caught?)

Today’s Gospel presents us with characters we can understand. There is the younger child who runs away, who becomes lost, and who loses himself. But then he is found, and in the finding he finds himself. He comes to himself.

There is the older child who watches all of this and doesn’t understand, who simply grows angrier and angrier and angrier, until at last the rage breaks.

But there is also the father who forgives. Jesus tells the story, “While [the younger son] was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.” And then it’s party time. “Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.”

Laetare! Rejoice. That’s the nickname of this Fourth Sunday in Lent, after the choral introit often sung: “Rejoice in gladness, after having been in sorrow, exult and be replenished.”

Henri Nouwen wrote a great little book, entitled The Return of the Prodigal Son. It’s a reflection upon the great painting of the story by Rembrandt, and also a reflection of Nouwen’s own changing experience of the painting and this story in the Gospel.

As much as he loved the painting, there was a problem in the story for Nouwen. As one who returns to God like the younger child in the parable, Nouwen was familiar with the judgment and authority and majesty of God. But he did not know where to begin when it comes to experiencing the love and mercy of God. As he puts it, “I know that I share this experience with countless others. I have seen how the fear of becoming subject to God’s revenge and punishment has paralyzed the mental and emotional lives of many people. The paralyzing fear of God is one of the great human tragedies.”

But God is beyond our experience of a human parent—even the very best mother or father we can imagine. This is a God who, like the parent in the Gospel story, shows vulnerability in being willing to forgive.

Nouwen believed that Jesus tells the parable of the lost child who is found not so we can related to the prodigal, not so we can relate to the older child, but so that we can relate to the parent; the parent who forgives.

The life of faith is a growth into spiritual adulthood. It is the business of children, after all, to grow up. Saint Paul writes, “We are children of God. And if we are children, then we are heirs, heirs of God and join heirs with Christ, provided that we share his sufferings, so as to share his glory.” (Romans 8:17)

What would the Christian church look like if it were filled with spiritual adults? The spiritual adult does not blame the problems of the church of a bishop or a few bishops, but takes responsibility for being the body of Christ. The spiritual adult in a parish does not always sit back and wait for the clergy or vestry or unnamed and unknown volunteers to do everything, but takes responsibility. And just imagine the power of a church that is filled with spiritual adults who offer forgiveness and welcome. I can’t help but wonder if one reason so few young people are in church these days has to do with the fact that so few of the adults have ever really grown up themselves. If a church offers no wisdom, no maturity, no leadership, then why should a young person bother?

Jesus told this parable to the religious leaders of his day, the Pharisees and scribes who were murmuring about the sinners who Jesus was spending all his time with. In telling them this story, he was encouraging them to grow up.

May the grace of God work on our hearts to help us to grow up in our faith. May we be brought to the place where we can offer forgiveness without reservation, generosity without question, and where the homecoming feast at the altar may be never ending.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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