Today’s Gospel story is one we know so well, we all assume we know what the text means. But, do we know? Stories we all know and love often are left un-prodded, unchallenged, and uninteresting. Let’s look again . . .
This story is about a prodigal father. He has two sons. The older son knows how the world works. The younger son knows how to work the system. The one son is a classic oldest child. We all know that oldest children share certain traits. They all begin life with rookie parents. Because they are rookie parents, they make rookie mistakes. So, the oldest children have to push against the limits. They have to learn how to work and grow up much faster. In this story, the older son is dutiful, hardworking and loyal to his father.
Younger children inherit parents who are veterans, and quite frankly, like veterans their parents are somewhat tired. These old-timers have relaxed quite a bit. Younger children also inherit parents who are going through the parenting process for the last time. This is the last child who will call them “mommy” and “daddy.” This is the last child for whom diapers will be changed, who will learn to walk, to ride a bike, and of course, who will push parental buttons. Younger children learn to play their parents like a fiddle. And they are good at it. In our parable today, the younger son is a master fiddler.
Richard Swanson is the oldest child in his family. He tells a story which sounds like it comes out of every one of our households. When it came time for the ninth grade dance, Richard’s rookie parent gingerly stepped up to their notion of what his curfew should be. Then they stood firm by what they established. He argued that none of his friends had to be home that early. His father was adamant that Richard had to be home by 10:00pm. Back and forth they went. Finally, his father got up and walked out of the room. Conversation over.
Two years later, Richard’s sister entered the ninth grade. When the dance came, his parents argued with her, but having gone through Richard’s ninth grade experience, they set the curfew at 10:30 p.m. - an equitable compromise. Richard watched and said nothing, knowing that it wouldn’t change anything if he mentioned this was unfair. His younger sister was also watching.
One year later, Richard’s baby sister was in ninth grade. The dance party came along. His sister had watched this drama twice and had taken mental notes. When the curfew conversation came up, she talked about how fun dances were. Again, her parents sought to talk about the curfew and she mentioned her favorite teacher was going to be a chaperone and she hoped they could talk about the book the class was reading sometime that night. (After all, it was a “Classic”). Finally his parents insisted they talk about the curfew. The parents talked and then they negotiated with themselves. When all was said and done, his sister let them talk her into coming home at midnight, an hour and a half later than his other sister and two hours later than Richard. His sister argued that she should probably come home earlier. But they stood firm and insisted midnight would be better.
Richard comments: “I stood there with my mouth hanging open as I watched a master at work. She had my parents arguing for her to stay out later. It was beautiful.” (Richard Swanson in Provoking the Gospel of Luke , Pilgrim Press, Cleveland, Ohio, 2006, pp. 128-130).
The older brother in Luke’s parable was also standing there with his mouth open when the younger son convinces their father that it was a good idea that they pretend together that the father was dead so that the son could fictively inherit his share of the property. That was the only way this story could work. With a percentage of the farm sold off, the younger son takes off to spend his father’s hard earned inheritance. That’s how big brother saw it . . . And he was right.
It wasn’t long before the younger son had blown all his inheritance on wild adventures in a far away land. It says, “he came to himself.” In other words, he figured out the bottom line of hitting bottom! It doesn’t say he repented of wasting his father’s lifetime of work on “easy street.” It doesn’t say he confessed his sin. It doesn’t say he had went to church or synagogue and found religion. It doesn’t say he said a little prayer to God for the bad things he had done. It doesn’t say he turned his life over to God or turned around in any way.
All it says is he recognized he was hungry, out of cash, and perhaps most humiliating for a Jew, he was feeding pigs who were eating better than he was. With that, he rehearses his confessional speech to his father and heads home. As he reaches what’s left of the farm, his father sees him and runs to his side. The speech he has been muttering under his breath the whole way home only gets half way out of his mouth when his father, having seen him at a distance and having run to meet him, declares, “My lost son was dead and is alive again. He was lost and is found . . . Let’s party!”
But, before we get too excited about the party, and the father’s love, let’s remember the prodigal father has two sons. The older son comes home from yet another hard day of work and hears the music playing and smells the unfamiliar, but glorious smell of a cookout, and he asks one of the slaves what is going on. (I would not want to be the one to answer that question). “Your brother has come home, so your dad is throwing a party!”Big brother shares no delight in the return of little brother. All he can see, and smell, and hear is a future of smaller estate, harder work, sale of more his future inheritance for a drunken fool of a little brother. He sees his brother now living off of his inheritance. And he sees his father being played again.
Baby brother has come home - not to penance, but to privilege. It’s bad enough that he has wasted father’s estate, but he isn’t required to do anything for his wasteful ways. Rather, he is celebrated. Do I hear, “Injury added to insult?”
When the older son confronts his dad, the father listens to everything he screams. There is nothing rehearsed in big brother’s explosion (although he must have thought these words inside his head a thousand times). He lets it all hang out. The dutiful son, the loyal son, the obedient son finally loses it! He has been good. He has followed orders. He has been faithful. He has done everything right - as opposed to everything wrong.
And dad takes it all in. He has no angry response. He has no lecture about honoring your father. He has lost his younger son to a life of waste and recklessness. Now he is watching his older son unravel before his eyes and is seeing him becoming lost to anger and self-righteousness. The father’s response is to simply loves his oldest son in return. He says, “Son, you are always with me. Everything I have is yours . . . but your brother (not “my son”) was dead and is alive, he was lost and has been found.”
The sacrament of coming home is experienced by both sons in this story. Each one returns to his father - one from a distant land having fallen on his face and the other from a nearby field having yielded to envy and anger. Coming Home is a sacrament because each of us wanders somehow, some way in our lives. Each of us squanders something of the unconditional love we have received. Whether through recklessness or self-righteousness; waywardness or anger, we too often leave the places of our lives in which we have known love and we lose our way in the wilderness. When we return to the embrace of God’s amazing grace, we know in our hearts, we have come home.
I have been thinking a lot about coming home on the fourth anniversary of the Iraq war. The March madness of 2003 took us into Baghdad in what has become a quagmire of civil war. At the time we did not know what lay ahead. But, today, we have a much better idea of March madness in 2008. For 3,000 plus American soldiers, coming home has tragically been to a revelry of bugles and flowers surrounding the box with their bodies in it. For 50,000+ other soldiers, coming home has been through hospitals for wounds of war - mental and physical - both lasting a lifetime. For 500,000 Iraqis dead or maimed for life - they will never go home again to life as it was. For two million more Iraqis, wandering far from home - in Syria or Jordan or Kuwait - refugees of violence and increasing civil war, home is a distant memory and perhaps a future dream.
Coming home for warriors and civilians caught in the crossfire is never the same again. Warriors and victims of war often become refugees in search of home.
Similarly, what do we do when we have been cast away from home? When we have been told, “leave and don’t come back until you see things my way?” OR . “Don’t come back until you deny who you are and have changed your very nature,” OR “don’t come back until you have made something of yourself!” How do we find home in such a broken estate as all of this? Coming home to a place where no one waits with open arms, no one seeks to love and reconcile broken relationships and no one seems to care - coming home to this doesn’t seem worth the journey.
Home is ultimately, where your heart is. It is the place where you find God. I often say on Sunday mornings, “if you are seeking a church home, we hope you consider First Church. But even it is only for today, we hope you feel welcome in our community of faith.”
We struggle much of the time to be the father in this story. We struggle to welcome the wayward traveler home. We struggle to love unconditionally. Perhaps we have so many homeless people in our society because we failed to feel and share the unconditional love of God.
It may be with a cup of water or coffee. It may be with a kind word and loving smile. It may be with an embrace of God’s grace. It may be with a “thank you” for the love and service some man or woman has given to this country in times of war. It may be with shelter for a refugee or a homeless man, woman, or child.
Whatever it may be, it is time to reconcile broken relationships - with siblings, with parents, with those whom you have a broken relationship. It is time to run to those who are reckless and self-righteous and throw your arms around them and seek to heal the hurts of this world. Now is the time. Because after all is said and done, life (and yes, eternal life as well), is all about coming home. Amen.