“Then the father said to [his son], 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”
(Luke 15:31b, NRSV)
What title would you give the Gospel parable we heard today?
The Parable of the Prodigal Son, the story of what happens after a foolish young man extravagantly wastes his inheritance and has no recourse but to return to his father’s household?
The Parable of a Prodigal Father,the story of how a bereaved parent wastefully and extravagantly celebrates the return of said foolish young son?
The Parable of the Envious and Resentful Elder Brother,the story of how the obedient son takes bitter exception to both the wastefulness of the younger brother and the wastefulness of the father?
All of these are possible and worth exploring.
What if we called this the Parable of the Father Reconciling Estranged Siblings?*
Jesus, in the presence of devout Pharisees, who studied their Scriptures, begins telling a story by saying “A man had two sons”. Imagine that these devout Pharisees could hear in this beginning an echo the stories of Cain and Abel, or Ishmael and Isaac, or Jacob and Esau, or Joseph and his brothers? These are stories of estranged siblings told in the Hebrew Bible, the Scriptures read in the synagogues where Jesus prayed in the company of devout Pharisees. They are stories with elements of tragedy, alienation, violence, told by Hebrew sages as part of a larger account of the relationship of Israel to God.
Think of the setting in which Jesus tells the story. The Pharisees grumble because Jesus is eating with tax collectors and sinners. Have we ever grumbled inwardly over the impression that some people aren’t getting the comeuppance we think they deserve?
In the hearing of these grumblers Jesus teaches in parables the desire of the Holy One to reach lost people, to bring all into the beloved community, the reign of God. God as a shepherd seeking a lost sheep, God as a woman seeking a lost coin.
Then he tells this story which begins “A man had two sons.”
The younger son wastes his father’s inheritance in a far-off land. Reduced to nothing, with a growling stomach, he who comes home, not to what we think he may deserve, which might be an appropriate period of penance featuring a bed of straw in the hayloft, a diet of stale bread and water, and the duty to muck out the manure from the barn for the next year or two; but a party fit for royalty.
The elder son is one with whom I can easily identify. The obedient son who has stayed home and done what is expected to him is now scandalized. The story is vivid in detail. Coming in from his labors in the field, hearing the sounds of a party in full swing, and finding out from one of his father's slaves the occasion of the party, he is enraged, furious. He will not join the party.
Those who know the Bible stories might remember the murderous rage of Cain when he finds out the favor shown to Abel, Esau when he finds out the scandalous behavior of his brother Isaac, or of Joseph’s brothers toward him. Those who remember these stories might well imagine a possible scenario for the story that Jesus is telling; a scenario that is not pretty.
Jesus, after all, leaves the ending of the story open. Will the elder brother ever join the party? Will the elder brother ever share the joy of his father that a wayward son has returned? If he doesn’t, what will he do with his rage? What advice would you give the younger son in dealing with his enraged elder brother?
Jesus leaves the ending of the story open. Open for us to continue to write the story with our lives as those bound together as siblings.
The Father in this story is indeed prodigal, extravagant with grace and mercy. His mercy is prior to anything else. From afar he spies the returning son, and from afar he runs, lavishing love before the son has room to even utter a word of explanation. It’s downright scandalous to us.
From within the party the Father goes out to plead with the eldest son to come join the party. “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”
We are all with the Father. Whether elder or younger, all that is God’s is ours. As the Father says to the elder son: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”
Jesus is attempting to reconcile estranged siblings. Pharisees, tax collectors, sinners. One in the eyes of God.
What about us, who read this text in the context of Eucharist? There is no shortage with God, no appeal we can make to our worthiness or unworthiness, because in that very appeal we’d all be pleading that we are the worthy ones, and someone else the unworthy, or someone else the worthy, and we the unworthy, and in the process we would conveniently ignore our failures or exaggerate our unworthiness, and we would miss truths about ourselves and the truth about God. And so Jesus will have none of this futile effort. To God there is no distinction. All that God has is ours. We are but estranged siblings, who God will reconcile.
There is an echo of this Gospel in many places. The tag attached to the teabag that made the tea I drank as I wrote this, which reads: “When you act with compassion you will never be wrong.” The saying of the Sufi poet Rumi who wrote “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” The witness of Blessed Isaac of Syria, who wrote: “Far be it from us that we should ever think so wicked a thing as that God could become unmerciful. For God’s attributes do not change as those of mortals do.” The soulful sermon with which Michelle Alexander ends her powerful and prophetic book on race relations entitled The New Jim Crow, with the theme “All of Us, or None.”
Jesus is pleading. Welcome one another in the grace of God. Jesus is welcoming the human race to stop hating and killing one another. He is welcoming us to embrace a scandalous grace in which we all stand, in which all is promised to us who believe.
As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, it is a costly grace for us. We all have to give up something to receive it.
In our common life here at St. Paul’s, this is the reason we subscribe to the 10 Rules for Respect posted in our Great Hall and in all our classrooms. It is the reason for the new sign posted on the outside wall of the church as you enter from the street to the Great Hall. It is the reason we seek to bring into the public square something different from the toxic rage that corrupts our civic life. We do this because of the Father who desires to reconcile estranged siblings.
As we receive the Eucharist today, we need to be aware of Jesus’ appeal to us, and humbly ask that the bread he gives us today will nourish us for life in this scandalous economy of mercy and compassion, and that the wine of his love will flow into our veins.
In the words of St. Paul from today’s epistle: “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the ministry of reconciliation to us.”
So be it.
*The concept for this sermon I owe to the work of James Alison as presented by Paul Neuchterlein at http://girardianlectionary.net/reflections/year-c/lent4c