Fourth Sunday in Lent
Luke 15: 1-3, 11b-32
The English word, prodigal, comes from the Latin, prōdigus, wasteful. Here we have this story Jesus tells about the “prodigal son” who wastes his life away until he comes to his senses. I would say this is more than a story about a son; this is like a five-part mini drama.
First, there is son who wastes his inheritance and the family’s good name and goes off to spend away his inheritance. This sounds to me a very familiar story. Whether someone has literally received their inheritance in advance – while one’s parents are still alive – or whether someone has simply squandered or taken for granted what has been handed them in life, this sounds familiar. So many times I have heard some adult say something very generous and appreciative about their mother or father, something they had not appreciated when they were a child. Now as adult, their perspective has changed, and they feel so deeply thankful, so humbled by what they were given in their childhood by their parents. Even if someone’s upbringing were a “mixed bag,” as we say (and which is true for most people), so many people “come to their senses” (like this prodigal son) with the clarity of perspective and see what they either took, or took for granted, in their upbringing, and which has made all the difference.
Secondly, there are actually two prodigal sons, because there is also this older brother. His issue is jealousy and resentment. Resentment because of what his younger sibling got away with… so obvious to this older brother, but obviously not his oblivious parent. This, too, sounds very familiar. The older brother is indignant about his insolent younger sibling and about the naiveté of his father. He is also jealous, it sounds to me. The older brother suffers from the first-child syndrome – overly responsible, typically – and resentful of what his younger sibling has gotten away with. This dynamic gets played out among many families and in many hierarchical systems. In academic institutions, this dynamic shows up between upper and lower classmen, between graduate and undergraduate students, and within the ranks of the faculty. It shows up in industry and business when a senior or seasoned employee chides a newer hire for how easy things are these days. “Back in my day, we had to do such-and-such or face this-and-that. You don’t know how good you’ve got it now…” –That kind of language, the language of resentment. And this often cloaks the unexpressed language of jealousy, someone wishing they could get away with something that a subordinate has pulled off. This report of jealousy and resentment sounds very familiar to me.
The third piece of this story is about Jesus. The Gospel of Luke remembers Jesus’ telling this story. Why? I’m not asking ‘why’ in terms of “where in the world did Jesus ever come up with this story line… because, as I’m saying, I think these dynamics are very familiar generation-to-generation, then and now. Rather, I am asking why does Jesus tell this story? Because I think this is, firstly, Jesus’ own story. Phillips Brooks, the great Boston preacher and bishop, said that “all sermons are autobiographical.” I=m inclined to think it is true, that sermons do have a tendency to be autobiographical, and that this may well be one of them for Jesus. We have here Jesus’ telling a rather extreme story to push a point about the hoped-for reconciliation of a father with his sons. That we know. But from where in Jesus’ memory did this story come? Could it possibly be that Jesus himself identified with the prodigal son? Jesus, as a prodigal son?
I assume that Jesus’ identity was no more handed to him than yours was to you. That Jesus had no more a roadmap for navigating his life than you have had for yours. That Jesus had a “family of origin” with as much blessing and as much baggage as you do. That, indeed, he was precocious, but that his precocity came at an enormous personal cost. That he was bright enough, gifted enough, connected enough, handsome enough to fit in, to look like he fit in… but there was always this part of him that was different, enough different to breed its own peculiar kind of loneliness.
Jesus obviously had a family with great designs for his life. He came from a culture which clearly presumed a certain path that his life would take… very little of which seems to have fit him. If he were supposed to be anything of what some had predicted he could become or should become, it would have been nice to have had better preparation, to have been born in a better town, to have come from better “stock.” What would it have been like for him to have a father, Joseph, whom he really couldn’t call his Papa? (Joseph was actually his step father.) And then there’s his mother and this crazy story about how she got pregnant with him, absolutely unbelievable. You may now believe this story about the “Virgin Mary,” but that story would not have been believable to hardly anyone in Jesus’ own lifetime (certainly not during his formative years), nor would it be believable today, if we heard a young pregnant girl say she got pregnant by the Holy Spirit. For the child Jesus, in his own day, that’s a lot of “baggage” to grow up with, very complicated. Everyone else Jesus’ age had gotten on with life long before Jesus did at age 30 when he begins his public ministry. Thirty years is an awfully long time to be “finding yourself” when you’re trying to get in sync with your sense of personal destiny. In the gospels, where we hear people say such things as “What good can come out of all this?” or “How can this be,” I’m sure that Jesus was saying these things to himself, too, long before anyone else. What good can come out of this? It is very hard to grow up. It’s true for all of us, and it was certainly also true for Jesus. And I think he spent an amount of time being lost. Without a clue. Without a hope. That=s my hunch because when Jesus does find his place, his voice, his identity, he teaches by telling stories, I believe that comes from his trying to make meaning of his own life=s experience.
One theme to which Jesus returns in his stories, again and again, is about being lost. I think that Jesus knew what it was to be lost about who he was to be and what he was to become. I think his full identity eluded him for most of his life, even up to the last minutes of his life. Jesus tells stories about being lost. He talks about a lost sheep; lost coins; lost treasures buried in the ground, lost relationships, like with this father and his two sons. And I’m saying that I think this is also Jesus’ own story. I can’t help but imagine that Jesus faced terrific temptations to run away, to screw up, to not to have to be so responsible; perhaps terrific temptations of jealousy toward those who seemed to have an easier shot at life, who were, maybe, “normal,” who could get away with being wild and reckless. He must have faced temptations of resentment towards others who didn’t have to work as hard as he was to figure it out and to be faithful and dutiful. It was not fair, not just, not possible for life to be so hard. Jesus didn’t ask to be the Messiah. After all!) Jesus tells stories about being lost because, I believe, he knew what it was to be lost. Though he eventually could say about himself that he was “the way and the truth and the life,” he did not come to that identity, that certainty, easily or automatically. I think he spent a lot of his formative years absolutely “clueless,” as the kids say. Even to the last moments of his life on the cross, we hear Jesus working out his identity and his relationship with the God whom he calls “Father”: “Why Oh why have you forsaken me?” Jesus cries out. I think the stories that Jesus tells are his stories, including this story about the prodigal sons. It’s his story which he shares with us. Jesus, who finally found his place, and found his voice, and has found his way into our hearts as our Savior had to have as real a life as we do or he cannot be our Savior. Saint Athanasius, the great fourth-century Bishop of Alexandria, said that “Jesus cannot save what he did not assume.”(1) And I assume that Jesus’ life was as real and complicated and blessed as yours or he cannot be your Savior, that you, in some way, need to be rescued. If Jesus is to be our Savior – that is “to seek [us] and to save [us when we are] lost,”(2) then he will have to know where to come looking for us. And the reason, I would say, that he can find us, lost as we are prone to be, is because he’s known where to look for us… because he=s been there and is well acquainted with this kind of lonely suffering.(3)
I’m calling this story about the prodigal sons a five-part drama: the runaway younger son; the resentful and jealous older son; Jesus, the story teller; and us. We all are the fourth part of this story. This is our own story. What we read here in the Gospel according to Luke is just a few paragraphs long. For that matter, the entire New Testament, which gives witness to the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, is not all that long, not for someone who lived 33 or so years. What has been remembered and recorded in what we call the Canon of Scripture, was preserved because it rings true, and down through the centuries. This story about the “prodigal sons” is an every-person story. Your story. That’s why it is remembered in the gospels.
The fifth part of this mini drama is about God. God knows and loves children, which we all are, whatever age. Take this story which Jesus tells about himself, and about the prodigal sons, and about you, and about God as an invitation to claim your own birthright, your own history, and your own destiny within the alluring love of God, you being God’s child, whom God welcomes, always.
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