“What’s a Father To Do?”
Luke 15:1-3, 11b – 32
Chilmark Community Church
Rev. Vicky Hanjian
March 6, 2016
This is probably one of the most familiar of Jesus’ parables. Indeed, we may be so familiar with it that we are content with what we have drawn from it. For today’s reflection I will be drawing heavily on the work of Amy-Jill Levine to take us just a little further along in our thinking about the meaning of this parable. Amy-Jill is the author of Short Stories By Jesus-The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi.
The characters in the parable are complex individuals. We have a father who loves his two sons very differently. We have an older son who seems to be the responsible one. He takes his role as the eldest seriously. We have a younger son who appears to be the epitome of irresponsibility. He takes his share of the family resources – and he leaves for part unknown.
Traditional interpretation almost universally accepts the parable as an
allegory of repentance and forgiveness. This represents a quick and easy resolution of the story – – – the wandering son who was thought to be dead has an awakening while he is munching on carob pods in a pig-sty. He gets up, dusts himself off, rehearses a speech to give to his father – and off he goes to be welcomed back with open and loving arms. The parable ends with the Father saying “….it is necessary to rejoice because your brother who was dead is alive –he was lost and now he is found.”
The problem is that when the father proclaims this resurrection speech, he and the older son are still standing out in the field – the older son refusing to come in to the celebration. There is an the unspoken question – “Now what?” sort of hanging in the air. That question leaves us without an easy resolution to the story.
Levine invites us to ask ourselves the difficult questions: What would we do if we were the elder son? Would we join the party? What might happen if the father died and the elder son was left to collect his inheritance? Keep the younger brother around? Send him off to the stables to work as a servant to the family?
What if we are the parent and one or more of our own children is lost? Is repeated pleading enough? What does a parent do to show a love to the child who cannot feel it? What happens when we learn that indulging our kids is not an effective form of love – – even if it keeps the lines of relationship and communication open?
And how are we to understand the younger son? Levine suggests that the 1st century people who heard this story would not have bought into the neat and tidy image of seeing the younger son “shattered by grace and fully repentant.” She writes “I neither like nor trust the younger son. I do not see him doing anything other than what he has always done – take advantage of his father’s love.”
So – we have a complex picture of a family. The elder brother would be within his legal rights to discount his younger brother – send him off to be a day laborer in the service of the estate. But as Levine points out “this may be a legally acceptable move, but it is one without honor, mercy or concern for the father’s wishes. When personal resentment overrides familial and cultural values, we all lose.”
The younger brother is beloved. As lazy and as indulged as he is, he is a member of the family. He cannot be ignored. To dismiss him would be to dismiss the father as well.
The father loves both sons. He reaches out to them both because the family is not whole.
This parable resists the easy interpretation of repentance and forgiveness: “In this household, no one has expressed sorrow at hurting another, and no one has expressed forgiveness.” When it comes to families, there factors other than repentance and forgiveness that hold us together.”
Levine directs our attention to the two parables that precede this one – the parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin. These two clearly are not stories about repentance and forgiveness. Neither lost sheep nor lost coins have the ability to repent. The rejoicing in these two parables comes because of happiness at finding something that was lost. The shepherd rejoices at finding and restoring the lost sheep to the flock. The woman celebrates because her broken coin collection has been restored to wholeness.
Levine suggests that if we can just pause a little before reading repentance and forgiveness into this parable, it may give us something more profound than the familiar and often repeated messages. “The parable provokes us with simple exhortations: Recognize that the one you have lost may be right in your own household. Do whatever it takes to find the lost and then celebrate with others, both so that you can share the joy and so that the others will help prevent the recovered from ever being lost again. Don’t wait until you receive an apology; you may never get one. Don’t wait until you can muster the ability to forgive; you may never find it. Don’t stew in your sense of being ignored, for there is nothing that can be done to retrieve the past. Instead, go have lunch. Go celebrate and invite others to join you. If the repenting and the forgiving come later, so much the better. And if not, you will have done what is necessary. You have begun a process that might lead to reconciliation. You will have opened a second chance for wholeness.”
The word “prodigal” can mean “recklessly extravagant” or “extravagance characterized by wasteful expenditure.” “Prodigal” describes the father in the story as much as it does the son – the father who gives away half the family estate – the father who welcomes back the errant son – the father who leaves his guests to go into the field to plead with the son who is estranged – – a prodigal, recklessly extravagant father who just wants his family to be whole again – who wants all his children around the table. Sounds like a description of God to me.
Finding the lost takes work. It is the work of God – it is our work. Wherever we are on our various life journeys, the seeking out, the repair, the reconciliation, all are the work we are continually prompted by the Spirit to do. We may never be able to complete the task successfully, but that does not mean we are excused from trying.
Sharing in communion together draws us closer to one another and closer to the loving power that energizes and supports and encourages us to be lovers and seekers of the lost. Through the grace of the story telling of Jesus we can learn here at the table what it takes to be forgivers and reconcilers. For just a few moments in time, we glimpse what it is like to be completely at peace in the presence of God’s hospitality – – back home as it were, for the feasting and celebration.