Sunday, March 27, 2022
The Parable of the Loving Father
The Rev. Mark D. Wilkinson, Rector
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Katy TX 77493
Today we get a portion of one of Jesus’ major teachings. Unfortunately, the lectionary makes a jump in the middle of today’s gospel. We have the opening line of the passage and then the jump to the Prodigal Son. The prodigal son is the third of a set of three parables. Each one builds on the previous one and the prodigal son is the climax of the three stories.
The first parable is the one about the lost sheep where the shepherd leaves the 99 to find the one missing sheep. The second is the parable of the woman with the lost coin her turns her house upside down to find the coin and then celebrates with her neighbors when she is successful. The focus on both of these is not so much on what is lost for neither the sheep or the coin will return on its own, but on the one doing the searching. This is important to remember as we move forward for each story builds on the other in what theologians call a chiastic structure.
In part this focus on the one doing the searching tells me that this story is probably misnamed. In reality the name probably should be the forgiving father, the generous father, the loving father. For as you will see there are really two prodigal sons in this story. Jesus wants us to focus on the loving father.
People often wonder who they are in this story, and it seems that many identify with the older brother. Now there are plenty who identify with the younger brother, but most people tell me they can identify with the older brother. I have rarely had anyone say, “Oh I’m the father in this story.” Maybe, just maybe the father is the character that should be the focus of our attention.
In Godly Play parables are always kept in a gold box. When the storyteller gets ready to start they begin by saying, “I wonder what is in here?” Then they begin to unpack the box. So too we have to unpack any parable. This parable, like any parable has multiple levels and multiple meanings.
There is often a temptation to divide everything into a dualistic mind set. This person is totally right and the other is totally wrong. The truth is none of us is all one or the other but a mishmash of good and not so good. That is human nature, and this is part of this parable.
Notice how the passage starts. The Pharisees and Scribes are grumbling complaining that Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with them! Clearly they think they are totally in the right by being scrupulous in their observance of the law. That close adherence to the law is one of the things that characterized Pharisees. In fact, it was their duty to set the perfect example in keeping all the Kosher laws and behaviors. Yet in doing so Jesus certainly finds plenty to condemn because it is all action and nothing internal or spiritual. He is setting these two groups up for a serious lesson.
On one of my retreats I spent the better part of a day on this parable and wrote a retelling of the story. I retold the story from the view of the younger son as he returned home, physically dirty, ritually unclean, fearful and remorseful. In fact he was totally ashamed, convinced that he was not worth being loved.
I imagined a conversation between the younger son and the father’s personal slave Reuben. The son was in a bath getting cleaned up by Reuben since he was quite filthy. Now he would have had to take a ritual bath as well, but this one is just a plain old bath to clean off the filth before he put on the new robe his father had given him. In the exchange between slave and son I imagined that the slave spoke about how much the father was grieved by the son’s actions. There is the disrespect of demanding his inheritance, which in effect said, “Dad you are already dead to me, give me my money.”
Reuben his slave says “The day you left he was in this very tub. I’ve never seen him so upset. He told me that he did not understand why you had done this, and he was deeply hurt. Oh, he was disappointed and yes, a little angry when you left, but mostly his heart was broken. Yet he has prayed every day for your return. Of course, he is overjoyed to see you back. His prayers have been answered”
“What you do not understand, nor do you know is that he sent people to look for you. He found you and knows all the things that you have been doing. But he told the people he sent after you to be patient and wait to see if they could talk to you, bring you to your senses. In fact he knew about the day when you finally woke up in that pigpen and decided to come home. He knew that some day soon you would return.” He’s been waiting for you.
Now I suspect as the father mourned the loss his younger son, the older son continued to work hard and may have been very angry at his younger brother. Was he thinking the thoughts that came pouring out while the party for the younger son was going on? I’m working so hard and dad just seems obsessed with mourning my jerk of a brother. Why doesn’t he notice how hard I’m working? I suspect many thoughts like this may have been going through his mind. I suspect he had been harboring those thoughts the whole time and the resentment just kept building until he exploded when his dad is overjoyed at his brother’s return.
You see what many fail to consider is that there are two prodigal sons in this story. The older son is as much a sinner as the younger son. His resentment and anger directed at the father causes him to treat his father in an angry and disrespectful manner. Just as the younger son sinned by breaking his relationship with his dad, the older son is just as lost to his father as his younger brother was. Interestingly, Jesus leaves the story at this point with the father’s plea to the older son to be reconciled, yet we never know how this ends. We are left with a repaired relationship and with a broken one. It is worth noting that I believe Jesus means the older son to be a metaphor for the Pharisees and Scribes. I’m equally sure they figured that out as well.
Pastor Steve once again hit the nail on the head in a post early this week. In one of his emailed meditations, he wrote the following:
His father came out and began to plead with him.
both of you,
come back to me.
You have distanced yourself,
walked away from the family.
I want you.
My grace I give you,
my feast I give you,
You are neither sinner nor righteous,
you are Beloved.
Nothing have you earned or forfeited:
my love is a gift.
All of my love
Come in and feast with me.
Silence your impudent mind
and come in to me.
Here is my joy in you,
all of you, together.
Let me pour myself out at this table for you.
Come, belong to me.
The parable of the Loving Father is about God’s grace and God’s mercy. The Parable of the Loving Father is an invitation to each and every one of us, no matter which brother we may be, to come home, come embrace and be embraced by the one who loves us. The Parable of the Loving Father is an invitation for us to claim the fact that we are God’s beloved children no matter what. No exception, no conditions. It is all about grace, mercy and most importantly God’s love. Come join the party, join the feast, your place is waiting at the table.