It’s a failure to launch -- It is a drama that includes family shaming, a disgraceful lifestyle, recklessness with resources, a father who bails out his son. No I am not talking about top elected officials…. and no this is not from an episode of Real Housewives.
It is a sacred and ancient story -- a parable in which the one who is lost is lifted up. And it all commences with a complaint. This made me laugh out loud. I suspect that movements and ministry alike often begin this way. A complaint comes to Jesus.
The text in Luke actually says “some people were grumbling and saying….”
We can almost feel the eyes in the room roll… People are saying, people are talking, talking bout people, I hear them whisper, you won’t believe it…
Some with power and prowess weren’t happy about the kind of people that Jesus was associating with, so chapter 15 in the Gospel of Luke begins with a complaint and then goes on with three stories in response to the criticism raised. One about lost coins, one about lost sheep and then the final one about a father and two sons. This story is most known by the title assigned to it by biblical editors, The Prodigal Son. I don’t tend to use that word, so for our sensibilities, perhaps it is more accurate to call him the self-indulgent son.
And I confess that at least for me, he is easy to loathe. Personally, I find satisfaction in the idea that things should be fair. That one's efforts should be rewarded justly and accordingly. It seems so lame to think that there is no difference between how things will end up for the one who tried to follow the rules and the one who wandered off and only thought of himself and messed it all up. It just feels wrong.
According to the customs of first century Palestine, it wasn’t just this part that was out of the ordinary. At every turn, the story challenges a custom. As one scholar writes, “Not only does the younger son reject the value of family solidarity, but he demands his inheritance before his father’s death, which is a gross insult to the father…The inheritance that the younger son demanded would have been a portion of the family’s land holdings.”1 The younger son has the gumption to ask for the cash he would receive upon his father death, up front, not for education or professional experience, rather he wants the money to go off and engage in what this translation calls dissolute living. or what another translation calls, “wild living,” or what the King James Version says is “riotous living.” Whatever labels we put it on, the son would have been a disgrace, a humiliation for the core family and those most closely connected to them.
According to cultural customs, the most likely scenario would have been for the father to claim that his son was forever dead to him. That all the family he had was right there, him and his eldest.
But when the younger son struggles in a far off place, in a time of famine and finds that his only option for survival is returning home, we are in for yet another twist.
Instead of the father shaming him and claiming that the son is forever lost and gone, he throws a party and welcomes him home.And this is where the older son cries out, “Listen… I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command…” There is a desperation in his voice…this isn’t fair.
He complains about how out of the norm it is. How this is not the tradition, not the way things have always been, not the way things are supposed to go. How could there be no difference between how things end up for the one who tried to follow the rules and the one who wandered off and thought of himself and lost it all? It just seems wrong.
He was so off track… And now, how can he simply be welcomed back?
As Daniel Deffenbaugh wrote, “The economy of such love and grace surprises us even offends us in its extravagance.”
And yet, what is so clear is that the extravagant grace extended to one, does to detract from what is available to the other.
So perhaps it is our egos that feel out of sorts by the idea that mercy matters more that justice. Or maybe it is common for those of us with enough, especially with the privilege that comes with the construction of whiteness, we tend to think of fairness as everyone getting the same portion of the pie.
We tend to think of justice as things being divided equally. Depending on our background and experience we can see ourselves more worthy of having something than others. And this is part of what I think is happening in America right now. Many of us are stuck, thinking we are the ones who are right, we are the ones who are found, we are the ones who are deserving. We are stuck, lost with the idea that what matters is all receiving the same level of place and grace…
Maybe Jesus told these stories about being lost and being found, in part to point out that there are things in life that are scarce resources, but mercy and love shouldn’t be among them. Giving a life changing provision of celebration and grace to one did not detract from the other.
It is countercultural to challenge a scarcity mentality, to challenges the idea that we are a separate and that some of us are found and more deserving of housing, hope and healing than others.
Jesus says that all of the Universe belongs -- that if we work it right, there is a place and enough nourishment and grace for each of us.
Maybe Jesus is saying, is that if we let our egos lead, all of us will be lost. Because our small selves, our fragile egos want it all to be even, as if all of us have the same history and are in the same need, but what is required for wholeness, what is needed to end structural racism and poverty, what is needed to heal our planet, what is needed is what is equitable. This is a way for each one to be seen and found. It’s easy to make these teachings about how loving and gracious God is. In fact that was what I was taught as a kid, but what if they are not a story about how God is gracious, but an invitation for us to be…beyond what we could manage on our own.
The poetry of the David Wagoner and the Gospel of Luke weave together,
“I have made this place around you. If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.”
“You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.”
“you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours…what was lost…has been found.”
Beloved of God, in a time where when some feel righteous and worthy enough to punish anyone labeled they decide is lost, let us lead with mercy. Let us work toward equity, leaning toward holy beauty. May those outside be welcomed in, let us each feel found and let radical, extravagant, abundant and amazing grace abound! May it be so. Amen.
1 Leslie J. Hoppe in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 2, Lent through Eastertide