If the parable of the Prodigal Son had been recorded in the Gospel of Matthew it would have begun, “The kingdom of heaven is like this.” I think all of my life I have been telling this story as if it was written by Matthew. If it was a kingdom parable, we would only be given the choice of relating to one of the two sons. Being the eldest sibling in my family I have found it quite easy to understand the dilemma of the oldest. There are expectations placed on the first born. We are expected to toe the line. We are supposed to be a role model. And when our younger siblings fail to live up to the example we created, we are held responsible. I understand the eldest staying outside in the barn as the return of the prodigal is celebrated. It is great that the sinner realized his waywardness but why throw a party? Is that the suitable action to curb inappropriate behavior?
Some of you may be younger sons or daughters. You might still remember those days of care free behavior knowing that whatever mess you left behind someone else will clean up. Anne Lamont has sold a million books telling her story of being the prodigal. We love her books because they are about redemption. Someone had the courage and guts to clean her up, help get her sober and set her on a new path. And when Anne stumbled in the gutter, there was always a father-like figure that helped her start day one all over again. Stories like that make our personal redemptions possible. If the prodigal son can wade out of the pig slop, if Anne Lamont can leave a bottle of whisky unopened, by God I can pick myself up and head toward a heavenly destination. Whether we are the first or second son or daughter, we know if God is waiting out there ready to forgive, we can make something out of our hopeless lives.
It sort of makes you wish Matthew had included the prodigal’s story in his gospel. The problem is he didn’t. The story belongs to Luke and none of Luke’s retelling Jesus’ parable begin with the tagline, “The Kingdom of heaven is like.” Luke simply states, “A man had two sons.”
I suspect we all had a Sunday School teacher who told us that parables are an earthly story with a heavenly meaning. I went on the internet and typed in Earthly story with a heavenly meaning and I got page after page of explanation concerning the parables of Jesus. One site even offered flash cards to help with the parables. I could have used those when I took New Testament in Seminary.
But what if our Sunday School teacher was mistaken? What if originally the parables of Jesus were earthly stories with earthly meanings? What if the story of the prodigal really was just about a father and two sons? What if the role of the father is placed upon us? This creates all kinds of problems. If God is the Father then we not only expect God to forgive, we assume God’s forgiveness comes with none of the complications that muddy the waters of our efforts at reconciliation. But what if we, as the father, or the mother, or just a friend, are asked to confront the prodigal?
I was reading an article by Cameron Murchinson on this parable. His conclusion is, “Because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus we no longer to regard anyone from merely a human point of view. Insider/outsider, clean/unclean, initiated/uninitiated: such categories no longer work. God has instigated a new creation. We are summoned to see that when those who are lost are found, the work of reconciliation begins. We are summoned to this work and are encouraged to enter into its deep joy.”
I know Cam and highly respect his opinion, but forgiveness is just not that easy. We all have one or more than likely a dozen stories where someone has hurt us. Being high minded folks, we the wounded might initiate a conversation that leads to reconciliation. But it comes with a price. How often have you spoken the words, “I forgive”, but silently vowed, “I will not forget.” That is another one of those phrases we probably learned in Sunday School. In case you are curious, it is not in the Bible either.
But the Bible is not the only book I study. I once read if I refuse to forgive I am choosing to hold in all my anger and bitterness that the actions have created. I know when I am angry I am irritable, impatient, and certainly distracted. I know the older I get the less I enjoy drama. I know sometimes a conversation with the person who has hurt me reveals an injury that they have been harboring. And I also know that sometimes there is an ache so deep that a folksy parable doesn’t quite serve as an antidote.
I give thanks to folks like Desmond Tutu who wrote, “I have a dream where ugliness, poverty, war, greed, and disharmony are changed into their glorious counterparts of laughter, joy, justice, and compassion.”
I appreciate Francis Bacon saying, “I agree with Jesus that we are to forgive our enemies. But let’s not forget to also forgive our family and friends.”
I chuckle when I remember Oscar Wilde said, “Always forgive your enemies, nothing annoys them so much.”
I wish I were as clever as Mark Twain who wrote, “Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.”
Yet, when the rubber hits the road, no image on forgiveness is more powerful than the one found in the 15th chapter of Luke. A young boy, broken by his own appetites runs toward the place he once called home. On the porch waits a father, grief stricken that his son left, angry that a fortune has been lost, anxious for his son’s safety, furious that the prodigal has caused him such pain and yet still in love with the one who bears his name.
How hard it must be for God to love us. Yet sometimes we understand God’s consternation. We see the prodigal running our direction. A million scenarios run through our mind as to what we are going to do next. Thanks be to God, once in a while, we get it right. Amen.