Today’s scripture reading is a familiar story. It's a story that has permeated its way through culture. It’s one of those parables that are often taught in Sunday school and shared over and over again.
And I love this.
I take great comfort in the old familiar story.
I am far more likely to reread the same story over and over again than to read something new because I know the story and know who to root for in the story and how it ends. There are no longer surprises in stories that you know well inside and out.
I know which characters to fall in love with and which ones I will never like. I find myself relating to some people in a story and other characters are too complex for me to ever understand.
When we know a story well, the in and outs of the plots, We to know what chapters to skip because they’re boring or too scary. We know how it ends before it begins.
This kind of deep knowledge of a story also limits our perspectives on it. Sometimes, when we know a story this well, our views, become limited by our own interpretations, our needs and desires and we come to the story already knowing what we will get from it. The parable of the prodigal son is this kind of story for me. It's a story that many of us have heard and read so many times before that we know the conclusion of before it starts.
It's easy at least for me to let today’s Bible passage pass by, already knowing how it ends. To sit with closed ears ready to move onto it the message of Gods love. Knowing that the loving parent is almost always thought of to be some kind of God metaphor and that the children are us. We are going find that God’s unconditional love means that no matter how we fall we can always come back to God. I forget about the journey that takes us there.
In the season of Lent, we are often asked to think about the ways that we have fallen short and not lived up or into the faith that we have been called. It’s time for us to go more slowly, think more critically, and introspective about the ways that God is working in our lives.
I want to invite us to see what happens when we take time to pause and reflect on this passage from Luke. If we go a bit slower not jumping to Gods unconditional love of which we are all called to participate in and part take of. What if we stop before then and reflect on what it takes to get there.
What happens when we look and listen bit closer to the first half of the text. Not assuming we know what's next but sinking deep it this story of a father and his two sons and where their lives take them.
Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’
So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate”.
While I was sitting with this text the refrain of the youngest son stood out to me:
“Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”
This confessional statement made by the son is an act that is done after he realizes the ways that he has departed from the care and protection of his father.
He realizes the hurt he has done to himself and the ways that he has cut himself off. There such raw emotion in this plea for me.
The emotion of someone who is suffering and humiliated. Someone who no longer sees’ themselves as worthy. And yet wishes to be seen as fully human once again.
Before he experiences this despair, The youngest son had taken all that was his and left. For a new country, an adventure.
An idea that carries so much promise.
Something that is easier to do on our own. We are told in the passage that spends all that he has in dissolute living. While “dissolute living” carries a negative image within the text.
What would that lifestyle actually have looked like?
In a way, I don’t picture his “dissolute living” being that far away from the ways that pop culture and mass media portray an ideal life today. A way of living extravagantly and outside the meaning of all but the most elite in the world.
There is a feeling that in order to be successful in the world today. Each of us have to be individual contributing members of society. People who are not only able to survive on one's own but able to flourish without the support of others.
The United States cultural system prides itself on ideas of being self-made. Our individual worth is tied to our abilities to be contributing to a consumer culture. One that lifts up material goods as the direct source for the fulfillment of the individual in a way that drives people to leave community and take all they have, never to return, again.
This kind of culture motivates moments in life when it necessary to live life on one's own. But like many of us have experienced, this kind of materialistic consumption of the world turns out to be much harder the bargained for.
The pain of this kind of life does not only look like the hunger of the famine that youngest son experienced, a hunger that many people across the globe and in this very city perhaps in this very room have experienced.
We should not wait until we are experiencing the physical pain of hunger or the embodied experiences of those who are oppressed by the privileges that many of us experience in order to recognize our separation from sources of life that sustain who we are as people and parts of God’s creation.
That these experiences of pain are not the threshold into the kin-dom of God. That by participating in a culture that prioritizes individual pleasure over the celebration of God’s full creation. We too have separated ourselves from the holiness of God.
The prodigal son shows us that in the moments when we are experiencing this pain and separation from God. We have to take a risk.
We have to risk acknowledging that we are imperfect people. People who have participated in life in ways that we have not been called to. By taking the time to name for ourselves that we have done something wrong. That by living into the materialistic world that celebrates the individual as a consumer of goods and naming our own faults. We confess the ways that we have participated in creating distance between our knowledge of God’s love and our lived experiences.
Through these experiences when at our lowest points searching for the right answer becomes most critical.
It is at this moment that the youngest son looked back both at his current situation and recalled the experiences of his father's hospitality before he left. In moments when we are reaching out of our isolation, reaching out for the humblest signs of God’s unending love that littlest nuggets of hope are given to us. That through our continual process of confessional and recognition of our faults. We are brought out of a world where our worth is tied to anything other then God’s unfailing love for us.
That when we are told that production is the only source for worth we are offered an alternative. By acknowledging the ways that we have fallen short of who we were created to be.
We are able to recognize God’s love and grace as something that we are worthy of coming back to.
Not something that we are entitled to rather something that we receive as part of God’s hospitality and the welcome provided through God’s love. That through this welcome we might end up being surprised by the reception that we receive. By recognizing where we have fallen short we are able to better and more fully understand the grace of God and her unending love.