March 10, 2013 – Fourth Sunday in Lent
It is curious to me that we generally call this story “The Prodigal Son.” Prodigal means wasteful or recklessly extravagant, lavishly abundant. A long time ago I heard someone say this story should really be called “The Prodigal Father.” The younger son in the story has an episode of reckless living but the heart of the story is the father who loves recklessly and lavishly. Some would accuse him of loving wastefully. It is this prodigal love of the father that is the heart of this story.
As I’ve been turning the story over and over in my heart and mind the past few weeks, I keep coming back to the profound desire of the father in this parable that both of his children would come home. And his amazing perseverance to welcome them home.
Robert Frost said, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” Others have said home is where your heart is. “Home is where someone is waiting for you.”1 Or one of my favorites, “Home is where you belong.”2
Home was not where the younger son thought he belonged. He was itching to get out. He told his dad he wished he was dead; that’s the essence of what he was saying when he asked for his portion of the inheritance. The neighbors would remember him as the boy who brought shame upon his father and their community. The younger son went out to be the boss of his own life and do whatever he wanted to do. And he did. Until his money ran out. Then desperate, with no friends or family to turn to, he hired on as a farm hand for a pig farmer. Now if that isn’t a long ways from home: for a Jewish kid to tend the pigs of a Gentile is about as far from home as you can go.
One day, the younger brother, while feeding the pigs who had more to eat than he did, came to himself. I love that phrase in the story. He came to himself. Up to this point he had been separated from his true self. And on this particular day he woke up.
He makes a plan to return home but he’s certain his father would never welcome him as a son again; he’d shamed and humiliated his father beyond redeeming. So the younger son begins the long walk home rehearsing his speech offering to be a servant if his dad will allow it.
Now we don’t know how long the younger son was gone. But we know the father never stopped looking for his son to return. Because while the son was still far down the road, his father caught a glimpse of a something–someone–familiar. And his father took off running down the road to meet him. A completely undignified scene. No first century Palestinian father would run, sandals slapping the ground, robes flying out behind him. The neighbors would have thought he had lost his mind. Certainly to go greet his disloyal son who had brought shame on all of them.
But none of that deters the father. He sees his lost son coming home and his heart is filled with compassion. He throws his arms around his son and kisses him. The son begins his speech, “Father, I have sinned…” but the father doesn’t let him finish and he doesn’t even respond. Instead he orders his servants to make preparations for a party because the one who was lost is now found.
Several people writing on this parable say that the party was not really for the son who has returned alive but for the neighbors who would shun him for his shameful actions toward his father. The party was a means for the son to be welcomed back into the community after spurning its customs and values.3 And for the compassion and forgiveness of the father to be experienced by everyone in the community.
While all this is going, the older brother is seething. He has followed the rules and done what he was supposed to do and yet his good-for-nothing brother shows up and his dad goes crazy. The older brother is so mad he won’t step foot into the house to join the party. So the father, going against the rules of Middle Eastern hospitality, leaves all his guests in the house and goes out to see his older son. He doesn’t make excuses for the younger son and he doesn’t scold the older one. Instead he reaches out with his bountiful love. There is enough to go around, he says. You, too, are my beloved child.
You see? This is not a story primarily about a lost child. There are actually two lost children in the story but the heart of the story is about the parent who has an abundance of love for both of them. A parent who runs out of the house to welcome a child who has come home–even a child who has shamed and humiliated him. A parent who lays custom aside and leaves the house to urge a child to come home. This father longs for both of his children to return to the love and care that is abundant in this home. Because in this home all are welcome and all are made whole.
Have you ever longed for home? I don’t mean a house and I don’t mean stuff to live with. I mean a home where you belong. Where someone welcomes you home. A place where you don’t always have to be the responsible adult or teenager. A place where you can set down your responsibilities and burdens. A place where you don’t have to guard your heart in order to get through, because you’re trying so hard to provide for others and live up to expectations and make everyone happy. A place where you can let your heart be open. A place where you can cry in grief and laugh in joy. The grief and joy that you actually feel.
Maya Angelou said, “The ache for home lives in all of us.”
But the home we grew up in–or perhaps the one we live in now–is not always a home in the true sense of a place where you belong. A place where you are welcomed and made whole. A place where your true self can show up and your heart can safely be open. Sometimes home has to be something and someplace different than the physical space you live.
The first question of the Heidelberg Catechism, one of the credal statements of the Reformation, is: What is your only comfort, in life and in death? The answer: That I belong–body and soul, in life and in death–not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.
Presbyterian minister and author Sara Juengst writes, “Home is where we belong. We belong to God. Therefore, God is our heart’s true home…The goal of our [life] is to be at home, to be with God, to be made whole and complete.”4
To be with God, to be at home in God, isn’t something that only happens in death, although that’s typically how we talk about it. It is also a present reality now. The Brief Statement of Faith of the Presbyterian Church mirrors the first question of the Heidelberg Catechism. “In life and in death, we belong to God,” we say. The psalmist in Psalm 90 writes, “God, you have been our dwelling place–our home–in all generations.”
Presbyterian minister and author Frederick Buechner wrote a book called Longing for Home. In it he writes,
“I cannot claim that I have found the home I long for every day of my life, not by a long shot, but I believe that in my heart I have found, and maybe have always known the way that leads to it. I believe that the home we long for and belong to is finally where Christ is. I believe that home is Christ’s kingdom, which exists both within us and among us as we wend our prodigal ways through the world in search of it.”5
What made the younger son come to himself that day feeding the pigs? The story doesn’t tell us precisely but something happened and for the first time, he was able to hear Love’s call to come home. He didn’t have to beg to be taken in because Love was running to meet him on the road. All he had to do was open his heart to receive Love’s gracious welcome.
The same invitation is always open to us, when we are ready, to hear Love’s call to come home and to open our hearts to receive Love’s gracious welcome.
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1 Nora Gallagher quoted in Sara Covin Juengst, The Road Home – Images for the Spiritual Journey, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002), p109.2 Ibid., p111.
2 Ibid., p111.
3 Leslie J. Hoppe, “Luke 15.1-3, 11b-32 Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 3, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009), p119.
4 Juengst, p112.
5 Quoted in Juengst, p113.