St. Luke’s Cathedral
The Rev. Canon Eleanor Prior
There probably isn’t a story in our scriptures which arouses so much emotion as this gospel reading that we just heard. Perhaps the story of Mary and Martha is close. But I think this family story takes the cake.
It is such a hot topic that the clergy here started talking about it on Tuesday morning,. Each bringing our own experience and our own focus. We could probably read this story every week, because it never seems to get resolved.
How many of you call this story the parable of the prodigal son?
That is the way the story is often referred to, but the title itself gives away why it is such a hot topic. Because when we call it the parable of the prodigal son, we focus on the lesson of the son who went away and squandered his inheritance. And it is true, we are supposed to, at least partially.
Let’s look at the meaning of prodigal. In Greek, it is the word άσωτος. And it means, “wastefully extravagant.” It turns out that wastefully extravagant works both ways here. We already know that the son has been wastefully extravagant (the word used in our english translation is “dissolute”– I love that word–it’s one of those words that sounds like what it is.)
However, the father also is wastefully extravagant. He is wastefully extravagant with his welcome, his love, his forgiveness. And yes, this is another meaning of prodigal! With our Yankee, New England stoicism, we might tend to think this prodigal love is a bad thing. Because we are taught never to be wasteful. Certainly to the older son, this prodigal father’s lavishness of welcome to the younger son is obscene.
This is a story that wants us to look God in the face. It is so provocative that it is shouting at us to take heed. To face into the uncomfortableness of it all and challenge ourselves.
Sometimes this parable is titled “The Forgiving Father.” But I think to leave it at forgiving, misses part of the point. It is about forgiveness, and it is beyond forgiveness. It isn’t just about situational forgiveness… that is forgiveness that is granted after a misdeed or a sin is committed, but it is a story that rests on inherent forgiveness. Forgiveness that is beyond our wildest imaginations. Forgiveness which is the very foundation on which we stand, which is waiting for us as soon as we realize where we have gone wrong and turn back towards God, towards home. This parable speaks of God’s love in a way we have difficulty comprehending.
Perhaps it is so difficult for us to understand because we also look at it from the elder son’s point of view and sympathize with him. For we are only human after all… right? But Paul, in his ineffable way in his letter to the Corinthians is trying to call us forward to a different point of understanding.
He says: From now on, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: … in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.
Paul is calling us to accept the radical nature of reconciliation with each other and with God, just as Jesus is through this parable of the Prodigal Father. Though this kind of high road may seem a supernatural fantasy for us to achieve, we have been privy to such maturity in our country’s news this week, and in Maine this winter.
We have two recent stories of people who have been abused, but who take the high road in the face of others who lie. Ambassador Maulian Dana of the Penobscot Nation, who in February spoke at a forum on LD 1626, the bill to restore sovereignty over their own territories to the Wabanaki peoples in Maine. In this forum, held to educate those of us who were ignorant of all the history in order to garner support for justice, She again and again spoke of the injustices done to the Wabanaki without rancor, simply focusing on the future and the righting of these wrongs. Likewise, in the face of racist and sexist tropes, our latest supreme court nominee, Ketanji Brown Jackson continues to respond with grace, speaking to the truth with facts, not getting derailed by accusations. Both of these women are working for a higher good– working on the one hand to restore justice to the Wabanaki, and on the other, to uphold democracy and justice in the United States.
There are those that will tell lies to get what they think they want. And there are those that display the kind of dignity and love of their people in the face of denigration, that they don’t veer from aiming for the higher good. Perhaps I can understand all too well how the elder son feels, but today I have these two women as a model and a guide to help me focus on the real truth Jesus is presenting us with.
Why do we hear this story in Lent? I see it as an invitation to turn away from the feelings about both ourselves and others that obscure from our view and experience the love of God. It is an invitation to look at our natural feelings of anger, disappointment, so called negative emotions– to process and not get stuck in. It’s not that we are not going to feel those things, it’s that we can grow through them by recognizing them, and not letting them harden in ourselves.
Where do we put our attention?
Maybe I can’t resist getting a little corny here… but you have heard, you are what you eat.
The Israelites have just completed their 40 year journey. They have been relying on manna from God day by day. Each day God has faithfully fed them. they have been fed with food you cannot store up, as it goes bad immediately. Today, they are eating their first meal from produce, from food they can grow and raise and store up for themselves. It is food born of years of wandering and questioning. Food which speaks of the lavish wastefulness God bestows on us all. Let us have eyes to recognize it.