The readings appointed for this Sunday can be found here
Many of us are well familiar with the story of “the prodigal son”.
There is the son who has lost his inheritance in dissolute living. The Father who forgives him. The jealous older brother. And, we are meant to see ourselves in the sons and God in the father and learn from the tale of God’s mercy and compassion.
Easily summed up and perhaps, just as easily dismissed. Because, just as
with any story we hear again and again, it’s tempting to stop listening. It’s tempting to dismiss the narrative as “old news” instead of “good news”, and to ponder anything, anything but the prodigal.
But, if we resist that temptation—a familiar text can invite us to pay attention to unfamiliar things.
Take for example, the grumbling, “the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them”.
This framing of the parable sets the parable up as a teaching in hospitality. We don’t get to grumble about God’s invitation list. We don’t get to complain about who else is at the table or reject those whom God has welcomed home.
Think about the implications this emphasis upon generous hospitality holds for our celebration of the Eucharist. Think about what Jesus’ open table means for welcoming people into our communities…
All from a grumble…we gain a great understanding of generous love.
And, that’s what is in the text.
A familiar tale can also invite us to consider what is left out of the text…
Taking this approach, I found myself wondering where the prodigal son’s mother was. I mean, really, where was she? Is she somewhere offstage, the kitchen perhaps or the garden? As the woman of the household, shouldn’t she have been the one ordering a feast to be prepared? Where was she?
Of course, it is possible that her absence means that she, like so many women of the time, had died in childbirth. Was the younger son, the cause of her death? Did he look like her, sound like her? Does his older brother blame him for his mother’s death? Is his anger compounded by the loss his brother represents? Is the father’s rejoicing increased by the eyes like hers shining from his youngest son’s face?
Or does her absence simply mean that the parable emerges out of a cultural context in which the stability and validity of a family relied upon the existence of male children. Is her absence reflective of a patriarchal society in which the lives of women weren’t considered amidst the stories of the lives of men?
Which leads me to a new wondering…when women are named in the text, is it safe to assume that they have done something so marvelous, so striking, that the authors felt compelled to include their stories amongst the stories of so many men? Mary the Mother; Mary Magdalene the disciple; Mary and Martha of Bethany; Lydia, a seller of purple cloth; Junia, an apostle of the early church; the evangelists, Euodia and Syntyche of Philippi.
How curious, that in being curious about a story in which no women are named, a litany of women has emerged—all in response to the familiar story of the prodigal son and his forgiving father.
And, as I consider the mother who doesn’t show up in the story, I find myself considering my own absent mother.
At the time of my Mother’s death, we hadn’t seen each other in 5 years. She didn’t come to my graduation or my wedding. She missed my ordination and never met my first child. She was as absent from my story as the prodigal’s mother seems absent from his.
Her story, our story, is a complicated one—but, in short, she was difficult.
She was difficult to be around, she was difficult to not be around. She was difficult.
So difficult in fact that one of my brothers took great pains to refer to her as, “your mother” rather than “mom”, when we spoke about her on the phone.
I would quickly correct him, “she’s not MY mother, she’s OUR mother”, and we’d continue on in our conversation...bonding over our shared relationship or, more accurately, lack of relationship with our mom. A relationship that neither of us was willing to let the other deny. We were in this messy, broken relationship together and I, for one, was not going to let him distance himself from the truth of it.
And, part of that truth was the pain of love, and of broken trusts, and of hoped-for transformation. None of which seemed to ever become manifest.
Therefore, when I hear this parable I find myself noticing something new. When the older brother speaks to his father and refers to his brother as “this son of yours", I hear what he is doing. The older brother is refusing to acknowledge the relationship he has with his brother--he has shunned him, he claims no love and no loss as his brother returns because he is making it clear...this man is NOT my brother, you may claim him as your son, but he is NOT my brother. I am not responsible for him, I will not claim him, he has destroyed our family’s reputation and brought shame upon us. He is no longer mine and I am no longer his.
But, the father responds quickly and responds using the phrase, "this brother of yours". The older brother does not get to disavow his relationship with his younger--regardless of what has happened, they are STILL brothers. No getting around it, no changing it, no refusing it. Brothers still. Kill the fatted calf, celebrate together...this is the resurrection, he was as dead to us and now he has returned. Here, now, there is a new chance and the opportunity for transformation that we had thought lost. How can we refuse this, this new shot at love and life? The brother’s simmering resentment is strong and seems just--I think most of us can understand his position of righteousness...
But, in this broken relationship between brothers, there is a father who mediates. A father who reminds them of what right relationship looks like and demonstrates to them what can be. This is a father who stands in the brokenness of relationship--the space between the two he loves and says, “love each other” as I love each of you.
This image is important to me--this image of God standing there in the midst of the brokenness and holding the broken pieces together.
Sit with that image for a moment...find that broken place and picture God there...holding the pieces together.
Holding together what we would break apart. Tearing down walls that divide. Liberating the captive. Healing creation.
God, standing in the midst of the broken relationships, and challenging us to do as God would do. Your son, is my brother. Your mother, is my mother. Your father mine, your sister mine. Your neighbor mine, your family mine. This familiar parable challenges us to see beyond our own anger and embrace our own capacity for compassion and hospitality. A capacity which God has shown us to be boundless.
Which brings me to a less familiar text, the passage from 2nd Corinthians…
“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: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.”
When we juxtapose these words of Paul with the familiar parable of the prodigal a whole new set of questions emerges. Would Paul have been as familiar with the story of the prodigal son as we are? Did the father’s forgiveness inform Paul’s words? When Paul heard the parable of the prodigal son, did he find kinship with the son seeking forgiveness? Would the community in Corinth have known the parable as well? Would they have wondered where the mother was? Would they have understood the parable to be an encouragement to forgive as God forgives?
When we are curious, when we are open, when we listen to what the Spirit might be saying to us, the familiar text can open doors to more than we could ever have imagined. From the women unnamed, to remarkable women. From one unnamed mother, to my own absent one. From one father’s forgiveness, to God’s boundless love.
This is our story and this is God’s grace.