There can be few stories that speak to us like the parable of the prodigal son, from the Scriptures this morning. Who cannot hear the story, and find our way into it through at least one character? Perhaps your way into the story is through the feelings of the father. Perhaps you feel those emotions that parent's experience during the struggles of their children to come to maturity. Perhaps, you see yourself through the father's assent to his son's demands, or through his welcome despite his son's foolishness, or through his pleading with the eldest son to come into the feast for the younger brother. Perhaps those are your ways into the parable this morning.
Or perhaps you find your way into the story through the younger son. Perhaps you have wandered in far off lands, living slightly wildly. Or perhaps, even if you haven't got to actually live as wildly as the younger son, perhaps you've really wanted to. Perhaps you feel the strictures of your current life and long, every once in a while, to break free of them, and to throw caution to the winds and to go a little crazy.
Or perhaps you resonate with the elder son, the responsible one, the one who is constantly doing the “right” thing, and telling everyone who will listen about it. Perhaps you have that sense of responsibility and resentment when it comes to your parents, your work, your parish or your life.
Or perhaps you fall into the silent camp – the character that we don't hear in the parable – the mother. Where is she, the wife of the gracious father, the mother of these two very different sons – dead perhaps, or more likely relegated to the fringe – where wives and mothers have generally been made to sit quietly? What is she saying, during this whole drama – what passes through her heart when her son is wandering and lost, or when her sons are at odds? How much is she agonizing about her husband's graciousness or her youngest son's maturity, or her elder son's sense of duty.
Most sermons, at least that I've heard about this passage, resonate around the father's generosity and grace, giving the younger son a portion of the estate in the first place (which he wasn't obligated to do, and certainly not before his death), and then welcoming him back despite his loose living and poor stewardship, which is, of course, all very interesting and good, (at least it is the first four times you've heard that sermon). There is a great deal to be made of the father figure, but generally, and perhaps this is not true of you, perhaps you are further along the way to becoming an actual Christian, I don't find myself resonating or sympathizing with the father figure. I am not gracious enough, I think, to feel the father's struggle to be gracious and forgiving to his offspring. No, if I'm in the story, I'm there as one of the two brothers, or more likely, as a blend of both – the officious one and the libertine, the repressed and the wanton, the dull and the interesting.
Both of those brothers are a blend in me, and although some days it seems as if one might win out over the other, often they are simply mixed and I'm left dependent on grace either way.
But isn't it interesting that if this is a parable about God's grace, it is also, or perhaps foremost a parable about the human response to grace, and the eldest son doesn't come off at all well. Which at first blush is hard to understand – except there is, in his tone when he speaks to his father, the hot worm of resentment. “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.” Which says a great deal about how the elder son wants to live, how he wants to be a little dissolute, how he has wanted to throw some wild parties but hasn't, and how he resents the younger brother for doing or being what he wants to do or be.
So the son who comes of the worst in the parable isn't the wild child, the black sheep, the morally dubious one – it is the resentful one, the perfectionist, the momma and daddy's boy – who wants fairness when it suits him, justice when it fits him and who doesn't need grace, or at least he doesn't think he needs it, because he is doing “the right thing.”
For some reason the elder brother, besides reminding me of my foibles as the oldest child, my passionate sense of justice (or is it just resentment?), my perfectionism (or is it just my need for control?), despite all that, for some reason, the elder brother always reminds me of the religious folk who have it all figured out. You probably know someone like this – who knows the way God thinks – or who know the way that everyone should live, or who know how the Scriptures should be read and interpreted. That person is always only too happy to share with you their knowledge and their certainty, if you give them the least bit of leeway. There is even, of course, a version of this which is Episcopalian, or rather there are several. Perhaps you recognize one or both of them: there is the certainty of the way things should be done (the sense that our way is the best way) and that somehow doing liturgy with a faux British accent, or decently and in due order is the way that God intended it. And lets sing “Jerusalem” while we are at it, to complete the image of Victorian schmaltz. The other version is the certainty that we have about the conflicts of our day. We live in a church of certainty about human sexuality, or about the role of women, indeed a church of two certainties, screaming at each other across a great divide. Aren't we great, we who are keeping to the true faith, or alternatively, we who are wonderfully progressive – look at us, and our the self-congratulation and the self- aggrandizement – and suddenly, ouch, I think I strained a muscle trying to pat myself on the back! Look at us, aren't we great?
And of course the moral, the seed at the heart of this parable is that we aren't great. Whether we are wanton, dissolute hedonists, or aren't but resent the lucky ones who are, we aren't good. The right actions for the wrong reasons are no better than the wrong actions for the honest reasons – in fact, they are perhaps worse, inasmuch as they make us sure of our superiority, our goodness, our correctness – for they remove us from that fundamental position of bowed head, and honest, bare humility – “I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”
The parable of the prodigal son is a parable obviously about grace, but it isn't so much about the abundance and mystery of grace, but rather about the reception of grace; the father is a strange mysterious character and his grace no less so, but our response to that grace, how that plays out in the dissolution or resentment of our lives, that is the focus of the parable and in the same way that the grace in our lives is mysterious, the way that we deny or accept that grace, is mysterious and we find ourselves daily somewhere between the older and younger brother, somewhere between the knowing and acceptance of our folly and the illusion of our arrival in a state of grace. Day in, day out that ever- changing window, between folly and illusion is the extent that we are open to God's grace – and there is nothing in the parable about our progressiveness or our traditionalism, about the way that we should behave, but only the reality that we have not yet arrived, and probably won't, this side of death.
The story ends here, with the father pleading with his elder son to come in to the feast. We don't know whether the son ends up coming to the party or not. If he is at all like me, the odds are about 50/50. He might have given in, and come to the feast and celebrated his brother's return, or he might have stayed outside, stewing in his own righteousness. Perhaps the story remains unfinished because we too are standing in the field, waiting to decide whether we are going into the feast, or living on in our resentment.
The word “feast” for some reason always makes me think Nordic thoughts: high halls, and huge sides of meat, and plenty of beer in the hands of large and jovial men. And somehow, in my mind, I imagine that the celebratory feast, at the end of this parable is taking place in a Norse hall.
I like to imagine that the doorway into the father's hall, where all the sounds of merriment are coming from, is a low doorway. The kind of doorway where one has to stoop down, and bow one's head to get in, and I like to think that going into that hall requires us to have, just for a moment, the posture of that younger son, penitent before his father. “I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” The stiff necked, the certain righteous, can't get into the hall. And I pray that I, and all of us, may have the grace to bow our heads, and to know that we don't deserve to be called children, and that still our God welcomes us with open arms and rejoicing.
Preached by Fr. Andrew Ashcroft
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia
14 March 2010