Most stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. And this is true of the well-known parable of the Prodigal Son.
The beginning: There was a man who had two sons. Everything is fine. Life is grand. What could be nicer? That’s the beginning.
The middle: The younger son gets Dad to give him his share of the inheritance so he can go off in search of adventure. He does so without any consideration of the tax implications, which, in and of itself is foolhardy, but so be it. He wastes his money on what the biblical writer calls “dissolute living;” I’ll call it booze, drugs, and probably women, but it could have been men – who knows? He ends up envying the pigs their feed as he tries to scrape by in his poverty. That’s the middle.
The end: Younger son decides to go home to Father, fearful that he will be chastised for his foolishness, which, of course, is deserving of chastisement. But Father welcomes Son home without shame or blame, kills the fatted calf for a feast, and rejoices that his Son who once was lost has now been found. That’s the end.
Beginning; middle; end – like most stories.
Life is made up of a bunch of stories that mostly have beginnings and middles and ends. The hard part is that we live mostly in the middle of the stories. And as the parable of the Prodigal Son illustrates, the middle is a hard place to live.
Let us forget about the Prodigal Son, himself, for a moment, for it is easy to color in the details of his dissolute life. If you can’t do it on your own, there are reality shows on TV that will offer suggestions, or try the Harold and Kumar films, or Pulp Fiction, or the new film whose TV advertisements speak for themselves: 21 and Over. Dissolute living is not a thing of the past. But as I say, let us put aside the dissolute living, because that is only one middle of this story; there is another one.
The other middle of the story is taking place back at the homestead of the Prodigal Son, where his father and his brother – as well as his mother and his sister, no doubt – are worried sick. This is the other middle of the story.
For a while he stayed in touch with them. There were postcards, occasional phone calls, and although Mom and Dad didn’t follow him on Facebook, the other two children could give updates as they followed his progress around various Mediterranean hotspots. Admittedly the photos he posted were sometimes worrisome – evidence of dissolute living, you might say. But the greater worry came when he stopped calling, stopped writing, stopped posting anything on Facebook at all. He even stopped asking for more money. This is the middle of the story.
Who knows what a mess the Prodigal Son made of himself? Who knows how many mornings he woke up without knowing where he was – sometimes in a strange bed, sometimes in a gutter, or an alley, or under a fig tree, once in a while in a jail cell. Who knows just exactly what he was using to ruin his mind and his body with – was it just tequila? Or was there coke too? Or meth? Had he tried heroin yet? Who knows what risks he put himself in – borrowing money, or stealing it? In the bedroom? With his “new friends”?
His parents didn’t know. Neither did his sister. Nor his brother. They could only guess why he head disappeared; why he had lost everything. But don’t you think they worried? Don’t you think they sent emissaries to track him down? Don’t you think they called his old friends to see if they had heard from him? Don’t you think they waited by the phone for it to ring with word from the cops, or the hospital, or the morgue?
This was the middle of the story. Sometimes the middle of the story isn’t our own misery – sometimes it is the misery of someone else we love. Sometimes that person lives in the middle of the story for a long, long time. The middles of many stories last far longer than the middle of the parable of the Prodigal Son. And so does the misery.
But the middle of the story is where we live most of the time. Maybe it’s a prodigal son or a prodigal brother or sister. Maybe it’s the illness of someone you love, that hasn’t been properly diagnosed, or that won’t get better, or won’t heal. Maybe it’s cancer that has come back.
Maybe it’s the dementia of your parent or spouse – who used to be so funny, so bright, so loving; who used to be the light of your life; who used to be so easy to love; and who now hardly knows you; but with whom there is nothing else especially wrong, so you know that the middle of this particular story, at this particular stage of life, is likely to go on and on and on for a while.
It’s not really your story, but you have to live through it, and it becomes a part of your story, as you navigate the fear and the sadness and the guilt of it all. Was there something you should have done? Something you shouldn’t have done? Is there anything you can do now? Have you exhausted all possibilities? Gotten every second opinion you could? Can you really trust this diagnosis? Shouldn’t there be something you can do? Should you have consulted a lawyer? Should you have spent more money on a better lawyer? A detective? A doctor? A psychic?
Don’t you think the Prodigal Son’s father thought these things? Don’t you think his mother did?
His sister would lie awake at night and fixate on a plan. She imagined building a pigeon coop on the roof of the house, and keeping homing pigeons there. She imagined making copies of that photo she liked so much of her brother at the family reunion that time, when his smile was so relaxed, and he looked like nothing could ever be wrong. She dreamt of rolling those copied photos up into little scrolls, with her contact information written on the back of them with an indelible Sharpie, and attaching them to the little legs of the pigeons with tiny rubber bands. She imagined sending flocks of homing pigeons out over the deserts and toward the sea, across the entire Mediterranean world:
HAVE YOU SEEN THIS MAN?
PLEASE CALL IF YOU HAVE.
PLEASE SEND HIM HOME.
PLEASE TELL HIM WE LOVE HIM
AND WOULD DO ANYTHING TO GET HIM BACK!
This is living in the middle of the story.
His brother, unable to fathom what would cause his otherwise terrific younger brother to go off the deep end, found himself hoping – yes hoping - that maybe it was a brain tumor, because that at least would explain it; at least you could cut that out and try to fix him. This is living in the middle of the story. Living in the middle of the Parable of the Prodigal Son is not much fun – but many of us have lived there. Maybe you are living there now.
There is another parable to reach for when you are stuck in the middle of the Prodigal Son: it is the Parable of the Lost Sheep. You have to go to your bookshelf, or look under the bed, or search through your Kindle to find it, because you know it is there somewhere but you can’t remember where you put it. It was just ten verses back in Luke’s Gospel, but it already takes a force of will to remember it: “Which of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?”
And you think to yourself, “What on earth is that supposed to mean? Am I supposed to drop everything and go in search of my child, my brother, my friend? Am I supposed to give up my job, leave the kids with the neighbors, liquidate my 401-k to go on a wild goose chase?
And if you stop, long enough to think, long enough to be quiet, long enough to listen, you might hear a voice telling you to slow down, and remember, that the parable is not meant to give you instructions; it’s meant to teach you something about God.
Oh. And what is that?
When you are in the middle of the parable of the Prodigal Son, God is in the middle of the Parable of the Lost Sheep. He is searching and scouring and sending his angels like swarms of pigeons to find the one you love – the one he loves. God has not given up in the middle of this story – even though the Prodigal Son couldn’t care less about God. God’s arms are always long enough to reach down and scoop up the lost, but such is the reality of the way he made us that he requires us to reach up too, and grab for him, just a little.
And you know that damn Prodigal Son is stubborn. You know he thinks he can take care of himself. You know he has always wanted to live life on his own terms. You think he is going to reach up for God at the first opportunity? And do you think the tequila or the coke, or the meth, or the heroin, or the “new friends” are going to let him do it so easily?
But you need to know that God is searching, swooping, reaching, for that lost child, and has been from the moment he left home.
This is called faith: the conviction of something you cannot see – that God is at work in the long, horrible middles of the stories that hurt so much: at work for the Prodigal Son, at work for his worrying father and his terrified mother, for his determined sister, and his frustrated brother, who cannot do anything to help because he has to stay home and take care of the farm! For all of them: God is at work; and believing that is what we call faith!
But remember that the parables do not tell us much about what we should do during the middle of the story – they are not meant to; they are meant to teach us about God. They are meant to teach us that God searches tirelessly for the lost – not because he cannot find them, but because they insist on running and hiding, but he will not stop pursuing them. And they are meant to teach us that when we are tempted to give up hope in the middle of the story, we should reconsider and stick with it. Because God is not giving up, nor is he ever unwilling to throw his arms wide open when that bedraggled Prodigal Son is at last able to reach out for God’s hand, and end his misery, and crawl home. God will not turn his back when the lost child crawls home, and his love will not be withheld, nor his blessing.
All of which is meant to be a salve for the pain and difficulty of living in the middle of the story – where we still so often find ourselves. Because it’s true that despite our best efforts, we are sometimes helpless in this world – completely unable to do the thing that we would most like to do for ourselves or for the ones we love. Which is when we have to rely on God the most, and when it is helpful to remember that God’s Son told these stories – with perfectly ordinary beginnings; and with difficult, painful, miserable middles…
… and endings for which the term “happy” seems too cheap, and too unlikely. Let’s say the stories have a good ending. Let’s say God’s goodness prevails in the end. Let’s count on it. Indeed, let’s believe it, while we live through the middle of the story.
In fact, let’s keep the best robe hanging by the door, and a fatted calf on hand, and a ring and sandals. Let’s be confident and faithful in the good ending that God is preparing for every long and difficult and painful middle of every story,
In fact, let’s learn to stand ready, with our arms open and our lips pursed for the kiss of welcome – for this, Jesus tells us, is how God is poised to receive all those who have strayed from his ways like lost sheep and followed too much the devices and desires of their own hearts.
But never mind that, says God, for he who is lost will be found, by the grace of God, all who are counted for dead will be made alive again, when the middle of our story leads to God’s good ending. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
10 March 2013
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia