There are at least two factors that make is hard for us to hear the full power of the story of the Prodigal Son. The first is our habit of hearing the story as individuals.
Now it’s true that the story is written about an individual, that bad son who decides that he needs his inheritance right away. And he goes about sinning in a real capital-I-individualistic way. He doesn’t see any reason to stick with his family, build up their fortunes, support his father in his old age, or help his brother with the work of the estate. He has no sense of collective belonging. As far as he can see, the family is just a financial asset, and he wants to cash in. So he flies in the face of all the cultural expectations and all the familial ties, and he withdraws his share.
I feel sure that as he left home his father and brother knew he would be back soon needing help. It’s pretty clear that there is no plan, no maturity, no sense that it would be best to avoid having to drain other people’s resources when the money runs dry. It’s clear he has no plan to give money to people who need it more than he does, or start a family, or do anything else that involves paying attention to other people’s needs. He’s a self-centered individualist if there ever was one.
But there is no reason that we have to hear his story as a story about individuals. Because it’s an especially powerful story if we think about what happens to us as a collective. Think about it: very few of us set out deliberately to squander everything. It does happen, and we all have our bad spells, but I think most people can listen to this story with some sense of distance. Demand your inheritance up front and blow through it in a short time? I don’t think that’s a really common occurrence. I’m not sure inheritances are all that common any more, to be honest. And in any case, it takes a special act of the will to lose absolutely everything, even when you are very young. We mess up, of course, but rarely with the kind of clarity and force that the prodigal son brings to that task.
So individually maybe we aren’t in that much danger of imitating the prodigal son. But collectively, the picture is different. Collectively, without a clear sense of individual agency, we seem alarmingly good at wandering far from where we belong. We seem alarmingly ready to squander the resources of the good earth God has given us. It looks like we are willing to be reckless with other important things too: our liberty, the dignity of every human being, the covenant that requires all of us to work for the common good. Belief in the future. The great treasure that is God’s church. We run through these gifts as though there were no tomorrow. We seriously entertain the notion that there may be no tomorrow. We are collectively, disastrously, prodigal.
We’re told in Luke’s gospel that the younger son “comes to himself” one day while he is looking after some pigs. He comes to himself and sees that he is living a degraded life. He is hungry. He comes to himself and remembers that he is the son of a magnanimous father who treats even the servants with some fundamental respect, and he determines that he will go home.
That’s hard to do when we are talking about collective sin. It’s really hard for us to come to ourselves collectively. It can be hard to know how we even got to that pigsty, and hard to know where home is now. If we never really intended to squander our inheritance, and we didn’t squander it all by ourselves, how are we going to repent? What’s the first step?
Do you remember that I said there were two factors that keep us from hearing this story in its full power? The first one is that we hear it as individuals, and we don’t think about our collective sin. The second factor that keeps us from hearing this story fully is that we think we have to hear it in chronological order. It’s a very tidy story, at least initially. The son takes his inheritance. He lives a dissolute life. He comes to himself. He returns. As everyone in our Friday night Digital Storytelling group has heard a million times, there is a “change moment” in this story, a point of crisis after which nothing is the same. The prodigal son hits bottom. The story turns. Metanoia.
But don’t let the conventions of linear storytelling get in your way when God is waiting to bring you home to the fullness of life. If we didn’t get to our degradation on our own, if we’re not just in a private pigsty, if the whole world has gone astray and we’ve all forgotten that we are the children of a loving creator—there isn’t going to be one big turning point. This isn’t one person’s story. I hate to say it but we may never know when we’ve hit bottom.
But there is good news in that. If we are all down here with the pigs together, if we can’t even say exactly how we got here, if we have trouble even knowing how the trouble started, we don’t have to wait until the story takes a clear shape before we call on God to help us.
Think about that crazy, loving, abundantly-forgiving father. Do you think that if his son had sent word that he was stuck in a pigsty with a large crowd of people to whom he was inexplicably bound, the father would have reacted ungenerously? I don’t. I think he would have run straight to the barnyard and embraced the son, muck and all. I think he would have jumped right over the fence and into the trough. I think he would have asked his son to come home and bring a few hundred of his hungry friends. I’m not sure how he would have pulled it off, but I’m certain that the father’s love and the father’s resources and the father’s forgiveness would have been more than enough for the trouble the son and his friends were in. And I’m certain that seeing the father run right into the muck to embrace his son would have been good for everyone there, no matter whose fault the situation had been.
What would that story of repentance look like for us? What would the world see if we came to ourselves today and remembered that we were beloved children, not lost prodigals? I’m not talking about individual escape from the troubles of the world, I’m talking about what it would look like to have confidence today, right here in the pigpen. Confidence in God. Confidence that salvation is real, and it’s for everyone even when we think we are experiencing it individually.
I’m talking about how the joy of forgiven Christians might transform the world. I’m not talking about shallow Christian happiness, I’m talking about Christian realists who are set free to act boldly. People who know that they can rejoice even here and now, because change doesn’t have to wait. People who are transformed by God’s grace to live according to our baptismal covenant right now. People who are willing to experience the embrace of God even if the world has forgotten God.
It’s hard to write this story. I can’t explain exactly how we got to the point at which we had squandered our inheritance. I’m not at all sure that it’s completely squandered. I think we may have hidden reserves still, though the trends are profoundly worrying. I have ideas about whose fault our predicament is, but all of my ideas are partial and self-justifying. I have almost no ability to name my part in our collective prodigality. I can lament, but actual repentance that involves changing my life down in the heart of it all where the problem is—that’s pretty hard to get my mind around. I fear that mastery of this story is beyond me in some ways.
But I’m going to take my cue from the church today. It’s Laetare Sunday, the Sunday in Lent when we change the vestments from violet to rose, and we acknowledge a kind of premature rejoicing. We remind ourselves to rejoice in the middle of repentance. We break the conventions of Digital Storytelling, and we start to live in the end of the story before we make it all the way to the metanoia.
God is here, now. Forgiving. Abundantly. Not waiting for our breaking point. We may be hungry and we may be facing degradation, but we are being asked to acknowledge even now that we are children of God, before the story makes sense to us. The whole world may not change today because you and I change, but how do we know what genuine freedom and rejoicing in the love of God might bring to our collective experience of degradation? The father in Luke’s gospel sees his son while the son is still far off, practicing his weak apology. He runs to wrap his arms around that sorry prodigal. What will our creator do for us if we are the least bit willing? Why shouldn’t we find out?
Preached by Mother Nora Johnson
31 March 2019
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia