"An Unfinished Parable" 2nd in Prodigal Son Series
The Reverend Thomas C. Willadsen
Jesus taught using parables. Parables are stories that invite the hearer to measure his life by them. The word parable means "throw beside." It's as though parables are measuring sticks and they invite us to throw our lives beside them and see how we measure up. Parables make their points indirectly, or I should say parables are incomplete, but they invite the hearer to enter them and look around.
It's hard to preach a parable. I look at the elegance of the three parables that make up the 15th chapter of Luke's gospel and I am daunted by the very idea of trying to make them any clearer than Jesus made them. Did you notice how they kind of telescope? First it's one sheep in a flock of a hundred. Next it's one out of ten coins. Finally, it comes down to one out of two sons. And each time the message to us, those who measure our lives by these words, is about the joy in heaven when a sinner repents. And that's the turning point in the parable of the prodigal son, "when he came to himself," and decided to turn around and head for home...and you know how it ends. The father runs and embraces the son, they have a party, and the older son, the one who didn't stray, resents his brother's return. And remember I said that parables don't end - that we have to complete them? Well, when the words run out at the end of Luke chapter 15, the father has said to the son, that they had to celebrate - (if you remember nothing else from today, remember the celebration was commanded because the son had been dead but had come to life, had been lost but now found.)
And we don't know whether the son who stayed home could put his bitterness aside and join the party. The parable invites - or challenges - each of us to allow the scandal of grace to work in us.
Years ago a colleague told me, "The way you preach a parable is to tell another parable." Recently I've been collecting insights about this particular parable and I have three that I want to share today. Think of these as entrees into the parable, perhaps you'll see or hear this very familiar story in new ways.
Once at a preaching conference those in attendance were asked whom they identified with in the story. Would the members of your family say you're the father, the wonderer or the home boy"? One woman whispered, "I identify with the mother."
Now, a strict reading of the text reveals that no mother is mentioned in the story. This woman was writing her own part, one could say. And this is all speculation but that idea has haunted me for more than ten years. I imagine the mother in the silence of the parable. She is the mother of both the stable, responsible son and the wasteful disappointing son. She's the woman who runs into other mothers at Pick ‘n' Save who sometimes ask about the reckless son, but, more painfully, probably scrupulously avoid asking about him - instead turn the conversation to the other son who's so hard- working. She's the woman who loves and supports the father of both of these sons. A father who alternates being furious at his son for wasting his inheritance, for squandering the fruits of the father's and perhaps grandfather's labor, in what the Bible delicately calls "dissolute living" and what his brother described, less delicately as "devoured your property with prostitutes."
...and furious at himself for permitting his son to take the inheritance early. And feeling like a failure for having raised a son who was such a disappointment. The mother is a central, though unmentioned, character in this parable. Night after night she feeds the two remaining men of the house- and misses the third. Night after night she soothes her husband and reassures him when he feels like a failure or explodes into rage at himself or one of his sons. What was Mom feeling when father announced a feast, an order that the special corn-fed calf be killed - "Junior's come back - veal tonight!!?" Maybe she was in the kitchen, cutting onions for the veal stew. Maybe she was in the kitchen overseeing the workers cutting up onions for the veal. Maybe she was looking in the closet for her most special dress to wear. Maybe she wanted to run and fall on the neck of her beloved younger son - or maybe she wanted to step on his toes, for all the grief she caused his father, her husband. Maybe she stood outside the party with her other son, smelling the veal stew. Did she join the party? Did she host the party and miss it entirely? Did she walk away? That's one perspective.
Here's the "you tell another parable" perspective:
I lost my mittens in March. I lost them both at the same time. That's different from losing one, I mean you lose one mitten and it could have fallen out of your pocket anywhere. Lose them at the same time and you probably mislaid them the question is where. I first noticed that my mittens were gone on Tuesday night. Wednesday I was driving my younger son to school and drove right past a mitten in the street. I didn't remember driving down that street, but I mean it had to be mine - 15 hours after I noticed that I was without my mittens, there's one that at 25 miles an hour looks like one of them, I pulled over, got out and retrieved my right mitten. I dropped David off at school and realized that I must have put my mittens on the roof of the car when I was helping him get out of the car at the library. I felt pretty good, I'd solved the mystery. I drove back to the library and returned home following the same route I'd taken the night before, very slowly, had my hazard lights on, looking for my left mitten in the road or in the snow piles on either side of the street. Didn't find it.
"Tom go to Fleet Farm and buy another pair," I said to myself. Right. I can afford a new pair of mittens - whether I could find a new pair in March I had my doubts, but I realized how much I liked these mittens. I am a mitten person, not a glove person. These mittens are leather. They go on and off easily but are tight enough to keep moisture out. They keep my hands warm. Could I find another pair that I like as much as I like these? I started thinking about that Joni Mitchell song, "you don't know what you got till it's gone." I realized how important these mittens are to me by the time I arrived home, having only found the right one. But I kept thinking. Couldn't stop thinking. The one I found in the street was a little west of where I expected to find it if I'd put the mittens on the roof of the car at the library. Then I remembered, I'd taken a different route to the library because I'd filled the car with gas. I must have put the mittens on the roof when I was pumping the gas or checking the oil! I walked to the gas station - still looking on all sides of the road for the left mitten. I asked at the gas station, they pulled out the lost and found, it wasn't there. I walked down the street from the gas station toward the library. I knew I'd find my mitten. As I neared the place where I'd found the other one, there was my left mitten, in the middle of the street, not just the middle, but right in the lane where wheels roll. It had been run over at least once. Did I mention that it had rained over night? So my tire-marked, wet, gravel bejeweled left mitten was heavy and beaten up - but it was back! I was thrilled. I called Mary, just like the old lady in the parable did, just like the shepherd in the other parable did. "Celebrate with me!" I got back something that's important! Two things I learned, the first is about myself - at this point you know it too. I learned the depth of my affection for the mittens. The second thing I learned was an insight into this parable. The son who returned to the father after he'd run through his inheritance had come to himself because he was hungry, "here I am dying of hunger" he says. He doesn't turn around, he doesn't repent because of what would make his father proud, or because he misses his mom, or because he wants to do right by his brother - he's starving, he's so hungry that the slop he's feeding the pigs looks appetizing. So when he finally returns home, he's probably skin and bones. And who knows what toll his body has paid for his dissolute living? He probably looks pretty beaten up, pretty shabby. My mittens dried off, I knocked the sand and gravel off them, once they dried you could hardly see the tire marks, but still, they had been through a lot. I got them back, but they weren't the same.
And I'm thinking the prodigal's family is going to have to adjust to a different son, or at least to a profoundly changed one. Maybe a man who had been toughened by life on the street, or one who was humbled by his failure and the disappointment of his family, or one who was shamed at what he had done. They threw him a big party, but what happened the next day?
Third perspective: Most of us when we hear this parable we associate it with our own leaving of home. The moment, or years, when we spread our wings and fly, maybe to college or to a job in another community. And we identify ourselves and our siblings with characters in the parable based on how far away we went. Now that distance may be miles, but it may be psychic - how completely did we break away from home?
And in this reading, of course, the father symbolizes God, who rejoices when a beloved offspring returns!
I want to leave you today considering this story from the perspective of a child whose parents divorced. From such a child's point of view, it is the father, or mother, who has gone away, abandoned home, abandoned me. Perhaps in dissolute living or selfish living, or to escape a dangerous living situation. But it's the child, not the father, who abides, waiting, longing for the beloved parent to return. In many cases the child feels responsible for the parent's departure, so feelings of guilt are often stronger than feelings of abandonment. A child of divorced parents may imagine welcoming the lost parent back, and dream about running to hug that parent when they return. But then what? Does the child imagine giving orders? Kill the fatted calf, let's throw a party and have music and dancing? Or does the child imagine saying, "I'm glad you're back, Dad, are you going to leave again? Are you going to start taking care of me now, like you're supposed to? Can I be a child again?"
Three takes on one parable. There are others - each of you has stories that measure up or down, to the parable Jesus told us, this morning's reading. See how scripture is alive, because we're alive? The Father commanded a party. Are you ready to celebrate?