by the Reverend Nancy Emmel Gunn
Editor's note: Nope, you're not seeing things! We thought the text for Pastor Nancy's sermon had gotten lost in the transfer to a new computer, but she found it. How appropriate: it was lost, and then found...
We find ourselves this Fourth Sunday of Lent in another parable, the story of the prodigal son. This is the longest and the most well-known of Jesus’ parables.
We know this story. But how we interpret it, depends on which side of the fence you are on: the side of the goody two-shoes son, or the bad boy. Some of us are a little of both.
We know that the often understood meaning of this story is that the father who welcomes the bad boy back to the farm with open arms, represents God. God welcomes us back home to God’s embrace, no matter what.
Oh maybe we don’t admit it, but for some of us, rewarding the bad boy sticks in our craw. We hate to hear how the younger son is welcomed with a party no less, and the good son, the one like us, who has stayed by his father’s side, knocking his brains out to maintain the family farm, is embarrassed for resenting his brother.
Those of us in the goody two-shoes camp, get it. The elder son says to his father:
“For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command, but you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But then when this son of yours comes back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him.”
We secretly cheer the elder on. He appears entirely justified in being upset about the welcome party for his ne'er-do-well brother. The younger son took his share of what he would have inherited, left home, and squandered it. The elder has done his father’s bidding; he has been loyal and hardworking. And he would have been rewarded. Had the younger brother not returned, he would have continued to work on his father’s farm, and would have inherited it upon his father’s death. It is likely that now that his brother’s inheritance has been divided and squandered, that the remaining property would have been shared between them.
And after leaving his family, spending his inheritance, and finding himself penniless, the younger son takes a job with another landowner, feeding the pigs. There could not be a more humiliating job for young Jewish man. Eating pork was banned by Jewish dietary laws, so tending pigs would be a job for the lowest of the low. Probably worse than being a drug dealer today. And this job still left him hungry. The younger son has this thought: "My father’s workers are fed better than me, I will return to my father. "
It doesn’t look like the younger has done anything resembling repentance here. He plans what he will say to his father: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”
If you have never been a bad boy, or bad girl, it may be hard for you to sympathize with the younger son. Perhaps he too had been an obedient son, but expected that his elder brother would inherit his father’s land. Then he would be left with one half of what ever cash and personal property was left. And perhaps his conduct carousing abroad was a response to the oppression of trying to be someone he was not. We do not know his motivation for leaving his family.
As I said in the beginning of this sermon, some of us have been a bit of both the brothers. Sometimes the good son, sometimes the bad son. I belong to that group. While I have spent most of my life in the goody two-shoes camp, I spent several years on the wrong side of the family history.
I grew up in a troubled family. My parents were recovering alcoholics, and although sober during my life, the lingering effects of addiction remained with my parents. My mother, although dry from alcohol, was very difficult to get along with and sometimes physically and emotionally abusive. I spent much of my childhood trying to anticipate her moods and pacify her upsets. As a young adult, the effects of too much hyper-vigilance and parental caretaking took a toll on me. After my father’s death, like the prodigal son, I left home.
I stayed away from my mother for some time, got help, and worked defining and strengthening myself. My extended family was appalled at me. I was gossiped about and left out. I did not feel good about my choice, but I could not reenter that relationship until I was healthy and ready.
One day, the moment came. I received a call that my mother was in the hospital in Chicago, and I traveled to see her. I sat on her hospital bed and apologized. I had reached a point where I was not a person who could be unkind to an 80-year-old woman. No matter the history. And I was truly sorry that my journey had hurt her. I was accountable. I looked into her watery, vacant eyes, and saw that she could not have understood my motivation. And so I offered no explanation. She welcomed me. I was not surprised. Like the prodigal son, I did expect she would welcome me back.
What was transformational for me was that I could have my own personal integrity and could have compassion for my mother at the same time. Some of my relatives would say that what I did amounted to abandoning my family and was unforgiveable. From my perspective, I cared for myself and was accountable for my behavior. My mother never did apologize for her conduct over those many years. I did not seek her apology, and I did not expect it. She died within the year of our reconciliation. I am blessed that I was there as she passed from this life.
Perhaps those of you who have always been on the good side of the family history, will not know what drives one to leave home. And those of you from the prodigal son camp might find that the elder sons have not had the courage to live by their own convictions and dreams.
We need not judge either brother though. We don’t have to take sides. We can land on the side of being human beings. A little good, a little bad. And no matter, our Father, our God, still and always, loves us and welcomes us home. Amen
The Reverend Nancy Emmel Gunn is Priest-in-Charge at St. John's.
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Various members of the St. John's congregation contribute to this blog. For editorial suggestions, contact Jeff McIntire-Strasburg at firstname.lastname@example.org
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