Who is this ‘prodigal’?
March 31, 2019
Scripture: Luke 15:11-32
Again this week, our gospel reading is an old familiar tale. A story we all have heard many times, with its usual lessons regarding any one of the characters in the story. And for reference’ sake, I included the definition printed on the front of your bulletin which tells us that ‘prodigal’ means ‘spending money or resources freely and recklessly’; or living in a way that can be characterized as, ‘wastefully extravagant’. And when reading through the story again I thought it might be interesting to question just who it was that was actually the extravagant one? Was it the usual prime suspect, the younger son? Or perhaps was the father the extravagant one in granting his son such wealth in the first place. For does not the father’s forgiving love seem far more extravagant than the younger son deserves? Does it not seem lavish and to some eyes foolish and wasteful for him to welcome his youngest son back into the home? After he had already consumed and laid waste to that which the father had worked so long to acquire and set aside for his children? Most assuredly so…
…remember that sentiment.
And then of course, there is always the ‘tsk-tsk’ that is applied to the older brother for not being as forgiving and accepting of his younger brother as is his father. But I fear that all of us probably side with this older brother more than we care to admit.
It is so easy to focus on the behavior of one of these three because they are the most obvious entryways into understanding this scripture. But it is a parable, and Jesus used such stories as a means by which to teach something deeper, something usually beyond what seems obvious. And I would like to consider today if this story might not give us the opportunity to look more closely at ourselves. To see if it might be a story within which we can locate or position ourselves.
When considering the behavior of these three we usually take the easiest route of elevating our self-opinion. Almost always assuring ourselves that we would definitely not act like either the prodigal younger son or his brother, and somehow hoping we would also be gracious enough and forgiving enough to imitate the behavior of the father, whom of course we see as our own gracious God.
However, I wonder if it is perhaps possible to see even this old and familiar story in a different light. To set aside our tendency to take this slimmest of moral interpretations and instead look to see if in fact there might be another perspective…at least for us in this day and in our own current social and economic station. In other words, do we interpret the parable in one of these ‘historically safe ways’ in order to keep it at more of a distance? In order perhaps to reduce the possibility that any of us might in fact fit into the role of one of the two sons? Are we at all ever guilty of living or acting in a wastefully extravagant way? Do our own spending habits and ways of conducting ourselves in our daily life ever rise to the level that might classify us as ‘prodigal’?
As I read this passage I wonder, with all of the discussion of late regarding gross social inequity and economic inequality…along with the constant chatter about the top small percentage having access to or control over the majority of available resources…might we perhaps find the lessons of the ‘prodigal’ more urgent or valid?
On the surface I am sure it is easy to quickly dismiss this question, as our story tells of a young man who absolutely squandered away his future in wild and reckless spending, for surely, we would never ever consider doing the same…but it does make me wonder. Which causes me to reflect on an old question. And that is; if you didn’t know about something, are you still guilty? Or…perhaps better, if you are unaware of the underlying consequences of your lifestyle choices, then are you responsible for the misfortune its production or provision may cause others? Legally speaking of course, ignorance is no excuse if someone is involved in a wrongdoing. But here I wonder…
So, to expand or to more clearly state the question in terms of our parable, if you did not know or did not realize that underlying systemic evil or oppression was required to support your chosen lifestyle, even in ways that seem subtle, then are you in fact responsible to act in ways to bring about change towards greater social justice once you know?
Remember that I told you to hold on to the statement that the father figure in our story, God for our purposes, is extravagantly forgiving. One might even say that God is ‘prodigal’ in loving us. But in considering this question, I find I also wonder if for forgiveness to be realized, and for its effect to bring about needed change, mustn’t there be one who knows they are in need of it. And so, going all the way back to the beginning of our story, who is this one we so casually dismiss as being ‘prodigal’? Is it still so easy to position ourselves fully outside of this parable?
In 21st Century western culture and society, and within our culture and our current way of living, I honestly think it is possible that the behavior of the younger son should give us all pause as regards the standards of living enjoyed and taken for granted by pretty much all of us, myself included. Are we truly aware of the vast structures of human energy and commerce that are required to support the lifestyles we live every day? Do we know how much of our seeming ‘contentment’ depends upon culturally enforced systems of oppressive servitude and labor that are levied on so many who play a part in providing it? And if…or for our purposes, when we do come into that awareness, are we bound by our faith or by the gospel to do anything about it?
Do we need to repent? And if after so many generations of living as this prodigal and entitled race or people, is there still the possibility to return home to a forgiving and welcoming ‘father-God’? Will we ever get to a place where honest understanding and acceptance of our complicity in the systemic abuse that has allowed us to maintain our ‘happiness’ comes to seem like pea-pod pig food as well?
Unfortunately, I feel that for far too long, many in our culture and society have adopted a way of seeing reality as though they were wearing blinders…much as would a horse pulling a carriage down a busy city street. We take on a narrow view, looking straight in front and not to the left or to the right, seeing that which is acceptable in front of us and not noticing what is either on the right or the left that might cause conflict with our understanding or our desires.
And to some extent these self-imposed blinders are understandable as they keep us in the dark, keep us unawares of the underlying effects of our actions or decisions, helping us to avoid feeling responsible for any injustice in the chain of acquisition that in fact supports or reinforces our lifestyle.
And so I find I must again ask, who is this ‘prodigal’? If we fit into that definition at all, even a little bit, what can we do about it? It seems daunting to even consider the upheaval that changes in these basic ways of living might cause. If it is even possible, how can we begin to move towards a more just society? A society where those who have, are sure to care for those who provided for them, a community where those who enjoy great advantage and privilege take real steps to change or eliminate systems that insure that production necessarily oppresses those without those same advantages?
What can we do that is real and substantive, as we try to avoid the usual ‘window-dressing solutions’ to helping the poor…solutions that ultimately do not address the underlying problems but rather serve only to assuage the consciences of those who have? ‘Hand-outs’ are not at all the same as ‘hand-ups’…and until we learn that the call of our faith is to engage the underlying causes of injustice and oppression we will not have walked in the footsteps of our Lord. As opposed to that old saying, it is not ‘give a man a fish’, or ‘teach a man to fish’, but rather, ‘go fish alongside of the man’, for only then will you have the understanding that can only come from not just walking but truly living in another one’s shoes.
But still…it seems too hard to just turn and walk away from our ways of living or all of our comforts, too difficult to see ourselves as those who have an abundance so great that we should feel this need to give away, or even to accept that we too may have a responsibility in righting the scales of divine justice. Surely, we contend, that there are many who are vastly more able than ourselves to give, and to give significantly more. And surely the little that we feel able to extend wouldn’t change much of anything. Is it not perhaps the richest among us we ask who are actually the subjects of Jesus’ words that warned of the dangers and distraction of wealth? Was he not telling all those with far more than they need that it was their responsibility to care for the poor?
My son Joshua recently returned from a trip to the Dominican Republic where he took 14 or so of his high school students to partner with the organization ‘Bridges to Community’ to build a cement block house up in the mountains for a family of eleven. And aside from the natural beauty of the countryside now marred so greatly by pollution and litter, I think the thing that had the greatest impact on him was the level of abject poverty he saw all around him. Not unlike my friend Dan Doyle’s first volunteer dentistry trip to Haiti a number of years ago from which he returned as one totally shell-shocked by the profound difference in what he had, and was used to living with, and what the people he was serving were forced to make do with.
My friends, there is just no comparison between what the vast majority of the earth’s people are forced to live on and what we here in our nation take for granted and in fact, pretty much use at will. I know from personal experience that this true, having been a buyer of decorative housewares and gifts from the Far East a number of years ago. These trinkets were made by the poorest of people, in very hazardous factory conditions, and without the benefit of any health care or safety policies. People in those factories were just one more disposable element of the materials needed to sand-cast, polish, and send these decorative items to the United States. If one laborer became ill or was injured, there were many others waiting to take his or her place.
Truly there are many we do not see who, while it may be true that they have a job within the chain of production for our things, still do not in fact have what is needed to live healthy and safe lives. Something, somewhere needs to change if we are to take ourselves out of this position of being the ‘prodigal ones’.
So…what are we to do…we who have been born into a place and a way of living that is so used to being able to rely on steady supply of all that we need and an even greater abundance of that which we want, but don’t really need?
Somewhere I keep coming back to a version of the same answer I often arrive at. Somehow, I always seem to circle back to the conviction that Jesus, in telling us that the ‘Kingdom of God was at hand’, was actually asking us to work and to strive for the emergence of that blessed, promised, and potential reality each and every moment of our life.
Jesus said, in Matthew 16:18, after Peter had declared that he was the Messiah, that ‘Peter was a rock’, and on the rock of Peter’s faith Jesus would in fact build his ‘church’. Or at least that is the way we always heard it translated. In fact, the word in the Greek that is translated here as ‘church’ is ‘ecclesia’, which more closely or properly translates into ‘community’. Jesus was, and still is calling us to a profound commitment to blessed, loving, sharing, and covenant community. For that is the only way we can begin to understand and enter into the experience of caring for one another in such a way that goodness and grace become the principal drivers of social life and discourse rather than competition and deep class or racial divisions.
Surrendering your resources over into availability for the creation and fulfillment of divine community is the first step. Actually taking those resources and using them yourself to support and enhance local loving community is the active step we each must begin to undertake. For it is not enough to donate from your excess or to even give lavishly in support of hungry children or others in distress in some far-away place. Rather we must personally engage with those in need right within our midst…
…for community must be built in a place. And community needs to be built on mutually blessed exchanges.
…true community is built by people who have learned to fish together…and to share their catch.
For each one of us comes to God’s table with gifts, talents, abilities, and blessings to offer…as well as needs and weaknesses that the whole body gathered can provide for. And by grace, all these who come together in pursuit of blessed community already have access to all that they will need to be successful. Any seeming lack will most assuredly be provided for by the same Lord who taught that if we seek first the kingdom of God and God’s justice, then we will have access to whatever we need.
So…are we at all ‘prodigal-like’ in our lifestyle and spending habits? I think we must admit that in some sense we are. And is our God as forgiving and loving as the father figure in our gospel story? I am sure God is.
So, let us begin the process of creating a community patterned on that first community of Jesus’ followers so long ago. All there for each other, all dependent on one another, all willing to share in community, and all convinced that following this path towards wherever Jesus was leading them was the most blessed and righteous path they had before them.
Come let us spend our love lavishly and even perhaps wastefully on one another. Come, let us share like we knew who it was in whom we were placing our trust! For as we heard earlier…the father figure in our story is in fact that generous, that forgiving, and indeed that determined to use each one of us in bringing about a community of, and for all God’s beloved.