March 6, 2016
Fourth Sunday in Lent
OSA, New York, NY
The Revised Standard Version translation of the Bible we read says the son gathered all that he had and went and squandered it in “dissolute” living. When I was in Sunday School and growing up we read from the King James translation of the Bible. There it says the son wasted his inheritance in “riotous” living.
“Dissolute” which means “debauched, decadent, intemperate,” is probably the better translation, but “riotous”, for us 13 and 14 year olds, stimulated our imaginations in ways that made us fearful of but also excited by this bad boy. Maybe I should talk for myself alone. I was really curious about what this disgraceful son was doing in that far away country.
After 40 years in ministry and at the advanced age that I am, I think now I know, and you probably do also, and we don’t have to go into details. We can say that this “prodigal son”, as we always referred to the story, was a self-indulgent narcissist who had no regard for his family or anyone else but who simply pursued his personal desires and wants. What a jerk. I know, I’ve been there. I’ve been a jerk, too.
Who do you think fits the image of the prodigal son among current public figures?
Not to mention any names but an editorial in the paper this week, written by an evangelical Christian intellect (no, that is not an oxymoron), explains why he cannot vote for a certain presidential candidate, a man who “humiliated his first wife by conducting a very public affair, chronically bullies and demeans people, and says he has never asked God for forgiveness. His name is emblazoned on a casino that features a strip club; he has discussed anal sex on the air with Howard Stern and, after complimenting his daughter Ivanka’s figure, pointed out that if she ‘weren’t my daughter; perhaps I would be dating her.’ … He is a narcissist appealing to people whose faith declares that pride goes before a fall.” You can feel the anger, a fierce and righteous anger, toward this prodigal man who arouses fear and excitement in all kinds of people, and trashes our moral compass. What a jerk.
It is tempting to feel moral outrage toward the prodigal son, and his older brother does. Here is a model of good, clean living, of someone with an honest work ethic, of faithfulness, of family love and contentment with what is however easy or difficult it might be. I can imagine this older brother cautioning his younger brother not to do, to stay focused, to take the long view, to not rush to satisfy immediate desires, to suppress is wanderlust and be a good boy. So, when the young son comes dragging home after having wrecked his life, the brother turns hard in his heart, unforgiving and dissociates himself from his and his family. If the young son caused a rift in the family because of his flagrant and selfish ways, the older son causes an even more serious riff because of his righteous indignation.
Helmut Thielicke, a 20th century German theologian and a member of The Confessing Church, a group that opposed Hitler, calls this not the parable of the Prodigal Son but the parable of “The Waiting Father.” Literarily, the father is the central figure in this story. He is there at the beginning, in the middle and at the end. It is the father who is abused and disrespected, abandoned and ignored. It is also the father who with his kiss and hug shows the greatest remorse for the breach in relationships that has occurred. It is the father, unlike either of the sons, who exhibits no self-interest but on the contrary extends his generosity above and beyond in order to encourage true reconciliation. For this, Thielicke says, the father waited and waited, patiently, every day going out to the head of the lane to see if his wayward son was returning.
So I think the point of this story is not found in the son’s conversion, although there are lessons to be learned. Haste makes waste is a simple one. Thinking you have to leave home in order to find fulfillment is another one. Rejecting the faith of your fathers and mothers probably isn’t going to bring you greater enlightenment is a third. Changing your ways and starting over when you’ve degraded yourself is a good idea, even though this story makes it sound easier than it is, and can be done.
But for anyone to make a change to any degree that the prodigal son does, requires a long-suffering, waiting and watchful, patience. Grace and mercy are required. Determination and generosity are needed in order to convince the lost and found that they are welcome and accepted back into the family. All of this modeled by the father, and why we say that this parable describes God as we know God in Christ Jesus.
But there is something else needed for reconciliation to occur. And that is humility. This, too, is what the waiting father shows us. When the young son wants his share of the property, the father gives it to him, thinking maybe that the son has a great business plan in mind where he will take his ten talents and turn them into twenty, which is the subject of another parable of Jesus, as you know. When the son returns, having lived among the pigs, the father is not stand-offish, but enfolds him in his arms, filled with compassion. And when the older son refuses to celebrate, the father pleads – pleads - with his own son for understanding and assures him that he loves him, always and with everything that he has. The father understands repentance and hardness of heart among the righteous, and is humbly patient with both.
There is a chapter from the Bible that many couples have wanted read at their weddings. It is 1 (“one”) Corinthians 13. Here is a portion of it and note how it describes the waiting father: “If I give away all my possessions…but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. … Faith, hope, and love abide, but the greatest of these is love.”
Maybe St. Paul was reflecting on the story of the Waiting Father, and the way that Jesus lived his life for us, when he wrote those inspired words. Because, it surely describes the father and who God is.
Thielicke’s title for this story is “The Waiting Father.” Before I read Thielicke I always knew it as the story of the Prodigal Son. But after reading this story so many times over the years, I have another story title, “The Prodigal Father.” “Prodigal” does have negative connotations, but it also simply means “excessive.” And that describes the father and God, excessive in love and patience and humility, all qualities that we might pray for ourselves to possess, and pray that our next president will have.