Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “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.”’ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’” –Luke 15:11-32
In these days of quarantine I have had the luxury of watching Ken Burns’ various documentaries. One that caught my attention was his Jazz series, where he traces the history of this music that was an American gift to the world. I was most interested in seeing how the big band era came about with all its colorful characters – Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Benny Goodman and so many others. The reason for my fascination has been that my father was a product of that era. Coming from Czechoslovakia, my grandparents wanted my dad to play the violin, which he did, and was from all accounts quite talented, studying at Juilliard for awhile. However, his love was the trombone, and he would often swap out his violin to play in bands in New York City, unbeknownst to his parents. When the war came along, my father was stationed in West Texas where he trained bombardiers (I guess the Air Force felt that if one could learn to aim bombs in the winds of West Texas, one could do that anywhere!). There he met my mother and after the war, they made a sojourn to live near New York City, but with no work available, they returned to West Texas where he worked as an accountant for a number of companies. As I was growing up, I saw him retreat to his bedroom many evenings, listening to LPs of big band music, which I, of course, dismissed as outdated and uninteresting compared to my idols, the Beatles and the Beach Boys. What didn’t dawn on me until I watched Burns’ series was that my dad changed his life path for the good of his family. Sadly enough, I never heard him play either instrument, nor did I fully appreciate his giving up a musical dream for our good. How I would love to be able to talk to him about it now… What a difference a perspective makes!
I believe that perspective is the point of today’s parable. It is one of Jesus’ most famous stories, with more sermons, plays, paintings and even songs composed about it than perhaps any other. Interestingly enough, its title, The Prodigal Son, has missed the meaning of the story. Jesus never titled his parables, but over the years folks in the church took it upon themselves to create titles. The first reference to this parable as TheProdigal Son, comes from the Vulgate, the 4th-century Latin translation of the Bible. It uses the term filius prodigus, and while the word prodigal can mean wasteful, it can also be defined as “lavish, luxuriant.” My point is that the Latin translator who gave us this title could have missed the original meaning, because I believe that this story is not so much one of a wandering, wasteful son, as it is of a loving, lavish father, pater prodigus, neither of whose sons really understood him. After all, the story begins, “There once was a man who had two sons.”
The thing that strikes me today is that we so often focus on the sons, and rightfully so, in some instances. This story reveals the human inclination to sibling rivalry. It would seem that we have a pre-Copernican or, may I say, “pre-Prodigal” tendency to compete with our brothers and sisters for our parents’ attention and favor. The late Henri Nouwen, Dutch priest and theologian, once said that, “The hardest thing for us to understand is how God can love all human beings with the same unlimited love, while at the same time loving each of them in a totally unique way . . .” Nouwen went on, “Somehow, we think we can only fully enjoy our being loved by God if others are loved less than we are.” Of course, that misunderstanding regarding parental love consistently sows discord in family life, much to the chagrin of parents. At my mother’s funeral, one of the best things noted about her was that a good case could be made by each of her children and grandchildren that she loved them best. She did exemplify the amazing economics of God’s love — No matter how much love you give from your “account”, the principal is never depleted. I think that is the economics’ lesson that Jesus wanted to teach and for us to learn . . . that, as Augustine said, “God loves each of us as if there were only one of us.” This economics of God can best be described as “prodigal.”
Professor Tom Long tells about one of his students who wrote an essay, reminiscing about her father. She said that when she was young, she was very close to her father. The family would have big parties with all the aunts and uncles and cousins. Their tradition at these parties was to put on polka music and dance. Eventually, someone would put on the “Beer Barrel Polka;” and her father would come up to her, tap her on the shoulder and say, “I believe this is our dance,” and they would dance. Once when she was a teenager and in one of those teenaged moods and the “Beer Barrel Polka” began to play, her father tapped her on the shoulder and said, “I believe this is our dance,” and she snapped at him, “Don’t touch me! Leave me alone!” Her father turned away and never asked her to dance again. “Our relationship was difficult all through my teen years,” she said. “When I would come home late from a date, my father would be sitting there in his chair, half asleep, wearing an old bathrobe, and I would snarl at him, “What do you think you’re doing?” He would look at me with sad eyes and say, “I was just waiting for you.” “When I went away to college,” the woman wrote, “I was so glad to get out of his house and away from him and for years I never communicated with him, but as I grew older, I began to miss him. One day I decided to go to the next family gathering, and when I was there, somebody put on the “Beer Barrel Polka.” I drew a deep breath, walked over to my father, tapped him on the shoulder and said, “I believe this is our dance.” He turned toward me and said, “I’ve been waiting for you.”
Jesus’ story was an attempt to get the folks in his crowd, the older and younger brothers, if you will, to see God not so much as judgmental tyrant but as exponentially-loving parent. Like that father in the essay, our Heavenly Parent’s words are, “I’ve been waiting for you.”
A Time of Reflection and Prayer
Take time to think about your parents and/or parent-figures in your life. Consider how your perspective of them changed over the years as you grew to see them as human beings with both gifts and challenges. Thank God for them.
Take time to think about the children in your life, or perhaps the children in our church. How might they learn of God’s love from you?
How might we as a congregation articulate and share the prodigal love of God?
A Poetic Guide for Prayer: Richard Wilbur’s “The Writer”
In her room at the prow of the house Where light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden, My daughter is writing a story. I pause in the stairwell, hearing From her shut door a commotion of typewriter-keys Like a chain hauled over a gunwale. Young as she is, the stuff Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy: I wish her a lucky passage. But now it is she who pauses, As if to reject my thought and its easy figure. A stillness greatens, in which The whole house seems to be thinking, And then she is at it again with a bunched clamor Of strokes, and again is silent. I remember the dazed starling Which was trapped in that very room, two years ago; How we stole in, lifted a sash And retreated, not to affright it; And how for a helpless hour, through the crack of the door, We watched the sleek, wild, dark And iridescent creature Batter against the brilliance, drop like a glove To the hard floor, or the desk-top, And wait then, humped and bloody, For the wits to try it again; and how our spirits Rose when, suddenly sure, It lifted off from a chair-back, Beating a smooth course for the right window And clearing the sill of the world. It is always a matter, my darling, Of life or death, as I had forgotten. I wish What I wished you before, but harder.