The late film critic, Roger Ebert, had an observation in one his reviews that I have been thinking about a bunch this week. Ebert was reviewing a film that contained a bunch of parables. And he said:
…all good parables [are] expressed not in words but in emotions.
If Ebert is right, then the question for us this morning goes like this. As we listen to Jesus tell one of his most famous parables, maybe his most famous parable, the one that some Bibles entitle The Prodigal Son, how are we to feel? How are we to feel about God? About ourselves? About faith? About life?
One possible answer – maybe it’s the first one that comes to your mind, I don’t know – is that to encounter God is to be almost overwhelmed with joy and with gratitude. I’m going to venture that we have, all of us here this morning, made mistakes, done things that we regret, done things of which we are even ashamed. We have wished that we could go back in time and undo the words that we said or left unsaid; that we could go back and put the effort into maintaining a friendship that we damaged or simply let lapse; that we could go back and make a different choice on the day that changed everything in our lives. Failing that, failing a scenario in which we have access to a time machine, we wish that we could be forgiven. That we could be welcomed home once more.
All of us have been the younger son in this story, longing to be welcomed home, even as a servant.
And all of us – I hope, I trust – have indeed had the experience of being welcomed home, at least once. An experience in which we are staggered by the forgiveness of another person and of the forgiveness of God. In which we remember, as the old hymn has it, that great is the Lord’s faithfulness. That the Lord can and will forgive even someone like you or like me. And more than that, that the Lord will celebrate, that the Lord will throw a party when we come home.
Here is the other old hymn: Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.
To hear Jesus’ story about God, about the Kingdom, is not just to feel joy and gratitude, but to be amazed by joy and gratitude.
That’s one possible answer to our question: How do we feel when Jesus tells us this parable? And it’s a really good answer. I want to be clear that I’m not doing that annoying rhetorical thing where someone shares an argument with you for no purpose other than to later tear it down.
Joy and amazed gratitude may not be the only emotions that this story might inspire in us. Much as we all have been the younger son, welcomed home with a celebration in spite of everything, we all have been the older son, watching our brother welcomed home.
Maybe what we feel hearing this parable is resentment and anger.
What is it like to be given a group assignment by a teacher only to discover that there is a classmate in your group who is checked out, who is simply not pulling their weight? And then, on the strength of your effort, to see that classmate get an A on the assignment? Or way more intense even than that, what is it like to be the one who steps up for an aging parent, taking them to appointments, advocating for them with doctors, maybe having them move in with you, while your other siblings are passive and distant, only to discover, on the day when the will is read, that your parent remembered everyone equally.
Sometimes, folks will cast the older brother as the one who just doesn’t get it, as this cautionary tale about, I don’t know, preferring the law over the love of God (quite a bit of anti-Semitism has flowed out of that reading). But actually, the older brother is behaving thoroughly reasonably, he’s behaving as I would probably behave in this same scenario. I think it’s Barbara Brown Taylor who poses the question, “Are you in favour of parties for prodigals?”
Here’s the younger brother, he’s leaned on his softy of a Dad until his Dad has caved and given him his inheritance early. And with that money, the younger brother has gone to the city and picked up a sports car and a drug habit. His life has been party after party, he’s spent his Dad’s money and more, maxing out every credit card that he can get his hands on. The older brother would’ve liked to go to the occasional party, he had his own wild oats that he wanted to sow. But he didn’t. He stayed home and did his duty.
The older son has heard that his kid brother has finally run out of money. And on his good days, his generous days, the older son can imagine his Dad letting his kid brother crash in the basement for a while. But making him work in return for his room and board. Because what his kid brother needs is tough love.
But that’s not what his Dad gives him. There is nothing even remotely tough about this love. It is naïve and generous beyond a fault.
The older brother hears the sound of the party and his hands shake with anger. And I can’t blame him. In this parable, Jesus has a major character who says, quite reasonably, that’s not fair. And how does the story reply? It says:
You’re right. It’s not fair. Unfair is what the Kingdom is like.
The late poet and theologian, John O’Donohue, has an absolutely amazing poem/prayer. It’s called For the Parents of One Who Has Committed a Crime. Although it could just as well be called For the Parents of a Prodigal. I thought about reading part of it to you. But I realised that there was no gracious place to stop or to cut. So I’d like to share with you the whole thing. It goes like this:
No one else can see beauty
In his darkened life now.
His image has closed
Like a shadow.
When people look at him,
He has become the mirror
Of the damage he has done.
But he is yours;
And you have different eyes
That hold his yesterdays
In pictures no one else remembers:
Waiting for him to be born,
Not knowing who he would be,
The moments of his childhood,
First steps, first words,
Smiles and cries,
And all the big thresholds
Of his journey since…
He is yours in a way
No words could ever tell;
And you can see through
The stranger this deed has made him
And still find the countenance of your son.
Despite all the disappointment and shame,
May you find in your belonging with him
A kind place, where your spirit will find rest.
May new words come alive between you
To build small bridges of understanding.
May that serenity lead you beyond guilt and blame
To find that bright field of the heart
Where he can come to feel your love
Until it heals whatever darkness drove him
And he can see what it is he has done
And seek forgiveness and bring healing;
May this dark door open a path
That brightens constantly with new promise.
God is the one who always sees beauty in darkened lives. God sees that beauty in your life and mine, even in our darkest moments. And God sees that beauty in everyone else, ever those who least deserve it. God is the one who sees the strangers that our deeds sometimes make us.
How should we feel when we hear this story? Full of joy and gratitude? Yes. Full of anger and resentment? Sometimes, yes. But if the saints are right, and it is your calling and mine to imitate Christ, then following the one who sees beauty in darkened lives means that you and I are called to do likewise, that we are called to welcome the hurting sinner home, to look out at the world, in spite of everything, with hearts full of love.