Sometimes the people who designed the lectionary cycle of readings get it very right, and in my view the decision to place the parable of the prodigal son right in the midst of the season of Lent is one of those occasions. There is no question that many of the gospel readings in this season bring a kind of heaviness—Jesus’ lament for Jerusalem, for instance, or last week’s reading in which the call to repentance was sounded with great clarity—and so to now hear one of the great parables of grace might seem a bit of a surprise.
Might it not be best to read this parable in Eastertide? I mean after all, as Robert Capon is fond of pointing out, it is a parable shot through with the theme of death/resurrection. At the beginning of the parable—which Capon calls “the parable of the man who had two sons”—the younger brother comes to his father and asks for his share of the inheritance now; asks, in other words, that his father effectively drop dead. That son then goes off and destroys life as he had known it, and when he comes home it is with the words “I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” Whatever life he’d had as a son was dead and gone, in other words. The response of the father in the parable is to declare that “this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” It is because he has been able to swallow his pride and confess his deadness to his father that he is in a place where the father can speak a deeper truth over him… he’s alive! Somewhat mischievously, Capon says that even the fatted calf dies, so that a great party can be raised… The only figure who doesn’t know death/resurrection in the story is that older son, who refuses to celebrate the return of his lost brother.
It is the figure of that older brother that locates the parable in Lent, though not only him. The challenge to step into wilderness terrain for these Lenten weeks is not meant to be a time of arbitrary self-denial or penitence, but rather as an invitation to take a hard look at ourselves; what makes me tick, what motivates me, where do I fall down, how might my heart and mind need to be transformed? That whole practice of “giving up something for Lent”—a practice I know many people here are in the midst of observing—is meant to steadily remind us to pay attention to ourselves in this way. It isn’t meant to be a test—can I live without ice cream for 40 days?—and it certainly isn’t about winning God’s favour or approval. God is already on our side, quite madly in love with us in all our complexities, as this parable tonight should make abundantly clear.
In his Wednesday evening Lenten reflection a couple of weeks ago, Steve Bell framed the challenge of this season in terms borrowed from the Twelve Step movement; “to make a fearless moral inventory.” I think Steve was basically right in making this connection, though it might be fair to say that at the point the prodigal son dares to look at himself it is not so much a “fearless” moral inventory that he is making as it is a statement of his profound brokenness. Maybe something closer to the first of the Alcoholics Anonymous 12 steps: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.” The prodigal has hit rock bottom, and has lost it all. The only work he can find is feeding pigs, which really marks the bottom of the barrel when you remember that this story was told by a Jewish teacher to a Jewish audience.
Admitting the unmanageable shape of his life, the son begins to make his way home. In his own mind he is pretty clear as to what he has to say: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you,” which is his admission of guilt over how badly he has failed. That kind of sense of guilt is not a bad thing, you realize, because it can motivate him to change. But then this: “I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” “I am no longer worthy to be called your son,” which is a statement of his shame. Shame is a deeper problem, because whereas guilt is feeling badly about what one has done, shame is feeling badly about who one is. Guilt can move us; shame cripples.
The father in the parable knows better, and won’t even let his son roll out the whole of his rehearsed confession. Midway through the line about not being worthy to be called a son, and the father is already into party-planning mode. Never mind that talk about being treated as a servant… “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 then Jesus adds, “And they began to celebrate.”
Enter the older brother. It is important to remember what occasioned the telling of this parable: “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” Jesus is telling this parable, along with the two short parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin, as a way of pressing those scribes and Pharisees beyond their exclusive version of religiosity and into something marked by the radical inclusion that is the grace of God. Because we call this the parable of the Prodigal Son, we can sometimes miss the fact that it is this elder brother who is in many ways the real focus of the story.
“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 the older son became angry and refused to go in.” Angry because… “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!” Interesting to note that when Jesus described the mess that the younger brother had gotten himself in to, he never mentions anything about “prostitutes”… that seems to come only from the lurid imagination of the older son!
The father’s answer is clear: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” In other words, the only thing that has ever kept you from holding a party with your friends is yourself. Maybe too cheap, too pious, too driven, to set his work ethic to the side and extend a little hospitality? “But we had to celebrate and rejoice,” the father continues, “because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” End of parable. It is now over to his audience—those exclusive believers who just knew what was right and what was wrong—to decide what the elder brother should do. To decide what they should do.
To return to the theme of Lenten wilderness and to the language of a “fearless moral inventory,” the truth is that this older brother who is really rather lost in a wilderness of his own making. He won’t come into the house—and here notice that the father does go out to meet him, just as he’d gone out to meet the younger son—preferring instead to wallow in his pious resentment. It would certainly rattle his assumptions to do that “fearless moral inventory,” and in fact would put to death his way of seeing himself and the workings of the world. But it would be a mercifully quick death, because all he’d have to do is walk into the house, embrace and accept his brother, pour himself a drink, and get on with the party. You see, the so-called prodigal has already been welcomed home by the father; he’s already been reconciled and reclaimed as a son. It isn’t in the older brother’s jurisdiction to overrule that or to judge it differently. The party is already happening… the remaining question is whether the older son’s pride will keep him from joining in.
Jesus, of course, isn’t just speaking to the scribes and the Pharisees; he’s also speaking to us. And just as Jesus left his parable hanging with its open question, I’m inclined to leave this sermon with its own openness. What’s he saying to us, here, in midst of Lent, as we make our way slowly toward the story of the cross?