Episcopal Church of the Advent, Sumner
Joshua 5:9-12; Psalm 32; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Our son is in kindergarten, and I took him on his first spring break trip this week to visit my mother in South Carolina. You drive past a lot of churches on the road from Spartanburg, South Carolina to Jackson, Mississippi, all shapes and sizes and denominations, many with those signs out front where they post a weekly bible verse, or some wise or witty proverb, or the title of the Sunday sermon. Just so you know, in small towns across the southeast this morning, there are sermons being preached on “Priming the Pump of Morality,” “Who’s Excluded,” and “How Much Will My Sin Cost You.” A church in Greenwood has a month-long series titled “March Into Heaven.” Now, I know we Episcopalians need to work on being more inviting, but thank goodness we don’t put sermon titles on a sign outside the church. I've always been terrible at titles. Some preachers think of the title first, whether it’s straightforward or clever, and then write the sermon from there. Not me. I’d have to do the title last, and even then….on my computer this sermon will be titled “Lent 4C”.
Titles, whether of sermons or stories or songs or anything at all, convey something of the essence of the whole work. A title has to capture our attention, pull us in, convince us that this work has something we are looking for. The title is the first and perhaps only chance a preacher or writer has at letting the world know what she or he has to say. It may describe the circumstances of writing (Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians), or focus on one element within the text (Jane Eyre, Charlotte’s Web), or reveal a theme that runs throughout the whole work (Much Ado About Nothing). Always, though, titles are at least gently interpretive, telling us what’s important about what we’re about to read or hear.
“The Parable of the Prodigal Son” is the title we hear most often for this morning’s gospel reading. It’s what I wrote down when I started making my sermon notes. I was struck as I read through various commentaries, though, by how many different titles I saw for this passage. Some used “The Prodigal Son”, but there were others, as well, which got me thinking about the significance of titles when we’re telling the stories of our lives and of our faith. WWJT – What Would Jesus Title this or any of his parables, his stories?
We think we have these parables all figured out – especially one as familiar as the prodigal son; but the thing is, as soon as we think that, we’ve actually completely missed the point both of what parables are and of whatever it is Jesus is trying to tell us in any particular parable. So here we go. Perhaps the title of the rest of this sermon might be: “The Parable Formerly Known as the Parable of the Prodigal Son”.
Volumes have been written about the nature and purpose of parables as used by Jesus in his teaching. It turns out that most things we think parables are – metaphors, illustrations, allegories, explanations, riddles – they’re not. The Greek word for parable means something like “to lay beside.” In his parables, Jesus laid ordinary images and actions that his listeners would understand beside images and actions of God at work in and through creation in extraordinary ways they couldn’t begin to imagine. Theologian Walter Wink writes, “Parables are tiny lumps of coal squeezed into diamonds…that catch the rays of something ultimate and glint it at our lives.”
What is the ultimate something reflected in this morning’s parable, filled with such ordinary images as family, far countries and failure, pigs, parties and pouting? What is glinted at our lives, illuminating extraordinary things we might not otherwise see? Again, Walter Wink writes, “Parables participate in the reality which they communicate…they can never be exhausted; they always contain more than we can tell.” Parables are more than a metaphor, more than an allegory; they are also more than a single story, for Jesus turns every parable like a diamond so that we can glimpse whatever ultimate something he wants us to know in many facets. No wonder it’s so hard to come up with a title for this or any parable. Each title gently interprets what we see, refracting the light through one facet or another of the diamond.
Suppose we do call this “The Parable of the Prodigal Son.” It’s such an appropriate story for Lent, isn’t it, this wayward young man who by his own fault strayed far from where he belonged, and then when things got rough came to himself, Luke writes, and finally returned home to confess his sins and to try to bargain for a new life for himself. It is a story of repentance, which we are called to in this season – repentance, coming to ourselves, putting on our right minds, returning to where and to whom we belong.
But now notice, because surely the prodigal son did, that his father embraced and kissed him before he ever even opened his mouth to begin his carefully rehearsed confession. Some say this is when the real moment of repentance occurred, when breathless in the arms of his father the prodigal son understood that he was already forgiven and made his confession as a humble response. Ah…is that a glint, something ultimate, perhaps? What can we see in its light…
…How have we squandered what we have been given – not just things, but abilities, relationships, responsibilities, faith? How far are we from where we belong (What if the title was “The Parable of the Far Country”? One preacher suggested that the ‘far country’ can be as close as a single step away when that step takes us in a different direction from God’s will for us…)? How do we come to confession – bargaining for forgiveness, or in humble gratitude for having already been forgiven?
Now suppose we call our passage “The Parable of the Elder Brother.” It’s only fair to give him a chance – elder brothers always get the short straw in the bible: Cain, Ishmael, Esau, Simeon, Judah, Isachaar and seven other elder brothers of Joseph… And after all, this morning’s parable ends with the father standing before the elder brother, his arms once again outstretched in love for one who is wayward, although this one seems to have always done everything faithfully, everything right. He’s never left home, never been to a far country, never (apparently) even been to a party. The elder brother is (or fancies himself to be) the voice of reason in what appears to be a highly unreasonable situation. That’s great he’s back, dad, but the fatted calf? The nice robes? Your best ring? Dad, it’s Lent. Those who are penitent put on sackcloth and ashes, they wail and weep, they eat bread (if they eat at all) and drink water. He doesn’t deserve a party. I do.
And so there they stand, surrounded by merriment because what was dead is alive, what was lost is found. The irony at this point is that if the elder brother would just relent – if he would just repent – and go to the party, he would find that it was indeed for him as well. We don’t have to be in a far country to be lost – we can be in the midst of the kingdom and feel alienated from it if we for a single moment think that deserving has anything to do with being there, that deserving has anything to do with being forgiven. In the elder brother, we see the painful, lonely, angry moment before repentance has occurred, before there has been reconciliation, the restoration of a right relationship as a son and as a brother.
Who among our brothers, our sisters, perhaps even ourselves, have we not forgiven because it does not seem deserved? In our families, our communities and our churches, are there more prodigal sons or elder brothers? How would you write the next part of the elder brother’s story?
One commentary I read titled this “The Parable of the Father Who Had Two Sons.” In many of Jesus’ parables there are two or more sons or servants who behave in varying shades of faithfulness or unfaithfulness, and so right away the expectation is set up for one of the sons to be the winner and the other to be the loser. That’s also the game the world plays today, right? There can only be one person at the top….
But notice what Jesus has done – in this parable, the father calls both the prodigal and the elder sons, and everything he gives them, everything he does for them and everything he says to them is rooted in that relationship, no matter what they do or say. This is not a good son/bad son story – it is the story of a father who had two sons, the story of God who has more sons and daughters than stars in the sky... Yet another glint...
I like this one – “The Parable of the Waiting Father.” He waited on the front porch for – how long? – for the prodigal son to return. He waits on the front porch for – how long? – for the elder brother to come inside. And so God waits…and waits…and waits…not just to glint a ray of something ultimate our way but to shower us with resurrection light, the ultimate gift of forgiveness once given, never earned. God is always waiting with open arms for our return.
In just a few moments, we will have the opportunity to make our humble and grateful response - to repent, to make our confession, laying before God our sins, those things that stand between us and the party of a lifetime. Paul tells us we are then given not just the fatted calf but the ministry of reconciliation – the calling to carry out in the world the work that has been carried out in us.
It might help then to read this as “The Parable of the Father’s Servants,” looking through the facet of the unnamed, unnumbered servants who ate bread enough and carried out the father’s commands without hesitation. What gifts has God entrusted to us – individually and as a church – to distribute among those who have found their way home? How eagerly do we share the good news, as the father’s servants share the good news of the prodigal’s return? Ultimately, we are called to imitate the actions of the father, as Jesus himself did. Our diocesan vision statement makes a nice title, then: “The Parable of One Church in Mission: Inviting, Transforming, Reconciling,” for the story teaches what it means to be ambassadors for Christ, always waiting, always welcoming, always embracing, always seeking, always forgiving….
It’s not easy to come up with titles, but endings can be tough, too. The Rev. Robert Farrar Capon suggests this ending: “God will say to everybody, ‘You were dead and are alive again; you were lost and are found; put on a funny hat and step inside.’” Amen.