Jesus was a master storyteller. Jesus wove stories that taught about God and about God’s reign, God’s reign: the coming commonwealth of love and justice, God’s reign an alternative way of living for the time being. Jesus’ stories tell us about God, and the world God is dreaming and conspiring to build even now. Some of Jesus’ stories are so strong, as a preacher I almost want to simply let them stand on their own, without a sermon. Almost.
The story we have today from Jesus is one of those stories. I want to lay just a little bit of commentary alongside this story. The parable is too thick for a full explanation in the time allotted, but given the state of our city, the state of our state, the state of our world, I am grateful to have a chance to sit today with this Gospel.
Should we call this story “The Prodigal Son?” or the Rule-Breaking Father?
You may have noticed, I’ve avoided using the common name for the story. The late Rev. Dr. Peter Gomes, longtime preacher at Harvard’s Memorial Church quibbled with the traditional title: “the Prodigal son.” Gomes pointed out that words “prodigal son” are nowhere in the text. He said, “the story is not about the son or about the sons, rather it is about the father.” Really, this story should be called the “Parable of the father.”
We understand the father figure in this story to stand for God. Jesus often called God “Father.” He taught the disciples to pray “Our Father, who art in heaven.” You may have heard Christians say that Jesus’ use of “Father” for God is unique, a special theological development. Calling God “father” marks a certain closeness of Christians to God. Well, I’d invite you to ask our rabbi in residence Rori Picker Neiss that question next week when she’s here to preach. She can point to at least a few times in the prophets and in the Torah where God is called Father. God is also called a mother in the Bible. In our Gospel a few weeks ago Jesus compared God to a mother hen.
Jesus wasn’t alone in thinking of God as a parent, and I would venture to say that Christians who prefer to think of themselves as God’s favorite children among the religions of the world, well, like the older brother in the parable, they may need some therapy. Because God loves all her children. This story isn’t about some sort of Christian exceptionalism. What makes this teaching exceptional is not that Jesus spins a tale of God the Father. What is important is the kind of father Jesus presents.
I want you to notice today how counter-culturally the father in the parable behaves. The parent of the prodigal defies the norms, especially first century norms, for a man. The love, the mercy, the generosity with which the father greets the wayward child is outlandish, offensive. Men are expected to be economic guardians. Men take care of property. Fathers are expected to be just, to demand loyalty and obedience. This father refuses to behave the way we expect in a patriarchal society.
Jesus gives us the image of a Father which breaks the toxic norms of masculinity. The absence of a mother here is striking. Often in the Bible, as in life, mothers are stuck in the position to mediate and moderate. Mothers are the ones known for compassion. I wonder whether Jesus left any mention of a woman out so that the story would be more defiant of gender and power norms. If the father is a stand in for God, God’s love isn’t a negotiation. God’s mercy overwhelms our expectations. I wish we had a parallel story about a mother. Maybe Jesus told one and his editors decided it was too radical.
Before I go much further, a pause. Parenting is a challenge, and parenting is also a privilege. Not everyone gets to parent. Not everyone who wants to parent is able, for reasons of biology or economics. I can’t tell you how many couples I have prayed with who so desperately wanted to become pregnant, to stay pregnant. It happened for some, but not for all. If this Gospel, if this sermon is difficult for you because it is about a parent, please hear me say: this is a story for you too.
This story is about how God treats all of us, about how God receives and accepts us all. There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, as the old hymn says. God does not behave the way we expect God to behave. God does not allow justice to get in the way of mercy. God does not allow righteousness to stand in the way of love. You are loved. You are accepted. You are welcomed with open arms. Period. God welcomes us all to the feast. God runs to you, even when you are far off.
This is a story about for, and it is also a story about how we can treat one another. If Paul says we shouldn’t regard one another with a human point of view, Jesus shows us what regarding one another in a Godly way looks like, what it feels like. This isn’t just a story about how a father treats a son. It is also a story about two siblings. This one of the less violent sibling rivalry stories in the Bible, but still the steadfast older brother, the one who stayed when the prodigal left, the one who toiled in his father’s fields, he is sullen. He is grumpy.
This is a story about how hard it is for human beings to comprehend the love of God, the forgiveness of God. We have a hard time understanding God, especially when we think we are in the right, especially when we are proud of ourselves. God is always more merciful, always more welcoming, always more ready to celebrate than we can understand.
I want to share just two simple contemporary anecdotes to illustrate Jesus’ story, and then I am going to sit down. I’ll let the rest of Jesus’ story stand on its own.
The Confirmation Hearings
The first: I happened to be in Washington, DC this week. When folks asked where I was visiting from and I said, “Missouri,” inevitably the response came: “your senator sure made a spectacle of himself in those confirmation hearings for Justice-nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson.” I was embarrassed.
Early in the questioning, Brown Jackson was asked whether her faith was important to her. She answered emphatically, “yes.” She kept on answering how important her faith was through her actions. Judge Brown Jackson met disrespect with respect. She met baseless accusation with competent explanation of the law. She showed those senators what it means to be called “honorable.”
At one point our senator seemed to accuse the judge of being “too compassionate.” Now I don’t get a vote on the Supreme Court nominees, but anyone who can be called “too compassionate” passes my religious test. Jesus’ teaching tells us, err on the side of compassion. Don’t let racism, bigotry, economics or the patriarchy get in your way. Err on the side of mercy. That’s the first story.
Aristotle and Dante
The second story I want to share with you is actually a work of fiction, one that brings us back to parenting. My husband Ellis is finishing his master’s in library science. Last semester he took a class on juvenile literature, and he introduced me to a book called “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe.” I wish the book had been around when I was in high school.
Aristotle and Dante is a love story between two boys, but frankly it isn’t the love between the boys that really makes the story. I hope this isn’t too much of a spoiler, but what matters in the book is the love of the parents for their kids.
Both my husband and I have incredibly accepting families, but Dante and Aristotle have even more exceptional parents. The novel was written by a gay man, Benjamin Alire Saenz . Frankly, I think he gave Dante and Aristotle’s parents the words he wished his own parents had known to say. I think he wrote what he wished his queer friends’ parents had known to say too. With these parents, there is no hesitation. There is no hand-wringing. There is only love. These parents don’t just figure out how to accept their queer kids. These parents help their queer kids figure out how to accept themselves. I get goosebumps just thinking about it.
The God Jesus invites us to know
In his story, I think Jesus is giving us permission to find that kind of parental love in God. God wants us to learn how to accept ourselves. As Thomas Merton used to say, “God loves us better than we can love ourselves.” God doesn’t need to fret over the ways society says we fall short. God doesn’t even need to fret over our sins. God, always, wants us to join in the feast of God’s love for us. God also, always, was us to join in the feast of God’s love for those around us. God wants us to know we are so deeply loved that we might learn to love ourselves, and learn to really love others.
If you have struggled with your parents, I am sorry. Parenting can teach love and acceptance, but often parents fall short. We humans fail one another. God dreams of a world where every single one of us knows love from the start, the kind of love where human frailty doesn’t get in the way. Sometimes learning to love ourselves means putting up boundaries, so that we stop unhealthy patterns. Sometimes the only safe way to love is with good boundaries. Jesus has stories about that as well. Today though, Jesus is trying to break open wide our sense of the power of love to defy societal expectations.
If you are a parent, the responsibility is big. But it’s bigger than our preconceived notions of family as well. Thankfully God’s love shows up in surprising relationships. If you are Godparent, if you are a trusted friend, an AA Sponsor, a sibling, a co-worker, a teacher, the responsibility is big. God trusts you with this life-reshaping power of acceptance, of forgiveness, of love. You have it within you to welcome prodigals. Will you love with abandon?
At a time when we are so divided, at a time when so many of us have been away from one another for so long. In a moment when there is so much anxiety about how we will be received as we return, take your cue from Jesus. Welcome people home.
Open your arms as wide as you can. Show reckless mercy. Get accused of being too compassionate. Embarrass yourself and your family members with the way you love on those whom you have missed. Then you will be closer to the amazing grace of God.