Dear Jesus,

Recently someone asked me how many times I had heard “The Prodigal Son” parable.  I had to be honest and say that I had no idea, since the parable is one of my favorite passages in the gospels.  What came next surprised me.  “When was the last time you really heard it, I mean heard it with an open heart?”  He wasn’t trying to be nasty or cutting.  He was drawing me to enter into his insight that twice-told tales tend to become routine and humdrum.  We seldom can hear them the way we did that first time.

I took my friend’s sharing as a challenge to try to hear the parable anew.  I realize that that’s not easy to do.  A lot of accommodations creep in with multiple readings.  Over the years subconsciously I have added details that are not in the bare text of your telling.  Perhaps those subtleties and nuances are necessary to make the story palatable resulting in my being less uncomfortable.  I should have realized that the easier the story goes down, the farther I am from your intention and meaning.  Your parables always have problems and ultimately are meant to be unsettling, challenging the hearer to see things in a wholly new and different way, to see things the way God does.

So, taking the dare, I sat with the text and let the words wash over me.  I was determined not to accommodate at any point.  I imagined the sound of your voice, hearing a bit of an edge in it because you are speaking to people who are upset with you for the company you keep, for welcoming sinners and eating with them.  Then I thought of a few people whom I won’t name here that, were you to be seen eating with them, I would be upset, too.  And I was hooked.  You had me.  Over the years I had become accustomed to identifying with the returning son.  The story comforted me as a blanket does a thumb-sucking infant.  But you don’t serve pabulum, do you?  Where had I come up with the idea that the Prodigal son wasn’t really that prodigal?  He wasn’t really a sinner, was he?  Was he?

This time, for the first time, he did sin.  He was selfish, preoccupied with himself, and cruel to his father as he told him he could not wait for his father to die to receive his inheritance.  He wanted it now.  You said he squandered his inheritance on dissolute living.  I looked up the word.  It means loose moral living.  Maybe his brother was right in saying that he was involved with prostitutes.  I couldn’t accept that before.  I have forgotten that part of this story has to do with repentance, with being sorry for sin.

Cutting to the chase, let me tell you that this time when I finished the once beloved story, I was aquiver.  Don’t you think this is dangerous stuff if we were to take it literally?  I think it would be fine if you were a prodigal son type, waking up at the bottom of the barrel, so to speak, and suddenly were looking for an excuse to return to the table.  There would be comfort in imagining being received with open arms by a father who had never stopped loving the son.  But think about this from the community’s point of view.  Could they live by these standards and imitate the father in the prodigality of his forgiving?  Wouldn’t that make absolution too easy to come by?  And what would this say to all of those who haven’t strayed.

Don’t you think we have to be more exacting than the father who sounds – pardon me for saying this – sounds foolish in his excesses over the son who had in effect betrayed him?  Shouldn’t there be something of the teacher in the father’s response?  Shouldn’t the son learn a lesson?  What’s to keep the young returnee from doing it all over again?

Are you going to write back to me and tell me that I am still not getting it?  Forgive me for being obtuse.  But think with me for a moment.  What would the church be like if this parable became a foundation piece governing her actions?  There’s wisdom in making things difficult for people once they have crossed the line.  Shouldn’t they have to prove their repentance?  Translate the father’s joy in embracing his returning son to our table of fellowship and it would seem that everyone should be welcome.  Would the church survive long with that attitude?

Tell me.  Are you really saying that there is nothing God loves to do more than to forgive and welcome back?  If the prodigal father is really a God figure, is your story saying that God would risk appearing so foolish as to run through the city streets toward the beaten and bedraggled returning son?  Wouldn’t God take time to listen to the protestations of repentance and so be moved with pity when the one returning said, “I deserve to be treated like one of your hired hands”?  But then I noticed in this reading that the son doesn’t repeat that rehearsed line.  Are you saying that God can’t resist forgiving?  What if people laughed, thinking the behavior demented?

Oh, my, I just had a thought.  Are you the prodigal son in the story?  You went out and emptied (yourself) of everything that was divine and became sin for us.  You squandered gifts among sinners, telling them of God’s mercy, forgiveness, and unconditional love.  Now I hear your last words from the cross later in Luke’s Gospel as I have never heard them before: Father, into your hands I commend my spirit!  God was there in the void of death’s darkness to catch you on your return and raise you up.

If I get your meaning, you are saying that your destiny will be mine if I forgive others the way God does.  This is not an invitation to be like the prodigal son so much as it is to have a heart like the prodigal father’s.  There’s comfort in the former’s stand.  But challenge to be an imitator of the latter’s.

Could you get back to me if I am on the right track here?  If I am, I am gong to have to admit to my friends that I have finally heard this parable with an open heart that could be changed by the reading.  And I will pray that you change my heart.  I can’t do this on my own.



1 comment so far

  1. Cheryl Dermody on

    Remember, it’s not a judge here but a FATHER who loves both his sons. The estranged one has been off doing who-knows-what. While the son is gone the father stays awake nights worrying. Will his son hopefully come home alive or will his father have to receive him in a coffin? No wonder the father ran out to meet him. His son was HOME and ALIVE.

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