Guest blogger Allie Wills returns with a sermon based upon Luke 15, often called The Prodigal Son or The Forgiving Father. Allie’s surprising insight is that both the son who stayed at home to work and the son who left home for a dissolute life shared one crucial trait in common, a trait that wounded them, and separated both of them from the Father.
So I have a problem with this parable. My problem is mainly that… Jesus said it. See, I’ve always identified with the non-prodigal son. I’m the good kid. I got good grades, I went to a good college, I go to church, I’m renting a place in the suburbs for heaven’s sake! I’m crossing all my T’s and dotting all my I’s. And I want God to be generous, don’t get me wrong. I want God to welcome us all back with open arms. But why does the other guy get a party and I don’t? The prodigal son gets a feast and dancing and music and it doesn’t even sound like anybody bothered to tell the other son that there was a party going on until he asked. So I get why he gets mad at his father. “I’ve done everything you said since day one and you never gave me a party!” Yeah, God! What’s up with that? Where’s my party? It seems like God is rewarding bad behavior.
Let’s take a step back from that for a second. We tell this story like it’s meant for those who identify with the prodigal son. At least, that’s how I’ve always heard it: “Look, God will welcome you back no matter what you did.” But Jesus here is talking to the Pharisees. They’re the epitome of the follow-all-the-rules folks. Pharisees, according to the historian and their contemporary Josephus, were regular, everyday Jews who devoted themselves to making every aspect of life as holy and as in accordance with God as possible for them and for everyone else. This included adding more purity rituals and such to the plates of everyday Jews, but also trying to make existing laws more accommodating to everyday life. They wanted everyone to be able to follow the rules meant only for the priests. To me, this sounds good. I like rules and guidelines and rituals. They make me feel safe.
But that’s where the problem starts. The things that make us feel safe in the arms of God are wonderful. But the things that make us feel safe in our rule-following? That makes it sound like it’s more about rules than it is about God. And that’s where we find the Pharisees in the Gospel. Jesus is calling them out because they’ve turned the rules into God.
You can hear this from the non-prodigal son in the parable. He complains, “Listen! 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.” One of the things that I noticed here is that he doesn’t want to celebrate with his father, but with his friends. Following all his father’s rules doesn’t necessarily lead him to want a relationship with his father. The work of his father is a burden, but it’s clearly more important to him than the relationship with his father. He has turned his devotion to his labor rather than to his father.
So if we go back to the prodigal son’s story, it’s actually starting to look a little similar to his brother’s. The prodigal son takes his inheritance and literally runs away. He loses physical connection with his father and it makes him absolutely miserable. The non-prodigal son works like a dog for his father and runs away from making any kind of emotional connection with his father, which still makes him completely miserable. The big difference? The prodigal son hits the rock bottom of his soul, of his life, of everything. He’s so hungry he’d eat pig slop, for goodness’ sake! He comes running back, longing for any kind of relationship with his father. And the father gives it to him and then some.
The non-prodigal son, though, doesn’t try to fix the relationship with his father. It doesn’t look like he’s longing for a relationship with him at all. He just wants to party with his friends. He isn’t even excited to hear that his brother is back. I think part of the point of this parable, then, is that anything can get in the way of our relationship with God, even the things we do to bring ourselves closer to God. Perhaps especially these things because they’re harder to see as getting in the way. God wants a relationship with us and everything else is details.
So God calls us to relationship with Her. What, exactly, does that entail? Well, the one thing that the story of the Prodigal son and nearly all of our readings highlight today is that when we run back to God and throw ourselves at Her feet, She celebrates us coming back into relationship with Her. The prodigal son goes back to the father full of longing and the father welcomes him home. Paul’s a little more subdued about it, but even he talks about how God won’t “count our trespasses” against us when we are “reconciled to God.” Paul reminds us that, by sending Jesus into the world, God was showing us how badly God wants us to come home. God longs for us and wants us to long for Her as well. So part of building a relationship with God is that deep longing to come home to God.
Many of us long for God so much that we sell ourselves short. The prodigal son comes back to the father, longing so much for a relationship with the father that he is willing to be one of the his servants. I think we do that to ourselves as well. We don’t recognize ourselves as children of God, so we’re willing to settle. We settle for beating ourselves up for not being good enough for God. Or we settle for just following the rules instead of having a relationship with God. But it’s clear that this isn’t what the father in the parable wants. The father loves his son and celebrates having him home. As God in one of my favorite theology texts, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” said, “‘Every time I try to talk to someone it’s ‘sorry this’ and ‘forgive me that’ and ‘I’m not worthy’…If it’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s people groveling.” While that may be a bit of an exaggeration, in the parable of the prodigal son, Jesus clearly portrays a God who recognizes us as Her children and doesn’t want us to be treated like anything less! God welcomes us home with open arms, like the father in the parable. We are God’s children and She doesn’t expect us to be anything less than that.
Perhaps, then, much of having a relationship with God is simply longing for God and recognizing that we are God’s children. Rule-following or rule-breaking don’t make us any more or less God’s children. We’re not any more God’s child because we work hard or do the right thing or go to church. We don’t earn being a child of God, but we can’t lose it either.
I don’t mean to say here, “You’re God’s child, so do whatever the heck you want.” Doing what God wants isn’t a criteria for being God’s child, but it should be a consequence of knowing you’re God’s child. Let’s bring what Paul said back into the picture again. Being children of God makes us “ambassadors of Christ.” Since we know we’re God’s children, it’s our job to let everyone else know that they’re God’s children too. That doesn’t necessarily involve shouting about religion from the rooftops. We don’t need to stand on street corners shouting John 3:16. What we do need to do is live well and be kind and do the right thing in order to share the welcome that God has given all of Her children. Following the rules isn’t the requirement for being loved by God. It’s the response to being loved by God.
That’s the beauty of the Gospel. It’s not a test. There’s no passing or failing. There is no magic cut-off point at which you are good enough for Heaven. You are a beloved child of God and God wants to welcome you home. Your job is to accept and proceed accordingly.
And what about our party, you ask?
That’s here at the Eucharist and it’s in Heaven. We get a party “at the banquet prepared from the foundation of the world.” God longs for you and it’s okay for you to long for God. It’s okay for you to want God to throw you a party. She has and it’s here.
Allie Wills has her B.A. from the University of Michigan in psychology and French; and her M.S. from Illinois State University in clinical-counseling psychology. She is currently earning her M.S. in religious studies from Chicago Theological Seminary, working as a nanny, and also in community support for folks with mental illness.