Some stories in scripture we’ve heard so much, so often, so many different times, that we miss the whole story.
I think the prodigal son is one of those stories. We’ve heard it so many times. In so many ways. As a children’s message. As a drama. As a choral reading. In Sunday School. In Bible Study. In sermons.
Here’s a throwback – the very first children’s message I ever did, at a youth worship in my childhood congregation when I was about 16 – was about the prodigal son.
I taught the kids a song I’d learned at Girl Scout camp.
“I shall arise and go unto my father
and shall say unto him
father I have sinned
and against heaven and before thee
I am no more worthy to be called thy son.”
Camp music in the full King James language to boot.
Of course, the message was about a wandering son who had squandered a great deal – he’d boldly rejected his father, asked for his inheritance and then spent it all on a wild lifestyle for a season. And returned home to ask for forgiveness. Because THAT is mostly the story we tell about these verses.
I remember this story most as a story about a son who came back in shame, apologizing, owning his poor choices.
And of course, there is so much more to it than only that.
This week as I was sitting with this text, and sitting with Lent, I was struck by this detail:
“…while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion;
|Image found at: https://barneywiget.com/2018/05/14/the-prodigal-father/|
I wonder. Have you ever been wronged by someone you dearly loved?
Have you ever found yourself in the spot of knowing that you would forgive all the past mistakes just to have the person who has turned their back on you return?
Have you ever found yourself in the spot of scanning the horizon just waiting for someone to turn back to you?
Knowing that no matter what they had done, you would fold them into their arms and tell them they were beloved?
I think sometimes we get so tied up with the lost son’s actions and then subsequent decision that we miss this detail that while the son was still far off, the father saw him and was filled with compassion.
Before the son could speak a word. His father was filled with compassion.
Do you know how we define compassion? To have sympathetic concern or pity for the misfortune of others.
His father had concern for HIS misfortune. The father had concern for the hardships his son was facing. From far off…as he saw him approach…
In the Jewish tradition, rabbis would practice midrash – that is both understanding what is IN the text and perhaps what is “BETWEEN” the text, or revealed by the gaps in the text.
Here’s what I imagine in the gaps of the story. I imagine a high spot on the property where the father would look out over the road every single day… waiting….
…and I also imagine that on the day he had watched his son walk away, he also hoped for the day that his son might return.
When we leave the path to God with God, there are people looking for us – watching for our return.
And of course, God is looking for us too.
The text continues:
“ he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.”
I have had the experience of friends and family waiting for me expectantly. I have had the experience of God waiting for me expectantly.
I wonder, do you have that experience? Can you remember a time that you were received not with scolding and correction but with love and joy, or even pity for what you’ve endured in your time of separation as you returned?
The experience of being embraced – no matter what?
I am struck that the possibility of being embraced without condition makes returning a whole lot easier.
And with God, we’re not just hopeful that is how we are received.
That is how we are received. Period. Full stop. Jesus demonstrated it again and again – with Zaccheus. With the woman at the well. With every healing miracle.
I feel like t’shuvah – the work of turning back to the path with God toward God – is a whole lot easier when I know there is someone waiting for me to make that turn.
This week I have been immersed in a new podcast, this one entitled “Another Name for Every Thing,” which features Father Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest and the founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation.
Fr. Rohr is writing some amazing things right now. The conversation that caught my ear was about mirroring…about the way when we look to God and really see God, we mirror God’s light. And in mirroring God, we mirror God’s goodness. And others see that, and then they mirror what they see in us.
This idea is rooted in the goodness of God, the goodness in which we are created that is at the root of the idea of t’shuvah…returning to goodness. In mirroring God, we offer ways for others to also mirror God. All of that goodness gets mirrored…bouncing around in the world. Lighting up the dark corners.
And that has me imagining that the Father, who looked out with compassion on his son’s returning, might have experienced similar compassion at some point in his own life. SO THAT he was able to share that with his son. So that he waited with anticipation and compassion.
The other often overlooked part of this story then is the rule-following do-good brother. You know – the one who has stayed home, worked the family land, respected his father.
He is coming in from a hard day in the fields and hears the merriment and laughter. He asks a slave what is going on…and upon hearing of his brother’s return, he becomes angry.
And the father comes out to comfort him. To remind him that this son has always had his father’s love. That everything the father has belongs to him….but we celebrate because what has been lost has been found. What we thought was dead to us is alive.
We don’t know how the son received his father’s comfort. The text doesn’t give us “the rest of the story.” But the father has mirrored the same kind of full-hearted love to the loyal son.
The father has mirrored the same love with both of them. I wonder what the loyal son might reflect from that moment forward? I wonder what of his father’s grace he might mirror?
Here in the fourth week of Lent, I think we are called to acknowledge that we’ve all been lost at some point. And the point of our whole Lenten focus on “t’shuvah” – is the awareness that we all find ourselves off-road, perhaps tire deep in the mud and muck of life.
We have this season to refocus our journey…to remember the path we’re called to walk toward God with God.
And to remember that God waits for us on that path
…I imagine Jesus gazing out over the road…watching and waiting. Breath held each time in anticipation that we will return.
And others wait for us there too. Our friends – those who will love us with Christ-like love and compassion for the hardships we’ve encountered while we were off track.
We’re called to return, and we’re called to receive others with the compassion of the loving father as others return to the path with us. Because when we remember the grace we receive – the grace of God that waits for us – we can mirror it back into the world for others.
Imagine grace upon grace. Compassion upon compassion. An avalanche of love and acceptance and return…
What a gift that we can all be a part of.
Thanks be to God.