Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘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. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’” — Luke 15:11-32
On Monday night, I had the privilege of being present at a graduation ceremony. It was not, however, a college or high school graduation. It was a graduation service at Prodigals Community, a 12-15 month residential program here in Winston-Salem for men who are addicts or alcoholics with a history of chronic relapse.
Many of the men shared about their experience at Prodigals, how the program saved their life, how they see miracles there every day. But what struck me most was what I kept hearing about the first time they walked through the door. When a new person comes into the community, the other brothers, as they call each other, say something simple but profound: “Welcome home.”
The parable of the prodigal son is one that we are probably all familiar with, even if we haven’t read the actual Bible passage recently. Son takes father’s inheritance, goes crazy with sex, drugs, and rock and roll, father’s inheritance runs out, son goes crawling back on his hands and knees, father hugs him and throws a big party. Everyone wins (except, of course, the fatted calf).
But like so many Bible passages, there is a lot more going on here if you dig deeper. Here’s one question: what is the father actually doing when he welcomes his son home? Is he forgiving his son’s sin, or is he just forgetting about the whole thing?
I have a possible answer to this question, but to get there I’m going to briefly share another story of a father and a son. Retired United Methodist pastor and former dean of Yale Divinity School the Rev. Dr. Thomas W. Ogletree was recently the subject of an article in The New York Times. The article told how Dr. Ogletree had performed his son’s wedding last October, which might not be of much interest—except that his son married another man.
The United Methodist Church’s official doctrine does not allow pastors to perform same-sex marriages, and so it should come as no surprise that Dr. Ogletree’s decision to do so has caused some controversy. Ogletree made it clear that he disagrees with church law. What’s more, he believes that when a law is wrong, you should change it, and if you can’t, you break it.
But what really grabbed me is this—when Ogletree’s son asked him to officiate his wedding, he said, “I was inspired…I actually wasn’t thinking of this as an act of civil disobedience or church disobedience. I was thinking of it as a response to my son.”
That right there—“a response to my son.” That is what I believe the father in the parable was doing. He was responding to his son. Even in this broken world, there is no more natural response of a father to his son than one of love and welcome with no strings attached.
Now, let’s be clear that “Welcome home” does not mean “Anything goes.” The men at Prodigals Community are greeted with love and welcome, but the program is not an easy one. For those 12-15 months, home is a place of high structure and rigid discipline. There are rules and expectations, and by the time they leave, those men are changed.
However, the church today is often too quick to assume that we know who needs to change and how. I’m going to throw out a question that we’ll come back to, so keep it in the back of your mind:
Who is the prodigal?
In Luke 15, the answer seems pretty obvious: the prodigal son. Duh.
But we’ve forgot about one character. Remember the older brother? He was the one pouting in the corner the whole time. He was the son who did all the right things, who worked hard to please his father and certainly would never think of spending his inheritance on sex, drugs, OR rock and roll.
There are two books about this parable that I love. The first is by Henri Nouwen, and it’s called The Return of the Prodigal Son. This is the first book that called my attention to that older brother. Through Nouwen, for the first time I saw how self-righteous, how angry, how unforgiving the older brother was—and it shook me.
I knew without a doubt that I was the older brother. Not only am I actually the oldest of three siblings, I was always the overachiever, the goody-two-shoes—and I was obnoxious about it. If one of my younger siblings got away with anything or gained some privilege at age 12 that I didn’t get until I was 13, my parents got the third degree.
The older brother wasn’t just good, he thought he was better than his brother and deserved more—and from my own experience, I can tell you that sense of elitism and entitlement can be worse than sex, drugs, and rock and roll. The older son’s attitude poisoned what should have been acts of love and respect toward his father with a sick need for recognition and praise over against his brother.
The other book about this parable that I like is by Timothy Keller. In it, he says this:
“Neither son loved the father for himself. They both were using the father for their own self-centered ends rather than loving, enjoying, and serving him for his own sake. This means that you can rebel against God and be alienated from him either by breaking his rules or by keeping all of them diligently. It’s a shocking message: Careful obedience to God’s law may serve as a strategy for rebelling against God.”
So tell me again—which son was the prodigal? Sometimes those who seem to be doing all the right things are the ones most in need of a change of heart.
Now that we’ve looked at both of the brothers, I want to call our attention to a characterthat doesn’t appear in the story. The younger brother’s actions didn’t just affect him and his family. Sex, drugs, and rock and roll usually involve more than one person, and Michelle Shocked imagines one of them: the prodigal daughter.
The prodigal son may have come home with nothing, but this imagined prodigal daughter comes home with something—“the oats he’s sown.” She has a choice: to bring a child into the world or not. Either way, she will bear the burden alone.
When I was in high school, I remember one day our carpool got diverted from its usual route into the school. I later learned that anti-abortion protestors were outside with large posters showing images of aborted fetuses. School officials had decided that was not the best way for a teenager to start the day.
Why those protestors were at my school, I still don’t know, but I have seen such demonstrations since and am always left baffled. What’s the purpose? I can’t see any outcome but deeper pain for women already in unimaginably difficult situations.
What’s more, I intentionally called this kind of thing an “anti-abortion protest” and not a “pro-life demonstration,” because this approach falls into a trap that the church finds itself in far too often these days: being more clear and vocal about the things it is against than the things it is for.
For me, being pro-life means that one of the lives for which I am “pro” is that of the mother, and I don’t mean just in a medical sense.
My Christian Ethics professor, Dr. Amy Laura Hall, said this (here): “In order for a woman to decide to bring an unexpected, unplanned fetus to term, she must believe that there is enough love in this world for her and her baby. She must look at all the economic and political indicators and believe, in spite of the fear and danger of our menacing situation, that there is safety. She must, in sum, believe that God will provide.”
Someone recently told me that the church should be the headlights and not the taillights in society. Could the energy spent on lobbies to legislate morality be better spent? What if those resources went to finding compassionate, contextual responses to sons and daughters in need, to efforts to making the world safe and loving enough that a woman could choose to have a child?
Because whether we are talking about homosexuality or about abortion, we are not talking about “issues.” We are talking about people—sons and daughters whose prodigality we are in no position to define.
I quoted Timothy Keller’s book on the parable of the prodigal son earlier, and I’d like to do so again. He says this:
“Jesus’s teaching consistently attracted the irreligious while offending the Bible-believing, religious people of his day. …We tend to draw conservative, buttoned-down, moralistic people. The licentious and liberated or the broken and marginal avoid church. That can only mean one thing. If the preaching of our ministers and the practice of our parishioners do not have the same effect on people that Jesus had, then we must not be declaring the same message that Jesus did.”
Jesus was silent on homosexuality. Jesus defended and befriended women whose sexual ethics were questionable in the ancient world’s rigid patriarchy. The tables he turned over belonged to those who weren’t too different from a lot of church folks today, and the people he shared meals with were not the well-to-do but the outcasts, those labeled as “sinners.”
So who is the prodigal?
Surprise! It’s God.
I didn’t tell you the title of Timothy Keller’s book. It’s called The Prodigal God. Keller challenges our assumptions about the very word “prodigal.” We generally take it to mean “wayward” or “disobedient,” and that’s not wrong—but really it means “recklessly spendthrift” or “wastefully extravagant.” Sure, this applies to the sex, drugs, and rock and roll—but more than that, it applies to the father’s illogical, excessive welcome home party.
God is the prodigal because God is wastefully extravagant with God’s love. God is not interested in morality or family values or issues. God is interested in reckless, transforming, surprising, undeserved, eternal, unconditional, socially unacceptable love for all sons and daughters.
Whoever we are, whatever we’ve done, wherever we’ve been, when we come to God, we meet the open arms of a loving parent who wants nothing more than to lavish love on us in a wastefully extravagant, recklessly spendthrift manner. What God says to all of us is this: “Welcome home. I love you. Let’s party!”
I wouldn’t mind the church being a little more like that. “Welcome home. I love you. Let’s party!”
[Listen to Martha Bassett's version of Polecat Creek's song "Midway Road" HERE]
Sarah S. Howell