Here we are, nearing the end of lent. One of the lenten practices that I've taken up is preaching on the Psalms in the lectionary, rather than the gospel passage. It has been a good practice, and I have been stretched. Another of my lenten practices, though not publicly announced, was going to be to write more. Alas, I have not been able to work that into my crazy schedule. BUT, I was thankful to have been asked to speak/preach/whatever at another church for their Thursday night Lenten service last night. They have been focusing on the story of the "Prodigal Son" as told in Luke's gospel. They asked me to speak from the perspective of the people in the countryside, the community. So many times, I've read the passage and put myself in the place of the younger son, the older son, and the father; but never in the place of the neighbors. It was a fun exercise. Here's what I wrote:
I don’t know if any of you have been to first century Palestine, but I hear it’s a different world than this one in which we live. In a Jewish community such as this one, people held tightly to codes of honor and shame, and to the demarcation of clean and unclean. This son, this selfish one, who had dishonored his father by having the audacity to ask for his inheritance early, by walking away from his home and family, and heaven forbid, traveling to a foreign land <keep in mind that in this context, foreign does not imply exotic as it might for us here today, rather it implies other, different, wrong, and scary>. This boy might as well have SHAME and UNCLEAN written on his forehead and any other exposed part of him, so that good, observant Jewish people might know that if they see him, they should run the other way. Jesus sets this story up to let us know that this son has committed the worst kind of sin, against God, against his family, and against his community. Today, we hear the story from the perspective of a neighbor, a member of the community who was invited to join in the celebration…
It’s not often that somebody just throws a party around here, right out of the blue. So imagine my surprise, when one of the young servants of the rich guy down the street came running down the road shouting, “come one, come all, it’s a celebration. The master has ordered the fatted calf to be killed. It’s a party to beat all parties. Gather your wives, your daughters, your sons, and even your servants, and come join in the celebration!”
Well, who can resist such an invitation? So I did it, I gathered all the members of my household and a couple of our best skins of wine, and off we went, heading to the party, all the while wondering what could possibly warrant such an extravagant, unplanned celebration. There were many people already gathered when we arrived, and the house was all a buzz, so it was a while before we saw him.
He looked different, more worldly, less proper, he LOOKED like a foreigner. What a disgrace! I once considered him an excellent prospect to marry my youngest daughter. Now I see him as a threat to our community. I heard he worked among pigs, for God’s sake, the worst kind of unclean there is, you can’t just wash that off. It is a filth that goes all the way to the soul. Only a miracle from God can cleanse the soul of one who has strayed so far.
I find it hard to celebrate, difficult to loosen up. The music was lively and people were dancing. What was wrong with them? The wine flowed freely, and the food...oh, the food. Killing the fatted calf? This is a luxury reserved for only the most decadent occasion. It’s something big, something worthy of a gathering of the whole community.
Oh, I get it. It’s like when a woman is caught in adultery, and we take her into the town square and everybody comes out to watch and participate in her punishment. There’s a place, alongside the road on the way into town, where you can pick up the best rocks. I didn’t realize that’s what this was. I didn’t pick up any stones along the way. That’s ok, we’ll just watch, there are a lot of people here, I’m sure others came prepared. I’ll just stand back a little with my family, taking the time to make sure that the lesson really sinks in with them. You just don’t dishonor your father, and take off into distant lands, squandering away his money, bringing dishonor to his name, living a lewd and careless life. There are consequences, and today, we will witness those consequences. I’m glad the family saw fit to feed the crowd first, that was an added touch of class that we don’t usually experience at these, um…events.
After a while, when it seems like most of the guests have arrived, the master of the house came to the center of the house and asked everybody to gather around. He had been absent for a while, some say that he was outside consoling his oldest son. Maybe he was embarrassed, feeling like his own honor had been stripped away, a sort of guilt by association. Or perhaps he loved his brother just enough, that he was distraught about his upcoming public punishment. Whatever it was, that boy never did come in and join the party.
So, here we are, gathered in the great room, the father calls his son over to him. It wasn’t until now that I noticed that he is wearing one of his father’s robes, his sandals, and even a family ring. I have to say, I’ve never seen this done in quite this way. It reminds me of the stories that I learned in synagogue growing up. Who were those guys…Shem and Japheth, took a robe and covered their father’s nakedness to regain his honor and save face for the family. But wait, there are other stories about covering nakedness that I recall, that aren’t so much about damage control, as they are about bestowing honor as if it is deserved.
Yes, it’s coming to me, I recall now that in Exodus, there are elaborate instructions for making a robe and adornments for Moses to put on Aaron, to show that he is chosen, anointed, ordained. I’m just not sure that story applies here. What was the other one? Oh that’s right! It was the prophet Ezekiel, speaking as God to God’s people, saying I see that you are old enough to be loved, to be in relationship with me, and I wrap my robe around you, to cover you and make you mine.
I have to say I don’t really understand what is going on here. The actions that are being taken, the words that are being used, are familiar. But they aren’t the words and actions of punishment and shame. They are the words and actions of forgiveness, grace, mercy, and the unconditional love of a father for his child. The words that father spoke still echo in my head today. “For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found. Let us celebrate!”
The words play over and over again in my head, along with the words I spoke myself. Only a miracle of God can cleanse the soul of one who has strayed so far. Dead and alive again. Lost and now found. A miracle of God. A soul that has been washed clean. A broken family that has been made whole. Praise God from whom all blessings flow!
I learned a lesson that day that has been with me ever since. My God, the One whose laws I strive to follow, the One whose praises I sing, and to whom I cry out in my time of need; THAT God, MY God, does indeed work miracles. How could I not celebrate with shouts of joy and a dance of praise? You and I, who are sometimes lost, are found, over and over again. You and I, who wander off into the land of the dead, failing to live in the abundance and simplicity of the life that has been given to us, are brought back to life, over and over again. You and I, whose souls get dingy and dirty from the influences of the world around us, have been washed clean, each and every time we have chosen to turn back to the light.
I am changed, I am made new. These things that were foreign to me, grace and mercy, compassion and unconditional love; they are contagious! Not only did I feel a change in myself that day, but I saw it in my neighbors. This display of forgiveness, this restoration, has given us all a renewed sense of hope and expectation.
I pray that it will catch on for you too, there is nothing more glorious than celebrating with God and neighbor the victory of life over death, wholeness over brokenness, salvation over shame. May God’s Spirit so fill your heart with grace and love, that there is no longer room for judgment and division. May you live today in the knowledge that God’s mercy can and will lift you and ANYBODY else who desires, out of the pit of sin and despair, to be restored to your rightful place of honor, a beloved child of God! This is my story, and this is my prayer. Amen.