Thursday, March 18, 2010
The Prodigal Wife/Mother Speaks
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them." 3 So he told them this parable: There was a man who had two sons... (Luke 15:1-3, 11) NRSV
What do you do when your whole world is flying apart and you feel helpless, powerless, impotent? That was her daily question of God. It had been for some time now. She had been raised to be a dutiful wife, a loving mother, and a skilled runner of the household. She was all that and more. Attractive, witty, charming, and much smarter than she let on. The years had been kind to her, too, but none of that mattered now.
She looked out the window. Yes, there he was, sitting, staring off into the distance. Waiting. Hoping. He hardly did anything else anymore. He ate little and talked even less. If it weren't for the evening chill, he probably would stay out there all night.
He long ago had turned over the management of day to day operations to their oldest son. Too much too soon. She had done her best to help out, without helping out, after all, she was only a woman, and what did she know? ;-) But with her advising and pulling a few strings behind the scenes, her oldest son had matured in a hurry and now ran the place with consummate skill.
Even so, she could sense the growing distance and resentment between her oldest son and his father. His father who spent his days and nights waiting, watching, praying. Too engrossed to teach a maturing boy the things a father should teach, to preoccupied to work side by side with him the way that most of his friends' fathers did. These days the two barely spoke. Just sort of exchanged grunts in the morning. Her world was disintegrating right before her eyes...
It wasn't always this way. They were a happy family, a deliriously happy family, once. She and her beloved and her two boys. God had truly smiled on them. They laughed and worked and prayed together. They weren't rich, but they were comfortable, lacking for nothing. The boys were developing their own personalities: the oldest, dutiful, honor-bound, responsible; the youngest, carefree, curious, a dreamer and a free-thinker. She saw herself in both her sons, and she loved them both, more than life itself.
It hurt to admit to herself that she saw the cracks beginning to form, and was powerless to do anything to prevent them. Her youngest was always testing, always pushing the boundaries and limits. His father was patient and tolerant. But the relationship between the two seemed precarious at best. Her youngest felt confined, cornered, boxed in by the expectations of his father and of his place in the family. So, even though it broke her heart, it didn't surprise her at all when the day came that he asked for his share of the inheritance and walked off down the lane and out the main gate, stopping only to give a perfunctory hug to his father on the way out. A spot forever memorialized, for on that exact spot is where his father, her beloved, kept his solitary vigil. From that exact spot radiated the cracks which threatened to shatter her world...
Every once in a while she would run into someone in the marketplace who in the course of their travels had seen her son. At first he was doing well. High hopes. Big dreams. But as time went by the reports became less frequent and less hopeful: This opportunity didn't pan out. That investor pulled out. After a time the reports dried up all together. She wasn't sure whether her son had moved on or something awful had happened and people were just trying to spare her from the truth.
She grew desperate for information. She finally succeeded in dragging some out of an old family friend who was told by a business associate that one of his field agents had spotted her son slopping hogs and occasionally sneaking a carob pod or two from the hogs feed. Her heart sank. Her son was alive, but that was no life. How could a Jew slop hogs? It was a disgusting and humiliating thought. Clearly outside the law of Moses. He must really be desperate. Her mother's instinct was to rush in and save him, she even said as much to her husband, but he just grunted something unintelligible and returned to sentry duty.
What was she to do? The rift grew wider. She loved her husband. She loved her boys. She loved her God. But love didn't seem to be enough to hold it all together. The resentments grew and the fault lines grew ever more dangerous and shifty. Her world was flying apart and she felt helpless, powerless, and impotent.
Suddenly, at the depths of her despair, she saw a figure approaching in the distance. Could it be? Dare she hope? As the figure drew closer and closer her heart leaped for joy and dread. He was home! He was home! Her baby boy was home! As she watched her husband rush the gate and begin barking orders to the servants she feared for her older son, and wondered if this day that everything would finally disintegrate and perhaps never come back together again. Healing is a tricky business, and is seldom easy and rarely pain free. She said a quick prayer and hustled off to begin homecoming preparations...
Hard to tell the players without a scorecard? Sometimes that's the way it is. Let's see, we have the younger son who wants to do his own thing, live by his own rules, make his own way in the world; to whom his father is as good as dead, and who comes to himself, realizing that his relationship with his father is everything. We have the older son, who plays by the rules, does his duty, slaves away in his father's house, all the while taking his relationship with his father for granted. Perhaps, even secretly envying his brother for being his own person, while publicly keeping up appearances, all very PC, don't you know. Then there is this enigma of a father, whose life seems to go an pause until his younger son returns, and who welcomes him home with joy and honor and respect. For him, all is not right until relationship is restored, with both his sons, younger and older. And, he is willing to let them make their judgments in order for relationship to happen. He does not force, threaten or coerce, because relationship built on those terms is no relationship at all. Relationship in order to be true needs to be entered into freely. Neither son is truly a son, until they come to themselves and freely enter into relationship with their father.
Throughout the course of my life I have moved rather fluidly between the roles of the two sons. I have been the older son, slaving away out of duty or obligation, never fully appreciating the joy of day to day life in my Father's presence. I have been the younger son, bound and determined to my own thing, to make my own way, to be my own person, only to have it all come crashing down and realize that perhaps life in the Father's presence wasn't so bad after all, and coming to myself, have headed home, tail between my legs, only to find my Father waiting and welcoming. That being said, I suspect most of us gathered here this morning, truth be told, have the most in common with the older son. Most of us have been loyal and dutiful; have never strayed too far from the fold; and probably feel we have earned our place in the household.
And that is where we get off track. Relationship is not earned. It simply is. We either live in relationship with our Father, or we live outside of it, trying to be our own person. Both sons are opposite sides of the same coin The younger son comes to himself and realizes that he can only truly be himself in relationship to his father, on his father's terms. As it turns out his father's terms are gracious, welcoming, and forgiving.
The older son begrudges the father's graciousness, that graciousness which has surrounded him every day, if he only had the eyes to see it. The older son is blinded by his own sense of self-righteousness and entitlement, which will not allow him to enjoy the father's lavish graciousness, and keeps him locked away from his true self, that self which is defined on the father's terms. And still the Father is gracious and welcoming, not truly happy until all join the party, until all come to themselves. There is room for all in the Father's household, younger and older sons alike, and the Father will not rest until all come and join in the celebration.
Jesus leaves the parable open-ended. We do not know what the older brother did. We are left with the Father's invitation to restored relationship. How will we respond? And if we respond in the affirmative and join in the celebration, what will it cost us? For you see, healing and restoration are a tricky business, seldom easy and rarely pain free. Dare we risk it? Dare we not? Amen.
Sermon for Lent 4C (RCL)
I am the unlikely pastor. Welcome to my world.