Slightly Off-Brand Children
A sermon on the Prodigal Son for inside the women's prison
I once received a heartbreaking email from an 82 year old reader of mine. A woman who told me how at 82 she is afraid to die because she is convinced God is mad at her – this woman had been so condemned by religion that at the end of her life rather than her faith being a source of comfort for her, it was a source of torment.
Obviously the Christianity she was exposed to was not one of compassion and forgiveness it was more of a moral reward and punishment system. That’s what a lot of us were taught - that, as I like to say, we are all rats in some kind of cruel cosmic lab experiment – receiving shocks from God for going the wrong way and little reward pellets for going the right way in our existential maze.
But honestly, this is exactly the kind of thinking that made Jesus tell this parable of the Prodigal son.
Since basically here’s what the first three verses of our Gospel today say: Now all the bad people (the ones who deserve to be punished) were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the good people (who deserve to be rewarded) were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes the bad people and rather than punishing them for being bad, he totally just takes them out to dinner instead.”
So it is in response to this that Jesus tells this parable of two sons:
The younger son asks for his inheritance early and then travels to another country and like an idiot he gives himself and all his money over to things and people and chemicals that could never love him back. He squanders it all in what the text calls “dissolute living” I looked that word up this morning in Webster’s so you wouldn’t have to. Dissolute: lack of restraint marked by indulgence in things such as drink or promiscuous sex.
So he loses everything and when a famine comes he is, of course, broke and miserable and starving. And then he remembers that at least the servants at his father’s house have bread to eat so he cleverly hatches a scheme to return home and get over on his dad. Nowhere does it say that he was truly sorry for the harm he had done and wanted to make amends. This might be cynical, but I honestly think he was just hustling the other direction.
So returning home with his head hung low for effect, he glances up and sees the Father running to him.
Don’t get the timing wrong here. The text says as soon as the Father saw his son he wasn’t filled with resentment, he wasn’t filled with anger, he wasn’t waiting to see if his son had become a good person yet - the text says that as soon as he saw his son he was filled with compassion and runs to meet him. And before his younger son could even get his totally rehearsed speech out of his mouth the father throws his arms around him and absolutely covers him in his love.
To the Father, if one of his children comes home after really screwing everything up it does not call for condemnation, it calls for a party! And so the Father hires a DJ and an amazing caterer and there is dancing and song and drink and joy.
The younger son may have squandered everything in self-indulgent excess.
But, in a way, the older son was just as wasteful.
Coming home from the field the older brother hears a party underway and thinking love a limited resource, he resents such a lavish show of it when he hears it’s for his no-good younger brother. In other words he was being a complete ass
And yet again, the Father runs toward him, arms open wide and covers him in the love that he has always had and will always have for his children. What was lost is found, what was dead is alive says the Father. Lost, found, dead and alive are not moral categories that lend themselves to rewards and punishments. They are spiritual categories that lend themselves to divine compassion.
The father sacrifices his dignity twice by running into the street to embrace his no-good children as if their no-goodness was no matter. He lavishes love on them- not as a reward for their being good but because that is simply the Father’s nature.
We, all of us, are slightly off-brand children of a God who does things like that.
So in response to the snotty religious people of his day who were trying desperately to uphold their bogus reward and punishment program Jesus told them a parable about a seemingly bad son and a seemingly good son and how not one thing about their behavior had any effect whatsoever on the heart of their father. All the love that the father had was theirs no matter what. Everything the father had was theirs. So the tragic thing about this story isn’t that one was selfish and one was resentful, the tragic thing is that neither of them trusted the love of the Father. And when that love is not trusted as being sufficient – you know what we do? We replace it with a punishment and reward system.
I don’t always trust that I am loved by God and worthy of that love. I need someone to tell me. We all do – we are a forgetful people.
So if my work as a pastor and a theologian does nothing else in the world I wish it to do this one thing – that those in my care may know this: If you have been told that God is some kind of punishing, angry bastard with a killer surveillance system who is basically always disappointed with you for being a human being then you have been lied to. The church has failed you and I am so sorry.
So if you hear nothing else hear this: that angry punishing God is not the God revealed to us in the person of Jesus Christ. This Jesus who ate with sinners and tax collectors and pissed of the religious authorities (because he was so clearly free from their control) and who loved and healed and forgave people indiscriminately – well this Jesus was God’s way of telling us who God is.
So when you wander far from the fold of God, or when you live in such a small way because you don’t trust that you are loved and worthy to be loved, know this: that all the forgiveness and mercy and reconciliation of God is already yours it will not be taken away as a punishment and it will not be granted as a reward, it is yours no matter what. When God sees you, God is filled with compassion. Even if you are still trying to get over, even if you’re not ready, even if you truly have turned a corner and started to become the woman God intended you to be, even if you have never felt well-loved, even if you can’t forgive yourself. Even if you have never really told the whole truth. Even if you aren’t interested in it. All the love and mercy of God is running toward you. The DJ has been hired and the dancing begun and the feast prepared before you even walked in this door.
In closing - I want to share that, in my sanctified imagination, I can see the older brother finally relenting and coming to the party that night his little brother came home. After refusing to dance or eat or drink anything, maybe the compassion of his Father infected him, or maybe the groove of that Marvin Gaye song was too much to resist and his head started bobbing and toe started tapping and the next time a waiter passed with a tray of Champagne glasses he finally took one. Eventually he smiled at his younger brother from across the room and his brother returned that smile, and the resentment and jealousy melted away and when they embraced it was as though the heart of their Father burned between them and again, they loved each other. And soon the younger one started helping in the fields again. And they both became agents of the same grace and mercy and love and reconciliation that they received from the Father. That’s what this thing is about – becoming what we receive.
So there is really no reason to get to the age of 82 afraid of God. There’s no reason to get to the age of 82 still resenting someone else because you think there is a limit to love. May we all trust God’s compassion- an unlimited resource flowing freely down the road toward all us slightly off-brand, deeply loved children of the Father.
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Wow! you so much for the Prodigal Son sermon. I sometimes don’t trust that God loves me either. I grew up in an evangelical home. I married a youth minister, had two children (who are wonderful adults now) then fell in love with a woman. Did not see that coming at all! I’m now married to a fantastic woman (for 23 years). My life has been so wonderful especially after marrying my wife. But I do struggle with the ‘going to hell because I’m a lesbian’ baggage. Thank you for reminding me yet again of God’s unwavering love. You are a huge blessing!
I have always struggled with this parable because sadly I could relate to the older brother even though he gets a bad rap for being resentful and believing love is limited - because to be honest in the human realm it is. So here he is working his ass off “doing what’s right and good” and as his says “Dad, man you never slaughters a fatted calf to celebrate me.” Ouch that’s gotta hurt and that’s when I realized the older son was codependent- he was working the farm not because it was his greatest joy it’s because he felt he had to - maybe he too thought his dad’s love was conditional. Because let’s be honest if he was living his dream life he wouldn’t be resentful but if he was working the farm out of guilt or obligation then no wonder he’d be pissed off at his younger brother who got to go have fun while he’s working his ass off. So maybe another lesson is to find the areas in our lives where we all have resentments and ask why am I doing this? Whose love am I afraid I won’t have if I don’t?