By David S. Price
I am slap dab in the middle of two sermons on what I regard to be Jesus’ paramount parable. If I could have only one of Jesus’ stories to guide me in understanding God’s relationship to us and our relationship with one another, it would be this parable.
I am referring to the “Parable of the Prodigal Son” in Luke 15. I would rename it “The Parable of the Prodigal Father with Two Prodigal Sons.” The term translated “prodigal means extravagant, wasteful, ridiculously abundant, something that might later be regretted that was bestowed without restraint. I am most certain that the father in Jesus’ story felt that way about his love for his younger son as he sat on the porch and reflected on the way his generosity was being squandered by the boy who, rumor had it, was in the process of dragging the good Jewish family name through the pigpens of the far country. What could have been more “prodigal” than trusting an early inheritance upon an immature son?
The answer to that question is in the father’s downright prodigal acceptance of the son. The boy only came home after realizing that being a hired hand was better than eating out of pig troughs in the far country. There is no evidence that he was willing to change his values, but only that he was starved enough to come, apology on his lips, begging for a job from his father. He had every reason to doubt that his father would even hire him after what he had done to shame the family values. But this father, prodigal in his love to the end, instead of asking for a changed life, welcomed the wayward boy back as a full son. He even threw a party and invited everyone to attend. Can you imagine the punch bowl conversation by the neighbors at that party about that father’s foolish judgment?
It is clear to scholars of the Bible that the father in Jesus’ story was intended to represent God. It sounds good on the surface, but all righteous people have trouble associating God with such an indulgent father. It seems nice to believe that God would be so generous, so forgiving without the asking, so welcoming back into the family of wayward children who were sorry, but not yet showing signs of changed behavior. But, what about evidence of repentance, a commitment to righteousness and changed values? All of us can identify with the elder brother who was so shocked, incensed, and angry that he refused to go to the party.
It startles me that I chose unwittingly to preach on, and thus be worked over by, this parable in the middle of a holy muddle over what happened at Annual Conference. Righteous folks are variously in a snit or outraged by the decision to allow two unrepentant women partners, both of whom are loyal, active United Methodists, give a testimony before God and everybody in worship at Conference. Many saw it as an affirmation of a lifestyle of which we do not approve. The bishop did not plan the service, but did allow it, so an episcopal crucifixion squad is in formation. Some have satisfied their outrage by taking their turn at the episcopal scourging whip. This rancor is in full alliance with the angry, elder brother in Jesus’ parable, who stood angrily outside refusing to welcome his brother.
I am left smarting and convicted by Jesus’ portrayal of God, the Father, as one who welcomes home prodigals who have not given evidence of repentance ... welcomes them home and throws a party in their honor. This is prodigal grace of a kind we yet do not know how to bestow upon one another. It seems embarrassingly impossible to elder brothers and sisters who have walked the straight and narrow ... sometimes too narrow. It could be seen as tacit approval of the pigpen lifestyle of the far country. This kind of acceptance, while not the same thing as approval of what we are afraid to approve, can certainly be seen as being soft on sin. Without thought to the danger to other good Jewish sons and daughters of being seduced to the employ of the filthy swine industry of the far country, Jesus said this prodigal father welcomed his son home and right into the middle of the family.
I am left with one absolute certainty. It is frustratingly clear in Jesus’ parable. The Father sees sons and daughters where we tend to see bad examples. The Father welcomes them into the house, offering family inclusion and belonging to those who only dare ask to be kept at arm’s length. He regards as brothers and sisters those who do not know how to claim it or even how to accept one another. He even throws party, including toasts and testimonies, for wayward ones who desperately want a home.
I am very certain that this prodigal Father smiled with approval at all three difficult testimonies in that controversial Annual Conference worship service. Even now, God journeys to the place behind the shed where elder, and more clearly righteous, brothers and sisters pout and rail, to invite them to the party which they cannot bring themselves to attend.
“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.”
It is hard, very hard to accept. But a lot of people are missing God’s party. That is a huge crisis for God’s family. For our prodigal God loves all his children.
Price is senior pastor at Central United Methodist Church in Meridian.