15 Sep 2013
“‘[The father] said to [the eldest son], “My son, you are here with me always.”’” (Luke 15:31)
In the name …
I think two of the most popular and well known parables in the New Testament are last Sunday’s parable of the Good Samaritan and this Sunday’s parable of the Prodigal Son. Appreciate these two parables and you get Christianity. In both of these beloved parables, Luke is speaking out against the kind of religious faith that is more business than relationship, more accounts and balances than mutual affection. If you remember from the story of the Good Samaritan, that parable was offered in response to the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” This week’s parable involves the interplay among the Prodigal Son, a forgiving father and a reluctant brother. The nature of the father really comes to the fore when the reluctant brother complains to him: “‘All these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders.’” Luke is showing a definite distaste for the idea that God and Christ are worth only this kind of time-clock devotion.
This past Tuesday I went to a talk at the Emily Dickinson Museum to hear about the poet and her faith. I think Emily Dickinson gets Luke. Kristin Lemay who gave the talk told the story that when Emily was a student at the Mount Holyoke Seminary for Women, now Mount Holyoke College, the founder and president of the college, Mary Lyon, convened an assembly just before sending everyone home for Christmas. She asked the students to stand up who would be willing to spend Christmas day in prayer and fasting. A few rebels stayed seated, including Emily Dickinson. A bit of flustered Mary Lyon then asked all present in the auditorium to sit down if they were Christian. Everyone standing sat, everyone who was sitting remained seated, except for Emily Dickinson. She stood up and stood alone in that assembly.
Kristin Lemay told us that she didn’t think this was a statement of disbelief in Jesus, but that it was Emily Dickinson’s way to rebel against faith understood as marching orders rather than as a deep, personal commitment. She stood alone not because she didn’t believe in Jesus. She may have stood alone because she really loved Jesus. If you’ve ever seen the movie Dead Poet’s Society all the way through to the end when the boys in Robin Williams’ class stand on their seats, that may be a good analogy. They had moved from a textbook toleration of poetry to a sincere appreciation of it. When at first the one boy stood on his chair alone, think of that as Emily Dickinson. Her act wasn’t a rejection of Jesus. It was a rejection of the regimentation of Jesus.
Luke would have appreciated her gesture. The Prodigal Son on the lips of Jesus is an incredible revelation of how Jesus thinks about God the Father. All of these unwanted people that society was willing to thrust to the side and forget about were gathering around Jesus. The religious elite of Jesus’ day grumbled about this spectacle. A religious person should act more appropriately, they thought. But Jesus understood the love of God as like the always loving father of today’s parable, and so Jesus relished everyone who came to Him seeking such a God, needing such a God. Luke’s Jesus is the Jesus Emily Dickinson standing all by herself in the auditorium could worship.
But the Prodigal Son is not only a story about God’s loving forgiveness. The father is not the father of only the prodigal son. He’s also the father of the reluctant brother. Rembrandt painted the scene of the prodigal son on his knees embracing the father. [http://www.lumenchristi.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/rembrandt-return-of-the-prodigal-son11.jpg] The father’s hands are larger than life as they hold on to the once lost child, and Rembrandt paints them not at the center of his work but at the center of light. Off to the side, in the shadows, is the reluctant brother, and it appears as if he’s holding his hand back. One hand is in the light, but the hand in the shadows is holding it back. Does he want to reach out and join the embrace of his lost brother, but is held back by decorum? The prodigal son had acted foolishly and unworthily. He was an embarrassment to himself and the family. The elder brother’s pride seems to hold back the hand that wants to embrace his brother. This is why in Jesus’ telling of the story the elder son refers to the prodigal as “your son” and not as “my brother.”
But the painting reflects what Jesus is teaching. There’s a tension in both painting and parable. Will the reluctant brother come into the light or remain in the shadows? Will he see the prodigal as his brother? The tension is left in place because Jesus does not know how the religious elite around Him will react to the parable. They are the reluctant brother. Will they continue to look down upon so many others around them or will they come to see God as the always loving Father and therefore sinners as their brothers and sisters? Now for the hard part: the reluctant brother can be active, religious people of any time, even our time.
The reluctant brother’s sense of fairness is rightly aggravated. He has done what must be done. He will still inherit all that remains of his father’s property because the prodigal has blown his inheritance. “Everything I have is yours,” says the father. That is no longer a consideration in the parable, but the eldest knows this and is still reluctant. So all that the father has left to entice him into the light is the statement of the heart: “My son, you are here with me always.” That relationship and affection meant everything to the father, but was it enough for the eldest son? Could he see being with the father as a blessing that could never be retuned to the prodigal who had walked away? Luke is asking us if we count being faithful to Jesus as a blessing that others are missing out on or do we see church in the elder son’s words of we did not “disobey your orders”? The father relishes his time with both sons, and Luke’s parable is challenging us to ask ourselves, “Do we love like that in return? Do we cherish our time with the Father?” That’s the question I leave us with this Sunday, in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo