We begin this sermon series with what might be called the mother, or perhaps the father, of all forgiveness stories: the prodigal son, or the reluctant older brother, or the overly-permissive father. Names and titles are important. What if The Grapes of Wrath had been called The Long and Desperate Cross-Country Drive? What if Gone With the Wind were called The Deluded Gentleman and the Obsessed Stalker?
Who we are and what we bring to this portion of Luke’s Gospel informs what we hear and see in this tale. When we hear it, where do our sympathies lie? Do we feel for the father – he wanted to do what he thought would please his son, but then had to live with the knowledge that he had made a huge mistake. He believed that his son had died. It’s all my fault. He was too young for such a big inheritance. If only I hadn’t let him go off unsupervised. Now I’ve lost him.
We might find ourselves sympathizing with the older brother, especially if we have sisters or brothers our own selves. Really? The drama queen does it again! How many times is Dad going to have to clean up after him? Does he even notice me over here? I’m doing everything I’m supposed to, I never ask for anything, and this is the thanks I get.
We might find ourselves sympathizing with the younger brother, the prodigal son himself. Oh boy, I have the best of both worlds here. I get my inheritance while Dad’s still with us. Life is great … until it isn’t. The money – there was so much of it – where did it all go? And now I’m starving. When I had money, I had lots of friends. Now, no one will help me.
We want this story to be purely and simply about forgiveness. That God’s love is so strong and so unconditional that we can ruin ourselves and make the wrong choices over and over again, but that when we reach out to our abiding Savior, when we repent and turn our steps back to the Father, there will be the welcome home that we so desperately need.
And that is true. It is a parable meant to show us in memorable scenes that we can go home again, and there we are promised God’s welcoming embrace. No matter what we have done and what we have left undone, when we confess our sins, we will receive forgiveness.
But Luke’s unforgettable story complicates the very moral we are to embrace. What does forgiveness mean? What do we mean when we say it? The pivot point of this story blows by us so briefly that we can miss it if we are not paying true attention.
We begin in Luke, chapter fifteen, verse eleven. And then in verse seventeen, bang, there it is, almost a throwaway clause: But when he came to himself.
But when he came to himself, he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare.”
In English-major terms, that would be the climax of the story. The hero’s epic quest has led him to a realization, an epiphany that sheds light and changes everything, reroutes the path.
But when he came to himself. Until that moment of clarity, our hero, the prodigal son, has not been truly himself. Something else has been driving him, something else has been motivating him, which means that everything he has said and done and the choices he has made have all been off base. Even the choices that seemed like good ideas at the time were not because he misunderstood what was most important. And now he gets it. He is now willing, even eager, to go back to his family, his relationships, his true center, even though it means falling at his father’s feet. But when he came to himself.
And that’s the real beauty of this story. It still has the power to move us several thousand years later. This story is a classic, it endures, because it’s not only the prodigal son who comes to himself.
Imagine the father who believes his son to have died. That is so impossibly cruel. And of course the father blames himself. He questions all of his life’s choices, all his values. What’s the point of having worked hard and built up security, land, wealth, which he gladly passed on to his son – and it’s the wealth that ends up killing him? I caused my son’s death. Picture him on the front porch, staring off into the distance. Maybe he does that every evening. He knows that his son is dead. He knows he won’t be coming up the road.
But someone is coming up the road. Someone who looks just like his son. It can’t be. It must be a mirage. But mirage or not, he finds himself running down the road, and then the son is in his arms, the embrace is solid, the feel of him can’t be mistaken. The father has come to himself. Just as his son was dead and is alive again, the father knows now that all of the life choices he’s been questioning have come round right.
But the older brother has no interest in coming to himself. He doesn’t need an epiphany, thank you very much. His reality stinks, but it’s his reality. He slaves away for his father, he had a brother, but that’s gone now, and it’s his brother’s fault and his dad’s fault, and everyone else has made his life a total drag. And he finally blows his stack and lets his father have it. And what does his father say, the dad who is still in happy shock over the return of his son? You are always with me, and all that I have is yours.
We don’t get to see what happens with the family dynamics after that. But I like to think that this is where the older brother gets to come to himself. You are always with me. Maybe he finds, after all, that resentment will eat him up. Maybe he finds out that he can set it down, walk away from that burden, and that the love and relationships of his family are his own true inheritance. The father’s heart has been broken and now is whole again. The prodigal son’s heart was empty, but when he came to himself, it filled up to overflowing with relational love. And the older brother thought that his heart was full of resentment, but in that simple promise from his father, all the resentment drained away and all the relational love poured in, and that is forgiveness.
Terry Tempest Williams, author and environmentalist, has this to say about the human heart, that organ within which all three of our characters wrestle. “The human heart is where we embrace our questions. Can we be equitable? Can we be generous? Can we listen with our whole beings, not just our minds, and offer our attention rather than our opinions?” And the Rev. Cynthia Bourgeault adds that the heart is “an organ of spiritual perception. Its primary function is to look beyond the obvious, the boundaried surface of things, and see into a deeper reality.”
That’s what I hope that we can do together in these five weeks. To tune our hearts toward equity and generosity. To listen with our whole beings. To look beyond the obvious – in this and other familiar passages, stories of redemption, stories of forgiveness, stories of wrestling with ourselves and with God, taking on for ourselves the question: Do you want to be whole?