The Boring Story of the Prodigal Son

Lenten Healing TreeEach leaf represents a hope for healing.
Lenten Healing Tree
Each leaf represents a hope for healing.

I hate being bored.  I hate it.  So I thought I’d try changing the way we do the readings, the way I dress, where I preach, but I still feel kinda bored.  Now I know what you’re going to say… there’s so much wonderful stuff in this world, how can anyone be bored.  Well, it happens… So I thought I’d begin today by offering some tips to ward off boredom, in case the sermon leaves you with that… ahem… feeling.

How to Relieve Boredom:

  • Stop people as they enter a drive-thru. Ask them to give you a lift to the menu board because your car broke down.
  • Make up a word, use it casually in conversation and see if anyone asks what it means
  • Buy a complete set of Transformers. Play with them loudly. If people comment, tell them with a straight face “they’re more then meets the eye”.
  • Burn all your waste paper while eyeing your neighbors suspiciously.
  • Read the dictionary backwards and look for any hidden messages from the Beatles.
  • Stare at people though the tines of a fork and pretened they’re in jail.
  • Write a short story using alphabet soup.
  • Write checks with Roman numerals.
  • Write “out to lunch” on your forehead.

I offer these to you because it’s possible that like me, you’ll find this story of the Prodigal Son boring. After a lifetime of hearing it told thru flannel boards, youth group dramatizations, and umpty-something sermons, after seeing it depicted in paintings, photography and sculpture, I sometimes find this whole “what was lost is found” notion a big yawn.

In large part, I think it’s because almost every time we engage this text, either in word or visuals, we move into seemingly endless character analysis which always ends up shifting us into high gear, intellectually speaking, even though the proverbial rubber of prophetic change never really meets the road of our lives.

Let’s take the Father, for example.  Scholars through the ages have wondered: Did he perceive the young son’s request as an insolent demand or as a legitimate request? Was the division of the inheritance carried out in a stern, resigned manner? Or did the father’s compliance with the young son’s request reflect the fawning posture of a weak parent reluctant to antagonize the child by resisting or refusing the request? Are we to assume that the father is somehow at fault, as may be the case with the shepherd and the woman of the earlier parables? Does the father’s failure to go immediately after what is lost, as did the shepherd and the woman in the preceding parables, signify an absence of devotion to the lost? (questions asked in Ramsey, G. W. (1990). Plots, gaps, repetitions, and ambiguity in Luke 15. Perspectives In Religious Studies, 17(1), 33-42.)

And what about that Elder Son.  How did he view his brother’s request? What did he feel about the division of the inheritance?  How did he view his father’s compliance? Did he believe his father should have pursued his younger brother to bring him back to the family fold?  What did his anger signify when his brother returned?

And the Younger Son?  What motivated him?  Was it greed?  Boredom?  A need for independence?  Did he truly repent?  Did he return to his old lifestyle after he got food and clothes?  Did he bring some of his ne’er-do-well friends home with him?

As intellectually stimulating as these questions might be, by the time we delve into these character studies, there isn’t much time or energy left for anything else.

It’s not that the images used by Luke aren’t compelling.  I mean who wouldn’t feel moved by one son’s eagerness to be on his own, to get out from under the patriarchal thumb and find his own way.  We’ve all been there at one time or another.  And who among us doesn’t relate to the irritation, the sparks of jealousy, the frustration of the other brother who has slogged away at the family business, doing his duty with scarcely a word of thanks.  And of course, that father.  That amazingly forgiving and welcoming father.  He loves his two boys.  Honestly, that love isn’t really a surprise either.  He does what parents are supposed to do.  He gives the same kind of love to each one.  He gives them what they want when they want it.  He grieves when one son becomes lost to him and he celebrates like mad when he comes back.  And he tries to keep the Elder Son happy at the same time.

But really…

radical repentance, radical generosity, radical forgiveness, radical welcome… blah blah blah… This is the go-to message that nearly preacher, and teacher, and daily devotional writer uses In nearly every parable since the beginning of ever… For thousands of years, every sermon about every passage of scripture, every interpretation of God’s word since the first storytellers sat with people around a village well, since the first prophets stood in the city gates, since Moses came down the mountain with tablets in his arms – has at the center of its message God’s unimaginable grace and some exhortation for us to somehow, some way mimic that grace in our relationships with each other.

Like I said.  Boring.

Boring, that is, until we actually start living it.  We can analyze the parable of the prodigal son until Jesus comes in his glory, but until we actually leave this place and live it, it will remain forever and always just one more lovely story about a loving God who loves us in lovely ways.

So let’s get radical.  Let’s breathe some real honest-to-goodness life into this parable.

Take your leaf.  While you’re holding it, think of one person who has been radically generous with you – a person who has repeatedly gone over the top to welcome, accept, support, share something of themselves or their possessions with you even when you’ve been cranky, angry, demanding, judgmental and maybe even unforgiving toward them.  We all have someone like this in our lives.  The one who keeps giving, the one who receives nothing but grief from us. The one we gossip about, nag at, interrupt or attempt to lord it over and who, in spite of our unwillingness to trust them, will again and again offer us the best of themselves.  Name them in your heart.  What does healing look like between the two of you?

SILENCE

As a way of giving thanks for their presence, on the leaf, write one word that serves as an acknowledgement of their gifts to you.

SILENCE

Then, remembering that we can only control our own behaviors, below that, write a word about how you need to change.  What are you willing to do differently?  What needs to change in your way of moving through this relationship so that real healing can begin.

SILENCE

Turn the leaf over.  Now think of one person with whom you struggle – a person who, no matter what you do to love them seems to throw it back in your face.  A person who seems to reject every honest attempt to restore friendship, who appears to be continually pushing away what you offer, who is determined to do whatever it takes to avoid healing between you.  We all have someone like this in our lives.  The one who can’t seem to move out of the past, the one who reminds us of our faults, the one who, in spite of every effort we make to reach out, continues to push us away.  Name them in your heart.  What does healing look like between the two of you?

SILENCE

As a way of giving thanks for their presence, on the leaf, write one word that serves as an acknowledgement of your hope for this relationship.

SILENCE

Then remembering that we can only control our own behaviors, below that, write a word that reflects how you need to change.  What can you do differently?  What needs to change in your way of moving through this relationship so that real healing can take place.

SILENCE

If the story of the prodigal son is to be more than one more boring story from the Bible, we’ll need to put it into action in our lives. The mercy, the forgiveness, the grace, the hope will be real when we live as though it is.  It won’t be easy.  It will be risky.  But for healing to happen we have to we try.  Amen.

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