“You can’t go home again” – so says the title of Thomas Wolfe’s novel, published in 1940. It’s about the experiences of a fictional writer who draws on the life and characters of his home town. The man achieves great success as an author, but then finds that his former neighbors and relatives are angry and resentful at the way they have been portrayed in his books.
And that phrase – “You can’t go home again” – has come into our everyday language as a way to talk about the experience of out-growing small-town communities when you’ve once lived in the supposed bright lights and glamour of the big city.
It rings true in other ways, as well. Who among us has not had the experience of returning home after having been away at college, or military service, or just living on your own and managing very well at being a grown-up, only to find yourself and your siblings falling right back into well-worn patterns of teasing, bickering, rough-housing or some other form of adolescent behavior? It can be irresistible.
And yet…going home – home-coming; there’s a tug and a longing, a spiritual desire, to be home in that emotional and psychological place where there is safety and belonging and a loving embrace.
The Gospel reading today is all about leaving home and returning, and what that does to this family of a father and his two adult children. It is, of course, the story we know as the Parable of the Prodigal Son – a very, very familiar story. In fact it may be so familiar that it is hard for us to listen to it without thinking: “Oh right, the Prodigal Son; got that” and then not really pay attention to what we are hearing. And so the version of the parable we’ve heard today is not what is printed in the lectionary insert. The version we heard is from The Message, a translation of the Bible that tries to make the English as dynamic and street-friendly as the Greek of the New Testament was in its own day.
Right away we should be aware of what the younger son is asking: he wants his share of his father’s estate now; that means selling land and herds, liquidating assets so that the share of the property that would come to the younger son at the time of his father’s death could be paid to him in cash. In effect he says to his father “I wish you were dead.”
When the son has run through all his money he is left without resources, and is only able to find work as an indentured servant to a Gentile farmer where he didn’t get enough to eat. To add insult to injury, this Jewish son’s job is to feed pigs; he couldn’t get any lower.
And then, Jesus says, the younger son “came to his senses” and realized that, at the very least, the hired hands on his father’s farm had plenty to eat. We don’t know if the son was truly sorry for the way he had treated his father, or if the speech he rehearsed was just a ploy. What we do know is that this was a matter of survival; the man was desperate.
In the meantime, the father, the patriarch, the head of the clan, the pater familias, had not ceased to look for and hope for his son’s return. In fact, the father saw the son way down the road long before the son came within speaking distance. And the father acted in a way that no dignified land-owning head of a family at that time would have acted. He ran down the road to meet his son and welcomed him with open arms – literally. He then pushed aside his son’s speech about returning as an employee and ordered the household staff to prepare a home-coming banquet, a celebration.
And Jesus told this parable in response to some of the most religiously observant people and the religion scholars complaining that Jesus, this rabbi, was hanging around with questionable people. Jesus told this parable, to show God’s character, and God’s attitude toward his people – as depicted by the father in the story.
Of course, the passage doesn’t end there. The older son – the good, dutiful, responsible son – arrives at the house after a long day of work to find the party in full swing, and when he learns that the festivities are for his ne‘er-do-well brother, who had written off the whole family, he goes ballistic. And he has every reason to be angry – it’s as though his good and faithful service has been ignored, perhaps even insulted, by his father’s generous welcome of the younger son.
But the father stands his ground and says: “Son, you don’t understand. You’re with me all the time, and everything that is mine is yours—but this is a wonderful time, and we had to celebrate. This brother of yours was dead, and he’s alive! He was lost, and he’s found!”
If we are really open to hearing what Jesus has to say we may well find ourselves in this story, several times. Each one of us, in different ways and at different times, may have been the younger son or the older son or the father. We all have had times when we have been selfish and reckless with our closest relationships, and have hurt those we love. We also probably had the experience of being the good one, of soldiering on, without a lot of splashy recognition or reward; and when someone else gets the appreciation and love that we deserve, we can be resentful. And perhaps we can identify with the father who has had to let a child go, much against our better judgment, hoping and praying that one day he or she will return – and without being too beaten-up by life.
The thing to remember here is that the father, God, has more than enough love for both the sons; this is not a zero-sum game where whatever one gets is taken away from the other. This is not about God being fair or giving rewards, but about God’s being merciful and restoring us to wholeness, restoring the family to wholeness – because the older son had lost his brother, as much as the father had lost a son. It is in God’s character and nature to want to make us whole, to redeem families and communities, as much as individuals.
This parable is about coming home – coming home to God and to our true place in the family of God. And in the process of doing that we are all changed; we bring our wounds, and our shame, and our anger and frustration, as well as our joy and relief at being restored and welcomed home.
It’s fitting that we should be hearing this passage on this particular Sunday – Mid-Lent, sometimes called Refreshment Sunday, Mothering Sunday in England. It’s a day in which the rigors of Lent are lightened somewhat – in some churches the purple hangings and vestments and changed out for rose-colored ones, the psalm ends with words of rejoicing and in our second hymn this morning we even snuck in a little ‘hallelujah.’ It’s all a reminder that Easter is coming, that the repentance and starkness of Lent is not an end in itself but a preparation for the joy of knowing anew the Risen Lord and feasting at Christ’s banqueting table.
As Paul said in his letter to the Christians in Corinth: “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”
When we come home to God, when we come home to Christ, we are made new – each and every one of us, all of us held together by the generous love and embrace of God – and that is something to celebrate! Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Fourth Sunday in Lent
March 10, 2013