31 Maple Street
Bristol, Connecticut USA
August 15, 2021
Rev. Kristen J. Kleiman
This well known parable we heard is one of three stories Jesus tells to a group of learned religious leaders. The leaders are questioning the company Jesus is keeping. They are criticizing his welcome of those they call “sinners”. Basically, they are being judgy mcjudgy. There are lots of ways Jesus could respond to their censure. He chooses instead to tell them three stories, three metaphors, three parables: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son.
Prodigal is not Jesus’ word. Prodigal is a word that did not come into existence until the 1500’s. Prodigal means wasteful or recklessly extravagant. And it is the Church that has chosen to label the son prodigal, which in itself is judgy mcjudgy because when the sheep wanders away from the flock, we don’t call it runaway and ungrateful. And when the coin goes missing, we don’t call it anything derogatory.
However when the son loses his way and decides to forsake his community, to turn his back on his family and their religious beliefs, to go live with strangers for the fun of the moment, we don’t call him lost like the sheep and the coin. Instead, we call him prodigal – wasteful and recklessly extravagant.
At first, life is great for the younger son as he lives for himself and for pleasure or so we read between the lines of scripture “and there he squandered his property in dissolute living.” (Luke 15:13) Then a famine comes to the land, and he is out of resources. He has no safety net. He “began to be in need.” (Luke 15:14) Maybe for the first time in his life.
He has fallen so far that he is feeding the pigs – an unclean and completely avoided animal for Jews. Worse, he’s wishing he could eat as well as the pigs. Yet, “no one gave him anything.” (Luke 15:16). No one had compassion on him when he was hungry and in need.
It is at this point that the younger son realizes he is lost – emotionally and spiritually lost. And he does some serious reckoning with himself. He ‘comes to himself’ and makes the difficult and necessary decision to go back to the father that he has gravely insulted and ask his father – not for the impossible – to be his son again. Instead, to be a hired hand in the household of a man he knows to be fair, generous, and just.
It is hard to admit that you have made a mistake. In general, we have difficulty admitting our mistakes to ourselves; let alone confessing them to others. There is a lot of shame that comes with realizing we have lost our way, that we are imperfect, that sometimes we do wrong, sometimes we go wrong.
Shame is a feeling we do our best to avoid so we try to deny shame – which is the irony of shame. As long as we keep shame secret, shame will continue to have power over us and eat us up inside. It is only when we admit our imperfections and wrongs that we will free ourselves from shame.
For all of his mistakes and missteps, the younger son does not allow shame to have power over him. He knows he is lost; he acknowledges his mistakes, and he’s not going to let shame control him by pretending otherwise.
The younger son courageously sets out on the journey home, rehearsing his speech the entire way…..”Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” (Luke 15:18-19)
But before he can get the words out, Jesus tells us that his father does the “impossible”. Filled with compassion, the father runs to greet and embrace him, welcoming his son home.
The word we translate as compassion comes from a Greek work that figuratively means to feel sympathy, inward affection and tender mercy; however it literally means to have the bowels, to have the spleen. Something I read said that the bowels and spleen were believed to be the ‘nobler entrails’ – perhaps the equivalent of heart for us. Strange as that all sounds, what scripture is telling us is that compassion comes from the deepest part of us, from the best part of us.
Moved by loving-kindness from the deepest, noblest part of his body and soul, the father runs to welcome his son home and restore his son to his family and to his community – by marking his son with a robe and the family ring and hosting a banquet where their neighbors will be invited to eat and drink with this son who was lost and now is found.
The feast is an important part of restoring the son to community because it is hard to maintain our judginess when we have a personal relationship with someone. It is hard to see them as other, as less than, as “sinner” when we have shared a meal, a conversation, a laugh.
The father in Jesus’ parable is extraordinary. His compassion and loving-kindness is extraordinary. It’s why most people equate him with God – because for most of us humans, it’s hard to accept that people get lost, to forgive their mistakes and have compassion when they go wrong.
Believing though that only God can love this much, that only God can have this much compassion teaches us that this measure of loving-kindness is beyond human ability, that while some might have these nobler entrails, most of us don’t.
Brene Brown found in her research that that is not true. As she researched shame, she discovered again and again people who were especially compassionate to themselves and others, people Brene Brown has chosen to call “whole-hearted”. And one of their shared characteristics is that:
First, they spoke about their imperfections in a tender and honest way, and without shame and fear. Second, they were slow to judge themselves and others. They appeared to operate from a place of “We’re all doing the best we can.” (The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown, pg 79)
The compassion and loving-kindness shown by the father in this parable is extraordinary; however it is not impossible or even unachievable for us. Compassion and loving-kindness are not a quality we either have or don’t have. Instead, they are a spiritual practice, a daily spiritual practice. Compassion is an act we practice with ourselves, an act we practice with others.
We are all God’s beloved children, from the moment we wake up to the moment we lie our heads down at night. We are God’s beloved children, from the moment we are born until we pass from this life to the next. We are God’s beloved children and we don’t need to measure, compare, or earn our worth. We only need to embrace that love; extend that love. We all make mistakes; we are all flawed; we are all sinners; we are all doing the best we can, and God loves us.
The compassion and loving-kindness shown by the father in this parable is amazing however it is not impossible. We each have the ability to be wholehearted, speaking honestly and tenderly about our imperfections, being slow to judge ourselves and others. And we each have the capability to reach out with compassion and loving-kindness to those who are lost, embracing them with God’s love and tender mercy – because we are all God’s beloved children, doing the best that we can.