My pastor recently preached a sermon about the parable of The Prodigal Son and I have been chafing ever since. She suggested that maybe the story was not about the wasteful spending and reticent behavior of the son, but that of the father.
Apparently, the word prodigal doesn’t mean all the things I always assumed it means. It means wasteful, extravagant, lavish. Not ‘returning from making bad choices’ or ‘regretful and sorry’ or ‘ready to receive deserved punishment, good and humble’.
Nadia (those of you who wince at the idea of a female pastor can just call her Pastrix Bolz-Weber) suggested that we focus on the lavish ways the father spent love and resources and take a lesson from that. The older son is the character that makes the story hard for me. He’s doing all the ‘right’ things and ‘good’ things and then throws a fit when the father celebrates the return of the younger son. It’s easy for me to accept that we should celebrate the returned sheep, the returned son, the lost souls coming home. But when the father tells the older son ‘all I have is yours’ I want to stop reading.
Maybe it’s because I’ve always enjoyed a science classroom, or because I grew up very outside the church, or because I don’t care to learn the social game and hierarchy within ‘normal’ churches, but I spend a lot of time around people who’ve been really hurt by church people. People who are now actively rejecting church and even sometimes poking it with a stick because they’re trying to regain their sense of power.
So when I read this story, I see my friends in the young son, and the mean church people in the older son. I see people who said that people like my husband and I aren’t welcome in the denomination he grew up in. People who say that my friends shouldn’t have access to the grace of God if they don’t understand and believe the right things. People who say that my friends need to make the first move, when it’s church people who started the fight (and sometimes ended the relationship too).
And I don’t like hearing that the father in this story, or my Father in heaven, is going to give all that he has to these people who are hurting my friends. And doing it in the name of God! Ah! It’s like saying Michael Pearl gets to pass through those pearly gates and that I’m going to have to play nice with him. !!!
But I don’t have to check my pastor’s facts to know that she’s right. I don’t need a dictionary to check her definition of prodigal, I don’t need to even crack my bible to know that she’s not misrepresenting the story. The Holy Spirit does live within me, and sometimes when words pass through my ears and into my heart, the Holy Spirit does the stadium wave. There’s no mistaking that feeling. I can tell when I’ve heard Truth – even when it’s Truth I don’t like. And so I’ve been changing the subject whenever my inner dialog goes back to this. Suddenly being oh-so-happy to think hard about loading the dishwasher or signing a loud song with my girls or find some other activity that will engage my brain *just* enough to block out the knocking of an idea that makes my stomach turn.
The people who throw a tantrum about ‘welfare moms’ getting food stamps or having more children, the people who claim that the local university is trying to tear apart the church, the people who vote Republican after being GIVEN nearly everything in life -and don’t even see the irony!- they all get the same heaps and mounds of love and grace as everyone else. Same as my friends. Same as me.
The reason it hurts is not because I’m jealous. It hurts because I’m judging them. I want to see them held accountable for the ways they’ve hurt my friends and they ways they’ve hurt me. I want to see them cry real crocodile tears for all the times they’ve made other people cry for feeling not good enough for God. And I don’t know if any of that is going to happen.
At some point, it’s not about revenge anymore. Not even the revenge I was pretty sure God was going to lay down on them. It’s not about payment or punishment or even just knowing the repercussions of their words and actions. It’s about accepting grace. For myself. And the inherent (and more fair than I have been able to admit) spreading of that wealthy love on everyone. To everyone. Even the Mean Girls (or, more traditionally in the church, Mean Boys).
I don’t think I could have gotten that lesson without the parenting that I practice. I am fully against demanding punishment or retribution from my children, because I believe their sins are paid for. And extending the grace of God to them has familiarized me with the concept in a way that makes me now aware of its extension to the adults I judge as guilty too. If I am going to pray without ceasing about anything, it’s about that. Learning to extend that grace, forgive them, forgive myself, and live in a way that reflects the gift I’ve been given and not the gift I want withheld from them.
It’s the only way I can be authentic. Or honest. Or face God in the morning. I can’t love God when I’m absolutely refusing to live a life in response to salvation. It doesn’t compute. Even though I feel like I’m standing up for the oppressed and the marginalized and the lost sheep, I’m acting like that older son. I’m stomping my foot all mad throwing a tantrum. There is a fine line between advocacy and damnation. I know it’s there, but I don’t seem to have any idea where it is.
And that is why I don’t like that sermon.