Luke 15.1-3, 11-32
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
One of my favorite seminary professors, Ed Everding, had a wonderful, three-word paradigm for examining a biblical text: SAYS – MEANT – MEANS. And you can do this, too, when you’re reading scripture. SAYS: What do the words on the page actually say? Is the passage a poem, a story, a song, a prophecy, a letter? (The one genre you won’t find anywhere in the Bible is a science textbook.) What kind of language does the writer use? MEANT: What might this text have meant to the people who initially heard it or read it? What sort of message might they have derived in their historical setting? And finally, MEANS: Now, that we know what it says and what it may have meant millennia in the past, what might it mean for us in our setting today? Let’s try it with today’s text.
SAYS: The Parable of the Prodigal Son is one of the best-known stories of Jesus in the Bible. Even people who have never stepped foot in a church may know this one. Obviously, it’s a parable, which plunks down a story and provokes the listener to wonder what other meaning is there. It’s important to look at the words on the page and perhaps look at different translations if you aren’t a linguistic scholar. It’s also important to look at what ISN’T on the page. For instance, in this story, we never hear about the mom. Is she dead? Is she silent?
The other thing missing is the word “prodigal,” which doesn’t appear in the text. In fact, the word “prodigal” never occurs in the Bible, but it has grown up as part of the tradition over the years. The first biblical use in English is a description in the 16th century Geneva Bible, which is the English translation used by the Pilgrims of Plymouth. The meaning of “prodigal” is oftentimes thought of in a pejorative sense of being wasteful and excessive. But the Oxford English Dictionary also offers another definition: someone or something that “has, gives, or yields something on a lavish scale; generous, copious, abundant.” Now, just hold onto that idea for a few minutes.
MEANT: What do we think the parable meant to those who heard it? One of the obvious meanings is that we are like the son who has gone astray, rejected God, fallen off the tracks, and are trying to find our way home. We may see the father’s reaction as one like God’s: that no matter what we do (wasting our inheritance, living with ritually unclean beasts like swine, rejecting the love we’ve been shown), God always offers us an extravagant welcome home as a consequence of reconfiguring our minds and our hearts and setting off in a better direction.
I took some of the words for this morning’s prayer of confession from the “Full to the Brim” Lenten resources we’re using, and it clearly cast us in the role of the son who has missed the mark. That is the dominant way the parable has been interpreted, and it’s not wrong. All of us mess up on a regular basis, and it’s important for us to see the errors of our ways and get back on track.
But there was this phrase that I read in our bulletin a few weeks ago, and it really struck me: “a frugal faith.” A frugal faith…it’s not a good thing, is it? Having come from New England, I can assure you that there are plenty of Congregationalists who think that frugality and thrift are biblical virtues that should be lived out every day. Surprisingly, there really is nothing about frugality in the Bible. There is one reference to scarcity in Deuteronomy, but it is usually referred to as a counterpoise to God’s abundance. Is that surprising to you? Didn’t you think that the injunction to be frugal was part of our faith? I wonder if we’ve allowed millennia of cultural build-up about our fear of scarcity to shade the ways we view our faith.
That’s not all: In the New Revised Standard Version, there are 79 references to abundance starting in Genesis and ending in Jude.
MEANS: What are some of the meanings of this parable that might serve us today? Is there a character you identify with in the parable? Someone whose experience and outlook resonates with you? To be sure, we can still see ourselves in the role of the younger brother who has gone astray, or we can see ourselves as the resentful older brother who has done all the right things, but who isn’t celebrated by their father…nobody killed a fatted calf for him!
I think sometimes we let ourselves off the hook by playing small and saying, “I’m a sinner and much like the younger brother,” though may very well be true. I know there are times when I need to ask for forgiveness and promise to try and transform my behavior and outlook. Even though we’re a pretty neat bunch of people, all of have done things we regret and want to be forgiven for and to change.
What if we saw ourselves in the role of the father? What if we could become people whose first response is to extend grace and abundance? What if we could be people who are more than willing to forgive wrongdoing when the offender expresses contrition and comes home? What would it take for us to have that kind of faith-in-action? How might that change our lives? Isn’t that part of what we pray for every Sunday: “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” or in John Philip Newell’s words, “Forgive us the falseness of what we have done as we forgive those who are untrue to us.” We’re supposed to emulate God’s grace and forgiveness, in fact we only ask for it to the extent that we have offered it to others. Listen carefully to the Lord’s Prayer.
I want to be clear that I’m not suggesting any of us should be a doormat and get used by a wrongdoer. Good boundaries are important, and no type of abuse is acceptable. That’s not the kind of unhealthy behavior we’re referring to.
For true reconciliation to occur, there needs to be an act of contrition, a commitment that transformation is happening. The younger brother says, “‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son.’” Is that enough? How does the father know that this isn’t an empty promise? Part of the answer is that he doesn’t know for sure: that’s where grace comes in. What is motivating the father is there on the page in black-and-white: “His father saw him and was moved with compassion.” (It’s that weird Greek word, splagknidzthomai, which means gut-wrenching compassion, which is one of the key issues for Jesus, because it is a characteristic of God and ought to be for us.)
Can you think of a time in your life when someone has asked for forgiveness, and you have been unwilling or unable to go forward with that? Can you think of a time when someone was unapologetic or unwilling to change…but you forgave them anyway? I’ve had some big situations like that where I have been wronged by someone close to me and they never owned their part in the situation, and it takes a long, long time to say, “You are forgiven.” And the strange thing is that even if they don’t know you’ve forgiven them, there will be a change, a transformation, in you. There is a burden lifted from your shoulders, a lightness that takes the place of heaviness. You can even feel it in your body, maybe in your shoulders releasing or the pit in your stomach letting go.
I want to get back to that earlier definition of prodigal: “has, gives, or yields something on a lavish scale; generous, copious, abundant.” Is there a character in the parable whose behavior is described that way? It fits in rather well with our Lenten theme of “Filled to the Brim” or even our cup overflowing. When you hear the story of the father killing the fatted calf and ordering his staff to prepare a feast, what do you imagine that looks and sounds and smells like? There is music and dancing! Do you envisage a variety of things on the table? Dates? Fresh bread? Honey? Wine? Veal? Cheese? It’s lavish isn’t it? It’s “generous, copious, abundant,” isn’t it? So, why isn’t this referred to as the Parable of the Prodigal Father?
The father is not someone who lives with frugal faith, is he? (The older brother, who can’t get over his hurt, perhaps does live a frugal faith.) How can the father just release the pain that his son’s departure and living with pigs must undoubtedly have caused? I think the answer is twofold: grace and compassion. The father lives an abundant faith, one filled to the brim with love and the dearness and power of relationship. That’s his primary concern, not keeping score with his son about how much money he blew. An abundant faith doesn’t count the cost. It doesn’t keep a tally in the record book of insults and slights. An abundant faith looks to compassion, love, hope, and grace as the path to God, because these are the characteristics of the One we worship and in whose image we are made.
May we, each of us and all of us together, strive to live abundantly. And may your cup overflow.
© 2022 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact hal at plymouthucc.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
Luke 15.1-2, 11-32 (Proper 11)*
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson
I would guess that most, if not all, of us have had the experience of receiving a genuine and effusive compliment only to turn it aside, deflect it. This is a learned skill that adults have and goes something like this: “Oh, this dress, this shirt…“It’s a hand-me-down” or “It’s so old.” Or “You liked the meal? Sorry, I burnt the edges of the roast.” Or “The vegetables were a little soggy.” Or when we have done something helpful action. (shrug) “It was really nothing…not that hard.” Or when someone really appreciates your musical performance or your good work on a project, or the completions of a housekeeping task at home…..etc, etc, etc. you say, “It was really nothing.”
What’s up with this? Our propensity for deflecting compliments? Have you ever practiced looking the person complimenting you in the eye and really letting it soak into your soul and nurture you by simply saying, “Thank You.” If we can’t receive something as hopefully daily and routine as a compliment, can we receive the grace and compassion of God?
It’s a peculiar thing about humans. We would rather dwell on the have nots of life, out of fear and an attitude of scarcity, than on the gifts and abundance of life. We are often afraid to trust compassion and grace. We are often afraid to trust.
The late Dr. Fred Craddock, New Testament scholar and preacher extraordinaire, wrote: “Easily the most familiar of all Jesus’ parables, this story [our scripture today, the one we just heard] has been embraced by many persons who have not felt the full impact of the offence of grace that it dramatically conveys. The focus of the parable is the father: ‘There was a man who had two sons,” but it is most often called the parable of the prodigal son.” [Craddock, Fred B., Luke, Interpretation Series, (John Knox Press: Louisville, KY, 186).]
Craddock goes on to point out that historically much of the preaching of the church on the three parables in the 15th chapter of Luke’s gospel focuses on the negative….the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost son. Yet each of the parables ends with rejoicing and celebration and forgiveness. Why do we as human beings overlook the extravagant gift of grace in these stories? Why is this grace so offensive, perhaps, embarrassing, to us that we focus on the conditions the gospel describes of being fallen, out of sync, lost, rather than on the gospel’s message itself – God’s good news of grace, compassion and forgiveness delivered through Jesus? Have we so little compassion for ourselves and others? So little trust in the Holy Compassionate One in whom we live and breathe and have our being?
This week at Plymouth we started Compassion Camp, an intergenerational, online and in-home exploration of compassion. Compassion means “to suffer with, to feel with.” Not to feel sorry for in patronizing pity. But to feel along with another person, usually in a time of pain and sorrow, rather than try and fix the situation or the person in order to avoid the pain. To simply feel with, suffer with…and perhaps, also to be in joy with for joy and sorrow can be two sides of an experience. Each week of Compassion Camp there is a theme exploring how we experience compassion, with our neighbors, with our selves, with our world. I hope you will participate with as many of the online offerings and in-home crafts, prayers, and ponderings as you can.
Since Monday during this first week of Compassion Camp we have been pondering the extravagant welcome of God, the Compassionate One that is always extended to us, always inviting us to gather at the table God’s abundance no matter what life is throwing at us. This is the compassion and welcome extended by the father in our story to both of his sons – to the one son who can only learn by experiencing and making every mistake in the book, even to the point of starving to death and to the other son who thinks he can learn it all by following every rule and getting a pin for perfect attendance. Which sibling do you tend to be? I have been them both at different times in my life.
Jesus shares with us in metaphor in the abundantly loving father figure we experience in his story. This character tells us something about the Divine Father or Mother, the loving Parent/Creator/Friend and Guide, who is ALWAYS welcoming us home. As well as, ALWAYS giving us the freedom to experience life as we choose. We can choose to be prodigal, wasteful and extravagant in our consumption and acquisition of what we think will make us successful, will make us feel good. Prodigal in these ways to the point of self-loathing and self-destruction. We can choose to be prodigal, extravagantly wasteful of love and relationships through rigid rule-following, holding our cards too close to our chests so to speak and refusing intimacy in relationships, by holding attitudes of judgment that cut us off from compassion for ourselves and others, even as it looks as if we are successful and right-living.
Most of us find ourselves somewhere in between these two extremes. Wherever we are on the spectrum the Compassionate One is patiently waiting for us to come home, to welcome us around the table of abundance and celebration and joy, no matter what wounds we may bring with us. This is the third choice. We can choose to live the experiences, the mistakes and successes, of our lives in relationship around God’s table of community. There our wounds are not instantly healed in a pie-in-the-sky instant fix. What we do find is the gift of this “offensive” extravagance of grace, as Dr. Craddock put it so shockingly. The prodigality, if you will, of God’s grace and compassion. The cups of grace at God’s table are running over. Grace is spilling over “wastefully” in joy and celebration, in forgiveness and love that nurtures all who willing to sit at God’s table of compassion. You see, my friends, the God revealed in Jesus the Christ is the ultimate manifestation of compassion. God feels with our suffering, sits in midst of our suffering with us, walks with us in relationship toward healing as we gather around Love’s beloved community table.
So who in Jesus’ story, do you think, is really the prodigal, the extravagantly wasteful one? Is this story about the mistakes of sons or the overly abundant generosity and compassion of a father?
As we ponder our responses, the situations of our lives, our family relationships, friend relationships, no doubt come to mind. Our relationships with our own selves, our own souls. The communal situation of our country comes to mind. Our continual confrontation with this virus, Covid-19. The terror of its virulence and tenacity, the conflicts over how to handle it. The economic travesties in its wake. The virulently renewed and in-our-face confrontation with racism and its centuries old devastation of God’s ultimate vision of the wholeness of human beings and their communities comes to mind. How do we walk in compassion, with true compassion, discovering God’s welcome in all the situations of our lives? How does Jesus’ story and its profoundly moving metaphors translate to boots-on-the-ground living in 21st century America here in our communities, our families, our schools and workplaces in Northern Colorado?
I wish I knew all the answers to my own questions. All these “hows.” But then I would be sitting at that welcome table all by myself, pretending I was God. And I’d be pretty lonely because I wouldn’t even be letting God in and it’s Her table to begin with. I’d need to hear Jesus’ story again!
The answers, the “hows” to compassionate living in this world are in the community around the table. In the community where all people are invited to share in the spilling over grace of God. Where all voices must be heard so wounds can be healed. Where all fears must be laid on the table, all angers, all hates that mask the fears. It is a safe table for vulnerability and confession. It’s a table where compassion is the power behind the listening. It’s a table where listening is the compassionate catalyst to change and transformation.
Beloved Community of Plymouth, we are the compassionate welcome table of God’s grace. That’s a great definition for church, don’t you think? We could change our name to Plymouth Welcome Table. We are being called, even in this physically distant state of things that we are in, to be connected through listening to the patient, grace-filled invitation of God to learn compassion for ourselves, for one another and for God’s beautiful and hurting creation, God’s beautiful and hurting family of human beings. How will you listen for the compassion of God as part of the Plymouth Welcome Table?
Your first opportunity is to join in the activities of Compassion Camp! We have four more weeks dedicated to exploring compassion. What a gift!
The Compassionate One is calling us home to sit at the table together. Coming to this table of compassion and grace may be a huge relief, it may feel at first like the hardest thing you have ever wanted to do. It will be the most healing. At God’s table you will hear, “Welcome home! I love you. All I have is yours! You are worthy of the grace flowing from your cup of blessing. There is enough for everyone! Tell your story. I will tell your mine. Receive, receive, receive. Invite, invite, invite. Listen, listen, listen! Let us heal the world together.” Will you look this compliment in the eye and receive it?
May it be so. Amen.
©The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, 2020 and beyond. May only be reprinted with permission.
Associate Minister Jane Anne Ferguson is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. Learn more about Jane Anne here.
*Luke 15.1-2, 11-32 (Proper 11)
All the tax collectors and sinners were gathering around Jesus to listen to him. 2The Pharisees and legal experts were grumbling, saying, "This man welcomes sinners and eats with them." Overhearing this, Jesus began to tell stories. He told them how a shepherd risked his life to find the one sheep missing from the flock and how a woman threw a party because she had found a valuable lost coin. Then…..
11Jesus said, "A certain man had two sons. 12The younger son said to his father, 'Father, give me my share of the inheritance.' Then the father divided his estate between them. 13Soon afterward, the younger son gathered everything together and took a trip to a land far away. There, he wasted his wealth through extravagant living”.
14When the younger son had used up his resources, a severe food shortage arose in that country and he began to be in need. 15He hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. 16He longed to eat his fill from what the pigs ate, but no one gave him anything. 17When he came to his senses, he said, 'How many of my father's hired hands have more than enough food, but I'm starving to death! 18I will get up and go to my father, and say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I no longer deserve to be called your son. Take me on as one of your hired hands." ' 20So he got up and went to his father.”
"While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with compassion. His father ran to him, hugged him, and kissed him. 21Then his son said, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son.' 22But the father said to his servants, 'Quickly, bring out the best robe and put it on him! Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet! 23Fetch the fattened calf and slaughter it. We must celebrate with feasting 24because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life! He was lost and is found!'
25"Now his older son was in the field. Coming in from the field, he approached the house and heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the servants and asked what was going on. 27 The servant replied, 'Your brother has arrived, and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he received his son back safe and sound.' 28 Then the older son was furious and didn't want to enter in, but his father came out and begged him. 29 He answered his father, 'Look, I've served you all these years, and I never disobeyed your instruction. Yet you've never given me as much as a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours returned, after gobbling up your estate on prostitutes, you slaughtered the fattened calf for him.' 31 Then his father said, 'Son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad because this brother of yours was dead and is alive. He was lost and is found.'"