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.