“Home is the place where when you have to go there
They have to take you in.”
“I should have called it
Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.”
Home is the Place
Lent 4 March 21, 2004
My brother Tommy had a friend named Hamlet. They met at boarding school, in the mountains of Virginia. Hamlet was a boy from a nice family, really “the” family in his small, North Carolina town. My parents found Hamlet delightful, I think in part because of his soft, pleasing accent, and also because he had a particularly charming way of speaking to adults. My brother and I were at an age when our friends were often in and out of our family home; he brought them home for the weekend, and I was in college right across town and brought my friends for a home-cooked meal, or to escape the noise of the dormitory. I can’t remember anyone getting the kind of fuss made over him that Hamlet did.
It was, for me, a bone of contention. I was jealous. I felt my parents didn’t like my friends, and I didn’t understand why. This feeling was only magnified when Hamlet got into trouble at school; one of his pals dared him to shoplift some gum from the local store, and he got caught. This casual shoplifting had become an issue for the school, and they made an example of Hamlet. In their old-fashioned way of saying things, he was “not asked back” for the next year. Perhaps part of the reason for being so tough on him was that his older brother was a prefect, expected to set an example and keep things in order. When the prefects sat down to talk about what to do with Hamlet, his brother was the one who said they had to give him the full punishment.
They were learning something about honor and how to protect it. And although that word is never mentioned in the Parable we hear today, the principle of honor weaves through it. In this case honor is awarded by virtue of following certain rules, many of them and complicated, at that. We jump verses in today’s lectionary reading, but don’t let that make you think that the prologue and the story are unrelated. The intervening Parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin illustrate the same principles, in response to the complaints of the first few verses. And those verses tell us why the story was necessary.
The fine folks of the religious community didn’t like the company Jesus kept. To their eyes, he was in the same category as the lost son, hanging around with women of easy virtue, men who had sold out to the invading Romans, folks with diseases considered to be punishment for sins, all of them by definition unclean and sinners. Jesus shared table fellowship with people who were closed out from the Temple and therefore from any chance to ameliorate those sins. Aware of those rumblings, Jesus told this story.
It begins with an offense against love and family ties. The younger son in essence says: “I wish you were dead so I could have your money and live my own life!!” The father somehow loves enough to overlook the hurt and let his boy go. He loves him enough to let him get lost.
And get lost he does, in a very effective fashion. He loses his family, his country, his religion and his money. He hangs out with all sorts of disreputable people, and behaves in ways that would bring shame on his family. He ends up so down and out that he is willing to take a job not only as a servant, which would have been bad enough, but as a swineherd, of all things, feeding and caring for animals considered unclean by his religion. Now we don’t know whether he ever felt sorry for his offense against love, but we do know he realized in the pigpen that his father was a pretty good guy, a guy who took better care of his servants than this boss in a faraway land. So he thought up a plan for going back home, for playing his father once again, to get the most he could out of the situation. Because even living in the bunkhouse with the field hands would be a big improvement on slopping the pigs.
Let’s explore his offenses against honor. Unlike the absentee landlord in last week’s parable of the Fig Tree, the father in this story is living on his property, a property substantial enough that there was actually something significant left even after cashing in the first half to give money to the younger brother. Of course not only is the father hurt by this, but the actual prospects of the elder son are as well. In a situation where both were heirs, they would have been expected to work together and keep the family’s land together. Not only did the extended family depend upon them, but so did the hired hands and their extended families and the residents of whatever village might have grown up near such a large estate. The elder brother would not have been the only person feeling angry; many lives were disrupted by these actions. There would have been fewer fields on which to rotate crops, tiring the land out more quickly. Whoever bought the younger son’s share would have become the competition! As the owner of a large estate, the father would have been expected to look out for the good of all; he doesn’t seem to have done that.
This story, though we have come to know it as the Parable of the Prodigal Son, is really the Parable of the Loving Father. We know from the way they use words with each other that how they are used matters. “This son,” says the older brother, as if he had no relationship to either his father or his brother. “This brother,” says the father in reply, reminding the elder son that they are all related. The first denies the family relationships, the second reopens them. Remember that the story begins, “There was a man who had two sons,” not “There was a young man who left home,” or even, “there were two brothers who didn’t get along very well.” This story is about the father. The father overlooks both offenses, against honor and against love, when he picks up his robes and runs to greet his son. He “forgets” his own hurt feelings in his joy at this resurrection, and he risks his own honor by offering his protection to a son who shamed family and community. He is running to greet his boy for all he is worth before he ever hears a word of the carefully rehearsed speech.
So can we understand how the elder brother was feeling when he trudged home from work to find a party already going on without him? I think faithful churchgoers often relate to the elder brother. Surely our hard work and our faithfulness entitle us to some special treatment! A friend shared this story. A woman came to her and said, “My mother will have her birthday next Sunday. Might we sing Happy Birthday to her during church.” The mother is not only elderly but also beginning to lose her grip, mentally. Of course, my friend replied, we will be happy to sing to her. A pleasant moment, in which my friend considered the joy this small attention could bring, then turned sour, when the daughter said, “Well that’s the least you can do after all her hard work for the church.” Mmm.
Jesus tells us how bitter the elder brother was, and he is like the Pharisees. No matter how devout they are, the Pharisees, the judgmental, the rigid, will be left out, not because God bars the door but because they refuse to come in themselves when invited. God loves us all, whether or not we play by the rules. Where does that leave us if we are always striving to be “good?” What is the point of our effort? It has no point unless we take joy in it, unless we do it out of love. At the soup kitchen last week, a man who was under the influence of I don’t know what exactly was trying to stay inside after it was time to leave. As part of his effort he engaged me in conversation, and one of his questions was, “why do you do this? Does it make you feel good?” I guess we could make a long list of reasons why, but without thinking much about it I knew my answer. “I do it,” I said, “because Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.” It’s not a rule to interpret those words of Jesus in a particular way, but that is how they speak to my heart and what they move me to do.
I like to imagine the end of the story this way. After the father’s concluding speech, something moves inside the elder son. His icy heart begins to thaw, even if it’s just a bit. He goes to the door and looks inside, and the warmth of the celebration is irresistible.
Here is the good news: we are all loved and forgiven, even before the words of repentance come out of our mouths. There is no magic formula, no incantation, no sacrifice that we need to make on some particular altar, and no words that must be spoken with our lips pursed just right. All we have to do is turn ourselves homeward, to turn ourselves toward God. Home is the place where when you have to go there they have to let you in. God is the one waiting to run down the path and meet you on the way. Amen.