"The Prodigal Son"-we know this story. This may be one of the most well-known stories of the Bible, even among people who've never read the Bible and never been inside a church. We've given this portion of Luke's gospel a title that's become part of our cultural lore and an expression of speech: the prodigal son. So when we hear it again, we might not listen.
Our tired ears hear it almost in caricature, where the father and the two sons become figures in outline, without faces or depth or context. We give the story and the characters in it quick labels: prodigal, merciful, resentful, and we know all there is to know. And so we can miss what Luke is up to here, a point that he emphasizes in not-very-subtle ways.
This parable is Luke's answer to the Pharisees who complain that Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with them-Jesus breaks the social and political code of the day by fraternizing with the outcasts. Like an old-fashioned preacher with a three-point sermon, Luke tells the story of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and then the climactic story of the lost son who is welcomed home. Lest we miss it, he hammers his point home with a drumbeat in the bass line: throughout the stories of the sheep and the coin and the father we hear the word "rejoice," "rejoice," "rejoice." That's the clue about the point of the story. Luke isn't really talking about anything being lost-he's talking about being found.
I learned this from the children at Trinity Episcopal Church, Santa Barbara, where I once served. One child summed up the story this way: "We know that if you go away from God for awhile, when you come back, God rejoices."
Through the eyes of a child, God is a loving God who gathers us in, who rejoices when we are found. The children hear a pattern in Luke's stories: something is lost, there is a search, something is found, and then there is celebration. The children learn to trust that pattern. They trust being found.
What if we heard with a child's ears? What if we trusted that pattern?
If grownups could trust that pattern, maybe, we could toss out the old metaphors for God that still lurk in the dark and dusty corners of our religion: no more judge on a throne up in a faraway heaven, no more angry landlord tossing Adam and Eve out of the garden, no god who requires blood sacrifice, no more doctrine of atonement, no more Santa Claus god who rewards the good and punishes the bad, no more slot machine God that delivers if only we can strike the winning combination.
If grownups could trust that pattern, maybe, we could hear what Jesus kept saying in so many ways:
"God is not reached through your keeping of rules. God comes after you, God wants you, no matter what you've done, no matter where you are, no matter how long, how far, how lost. God wants you back. God is loose in the world and will not be contained by your codes, your rituals, your rules, your institutions, your hierarchies."
If grownups could trust that pattern, maybe, we might risk the radical compassion of Jesus.
We might be willing to risk new ways of encountering the one whose way is different.
We might reach new insights about what's wrong with our world and what's lost inside ourselves, and what we might do about that.
We might be willing to imagine new ways to be the church in the world. We might be willing to step up to the plate like Jesus on say, immigration, or protecting children from gun violence, or protecting women from violence.
If we could trust that pattern, maybe, Christian churches might become known far and wide as places where anyone--and everyone--could be found, and welcomed, and celebrated.
If we could trust that pattern, maybe, then one day Christianity became known as a force for good.
What might that look like in your neighborhood?