Recently, I was leading a small group session on Jesus’s parables via Zoom. A gay man in the group shared his story: one of his parents has never accepted his sexuality. When he shared with that parent how the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) speaks to his own experience of being loved and embraced by God, his parent cried. I gathered that the parent, unsure of this young man’s salvation simply because he is gay, had cried tears of grief.
This man’s story is unique in its details. And yet it is all too common. Far too many LGBTQ people experience condemnation from their Christian family members and churches. You hear the story over and over again, often with references to the traumatic effects of this condemnation.
What if we read the Prodigal Son differently?
Jesus’ story imagines a young man who has abandoned his family and finds himself “lost.” He returns home, ready to accept humiliation if only he can somehow live securely in his father’s household. But instead of humiliation, the young man receives his father’s joy, an embrace, and a big celebration. Countless Christians see ourselves in this story: as the hymn goes, we once were lost but now are found.
But Jesus’ parables generally come with a hook, a dramatic turn in which the ordinary gives way to the very extraordinary ways of God. Luke 15 places the Prodigal as the concluding parable in a series of three. Each parable includes things lost, things found, and a great celebration. Nice.
But there’s a hook: Jesus spins these three parables at a group of people who don’t know they’re lost. Some Pharisees and scribes, people trained in the ways of righteousness, are grumbling: “This one welcomes sinners and eats with them” (15:2). Like my friend’s parent, these religious experts think it’s other people who need saving. They don’t. But they do.
The parable of the Prodigal, the last of the three, shows us who’s really lost. It’s not the younger brother who was returned home to an extravagant welcome. Instead, it’s his righteous brother who refuses to come to the party. This older brother’s refusal closes the whole chapter by playing out the role of the Pharisees and scribes.
The ones who think others need saving are the ones outside the party.
So many Christians and so many churches assume their own righteousness while they condemn their LGBTQ children. They think these children are the prodigals, lost in the mud. They may even feel compassion for these supposedly lost ones, praying for them, weeping for them.
But you know what? It’s the self-righteous ones who are missing out on the party. They have no idea what they’re missing.
I think about my own story. I’m straight. Having met Jesus in a Southern Baptist church, I didn’t think much about LGBTQ people in the 1980s. The AIDS epidemic happened, and I felt compassion for them. But that was back in the day and in a part of the country where few people were out in public, so it just didn’t come up much.
My opinions began to change in the 1990s. Ministry with LGBTQ youth taught me the authenticity of their lives and their need for affirming spiritual homes. Friendships with LGBTQ believers moved me to deeper engagement with the Bible where I found I had no defensible reason for regarding their sexuality and gender expression to be sinful. When I joined an Open and Affirming United Church of Christ congregation, it was because the community was filled with vitality and joy.
In 1999, I joined the faculty of Lancaster Theological Seminary where LGBTQ students were seeking faculty allies. I thought I was doing LGBTQ people a favor by teaching workshops, planning worship services, and writing biblical studies materials in support of them and their ministries.
What I didn’t know was, I had been invited to a party. Have you experienced the joy of those who, having been condemned by the church, have found a welcoming community in which to express their faith? If you’re straight, have LGBTQ people helped you heal from the impossible, even contradictory, expectations our society imposes on us concerning gender and sexuality? Have you embraced the reality that, as the rock band Living Colour once put it, “Everybody’s f***ed up with their sexuality?” as a healing word?
It’s the church, and not its LGBTQ children, that has left home and lost its way. Too many of us are missing out on a party. I thank my new friend for reframing how I understand this parable.
Greg Carey is Professor of New Testament at Lancaster Theological Seminary and an active layperson in the United Church of Christ. His books include studies of apocalyptic literature, the parables, the Gospel of Luke, and the ethics of biblical interpretation. His most recent books are Stories Jesus Told: How to Read a Parable and Using Our Outside Voice: Public Biblical Interpretation. In addition to serving on multiple editorial boards, Greg chairs the Professional Conduct Committee of the Society of Biblical Literature and serves on the Leadership Team of the Open and Affirming Coalition of the United Church of Christ.
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