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The Prodigal

Family. Jesus once told a parable about a family. The parable began with a very simple, "A man had two sons." Nothing extraordinary. Nothing unusual. Nothing particularly interesting. A story about a man who had two sons. This story is about an ordinary family. We can all relate to this story and it seems that nothing extraordinary happens in the story. After all, the sons behave like sons often behave and the parent behaves like the manual on good parenting says parents should behave. Ordinary.

You know, scholars tell us that this very ordinary story is the best known and best loved of all Jesus' parables. One scholar calls it Jesus' masterpiece.

The parable moves even seasoned, stuffy experts of the Bible. They buckle under the so-called scientific, objective approach when writing on this parable. They are remarkably tender when speaking of this parable. One scholar says of this parable, "It is the most exquisite and penetrating of all stories about divine mercy and love." Did you hear those adjectives? Exquisite. Penetrating. Divine, even.

That great African ancestor of the church, St. Augustine, confesses that he was moved to tears when he heard the story of the younger son. Augustine in his confessions writes that, "This story is about me. I who had squandered the gifts of intelligence and quickness on being a word seller. I had squandered God's gifts on fruitless readings and unwholesome texts which I fed on, but it was like feeding on husks of hogs. Instead of being nourished, I became weaker." For Augustine the parable is about his own conversion.

Oh, for me, it is amazing that such a familiar simple, plain and basic story could have such profound effect. Jesus tells this simplest of stories about a family, about a man who had two sons. Our tradition has not done us any favors by giving this story the title, "The Parable of the Prodigal Son." You see, the story did not originally come with a title. Titles, like labels, can be helpful. And, then, titles, like labels, can be not so helpful. You see, the trouble with titles and labels is that they're not story friendly. Titles tend to put a good story in a cage and mislead us into thinking, "Just because we've named it, we know everything about it." Titles and labels tend to domesticate and tame good stories until the stories become easy and small-time. Titles are dangerous precisely because they make parables manageable. Hey, parables are like people. Parables cannot be managed.

Show me a managed parable and I will show you a very dead parable. So we've ended up with a title, a label, the label "The Parable of the Prodigal Son," and it has stuck, although it is hardly accurate. You see, the trouble with that title is that it shifts attention from the family and privileges one member of the family as though the whole parable is about one member of the family. This is not a Hollywood production where there must be just one star and everybody else is supporting cast. Inaccurate because family does not work that way. Families are not about one person and the rest are supporting actors. Families are much more complex than any title or label might suggest.

Jesus told the story of a family, of a man who had two sons. Well, the younger son decides to leave home. We're not told why he decides to leave home so there is plenty of room to speculate on the circumstances surrounding his leaving home. There is plenty of room to fill in the gaps and the not-saids in the text. There is plenty of room to theorize. Some of us might speculate on this younger son's adventurous spirit. Maya Angelou writes that the younger son was seeking the kind of company he could not get at home so he left home. That's good enough. And some of us could speculate a sibling rivalry. And still there are some of us who are going to read closely, and say, "Aha, this parable-family has no mother, no sisters, no daughters, no grandmothers, no women." In other words, this is a parable household full of men and that's enough to drive anybody out.

But truth is, the story does not spell out why the younger son left home. We only hear he left home and we hear he left home in a manner that reveals he was not planning to ever come back. He leaves home and plans to be gone for good. Packed everything he owned. What he couldn't pack and take with him, he sold and put the dollars in his wallet, withdrew his savings account, closed the account, tore up the book, had a good talk with his old man and said, "Dad, it's like this. If there's anything that you were planning to leave me in your will, I'll take it now." And whatever piece of the farm his father gave him, his inheritance he sold and put the shekels in his now fat wallet. Younger son was equipped to leave the familiar and go into the unknown.

But let us not judge him too harshly. Let us give him the benefit of the doubt and wish him luck as he goes off to some far, far away land to try his luck. He crosses the borders, enters Gentile territory where folks are different. They speak different. They look different. They eat different. Why, they even have porkchops on the menu. Now this story of leaving home is a familiar story for many of us who are born and brought up in geographies that have often been labeled Third World. Surely the parable resonates with many of us in Africa where large masses of people are displaced from their homes and live as non-natives in other areas in the country, on the continent, and beyond. You see, there are African people who have left home because of the difficult situation of home. You see, there are places in this world where the non-existent infrastructures of home make it impossible for even the most hardworking to scratch out a hand-to-mouth living. For some, home is the place of conflict and war. Home is the place where governments have little or no respect for the human rights of their citizens, and the rule of the gun has come to represent the norm.

So, home can be a place one must leave even if it means shattering the fabric of family life. Home can be a place one must leave even if it means living without the safety net of the socialized basis of existence. Yes, this parable Jesus told is a parable about many of us in our world today. So let's not judge this younger son too harshly and too quickly. Let's wish him luck as he goes off to some far, far away land.

Jesus told a parable about a family. The parable could easily have begun like this, "A woman had two sons." Tradition has not done us any favors by baptizing this story as "The Parable of the Prodigal Son" because, you see, such a title shifts the attention from the whole family and focuses on only one member. The title makes the assumption that the prodigal son story and history is the only legitimate and sole history of the entire parable. A label implies that only one layer of the story is important and legitimate for the entire parable.

I grew up not so much bothered by the title but trying to figure out which of the two sons was the prodigal. Oh, my friends and I have argued until the cows came home on which of the two sons was the prodigal one. Some say elder son was the prodigal. Some argue the younger son was the prodigal. And some say, "Of course, both sons are prodigals." Prodigal. What is prodigal anyway? To tell the truth, I have never heard anybody use the word prodigal in an ordinary conversation. So with only this parable's neighborhood of a lost and found coin, a lost and found sheep, and my own language Kimeru calls this "Rugono rwa mutana uria warite." That means "the story of the lost, young person." I have always assumed the meaning of prodigal is "lost." I have always thought a lost sheep is a prodigal sheep; a lost coin is a prodigal coin, and since I have a very poor sense of direction and I am constantly lost, I figure I must be prodigal! Then, surprise, surprise! It turns out prodigal has nothing to do with lost or being lost or geography. Turns out being prodigal is actually not too bad a thing.

Webster's dictionary says prodigal means extravagant. Prodigal means reckless. Prodigal means profuse, means squandering, means wasteful. Prodigal means abundant. Prodigal means bounteous, bountiful, lavish, and out of prodigal comes the word "prodigious." Prodigal.

The people who are not prodigal are the opposite of prodigal. The opposite of prodigal is miserly, the opposite of prodigal is mean, the opposite of prodigal is stingy, the opposite of prodigal is close-fisted.

When prodigal behavior is practiced on another, prodigal is radical. Prodigal means reckless. Look and see when the returning son is met by a father who drops whatever he's doing--an old man runs across the public square. That is prodigal! Prodigal means bountiful. Look and see. When a raggedy, battered, lived-with-swine-looking daughter is clasped and rocked in the loving arms of her mother who laughing and crying can only say over and over again, "Thank you, Jesus! Thank you, Jesus!" That is prodigal. Prodigal means too much, extravagant, overflowing, unconstrained, like a mother who forgets the cultural codes and overjoyed falls on her returning son's neck embracing him and kissing him.

Prodigal is the reckless, dishing-out of heaped helpings of mercy. Dishing out extravagant portions of love. Prodigal is doling out grace in squandering and wasteful servings. Look and see the picture before us. Nothing but the finest robe on his battered and bruised body. Nothing but the most precious of rings on a finger that is a stranger to manicures. And the best shoes for dusty, callused feet. And barbecue the fatted calf. There is no better day we're saving it for. And call the musicians. And everyone dance, dance, dance! And now a toast--a prodigal, passionate toast. Raise your glass one and all. Here is to resurrection!

Vicki Matson puts it best when she says, "When the table is filled to overflowing? when kindness abounds... when love begets more love and generosity gives birth to forgiveness? those kinds of feasts can only come from a God who is amazing, openhearted? extravagant beyond comprehension."

Jesus told a story, a parable about a family, and how their histories are inter-related, how they learned to live by prodigal grace. Jesus told a story simply without labels, without titles, and allowed the chips to fall where they may.

Let those who have ears to hear, hear.

Let us pray.

Teach us, O God, to be like you, to live without the need to label other people, to live dishing out reckless, prodigal helpings of mercy and grace. Amen.