I went and joined our 4th and 5th graders at camp yesterday morning. My role was easy compared to those who went along to chaperone. I just showed up on a Saturday morning to take a hike with them and to cheer them on. It felt good to be out in the fresh air and to take in the sunshine on a sunny morning in March. And though I know the camp fairly well, I was glad that we were ‘led’ by camp staff who knew where we were going and when and how we would return to where we began.
Apparently, this had not been the case the night before, or so our youngsters clamored to tell me. I am told they arrived and unpacked and went to make their way to the lodge where they would meet up with children and leaders from other churches. Only they got on the wrong trail and had walked some distance before they realized they were off track. “Were you afraid?” I asked them, each one. And yes, this group is still young enough that they would admit their fear. Only this was so. They were not alone as they walked. Several adult chaperones, including a couple of their parents, were ‘lost’ with them. I couldn’t help but observe that some time ago they had passed the age where as long as they were with a trusted adult, they felt ‘safe.’ And, of course, our children are aware that something terrible can happen any time anywhere, aren’t they? Consider for a moment what active shooter drills in schools teach them. And yet even with all of this, this has me remembering that being ‘lost’ is not only something that happens to us physically, but also can and does happen in our relationship to one another. As was the case, perhaps, at least with some of these children, as they have grown to a place where they are not willing or able to fully trust their safety to another. As was surely the situation for all the characters in the parable before us now.
Once the morning hike was done and I saw them started on their next project, I headed towards home. The roads between here and there are familiar as I grew up not so far from there. As I was driving back, I remembered another tale of being ‘lost’ on that very highway. This was not my own experience, but one my sister recounted to us more years ago than I care to remember.
Martha’s summer job that year was driving a pea combine. It was the end of the season and they were finishing up harvesting not far from where our church camp is located. At the end of the day, a whole caravan of combines was heading towards home, one after another of them in line together. Martha was at the end of the line. They came to the only stoplight in town and she was left behind when the light turned red. By the time she was able to turn in the direction the rest had gone, they were out of sight.
Only Martha was not distressed. She had driven these roads many times before and she went the way she had always gone. Indeed, she beat the rest of them back to the combine garage for her route was quicker, but with its hills and curves, apparently not the preferred route of those in charge of leading the others home. Martha was never really ‘lost,’ although if anything had gone wrong, she surely could have been. She was never really ‘lost’ for she knew her way ‘home.’ Like the younger son in today’s parable, in the end, she knew her way ‘home.’
Today’s parable is about being ‘lost.’ It is about finding one’s way ‘home.’ And it is about being welcomed ‘home.’ Most days in most years as I have heard this familiar story, I have spoken of it by the title it is most commonly referred to — The Prodigal Son. And then this year I took the time to go a little deeper and to listen to a different perspective than I have ever really considered before. I spent some time with Amy-Jill Levine’s thinking on it. (She is University Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School and College of Arts and Science in Nashville, Tennessee.) If you have not yet picked up Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi, I would certainly encourage you to do so. If time is of the essence this week, the following links may help you to get a sense of her take on this parable:
- This link will take you to an article which counters all the ways I was taught to think about this parable: What The Prodigal Son Story Doesn’t Mean, found in the Christian Century.
- And this video link offers her sense of what the parables in Luke 15 do mean.
Indeed, her perspective that the focus of Jesus’ story telling here is actually on the older son who stayed behind is one which makes sense, for this is where many find themselves. As I consider this, I am taken back to teaching this parable a long, long time ago to one of my first Confirmation classes. It was a simple exercise we shared in that day. I read the parable aloud to them and I asked who they related to the most.
Now perhaps it was a room full of first-born children which would explain a lot, but with great gusto and indignation, to a person that group of 8th graders claimed that they ‘got’ the older son. The one who stayed behind. The one who was the ‘good son.’ And yes, the very one who felt slighted and/or resentful when the younger son found his way home and was celebrated instead of being punished. (If we are honest, I expect that many of us relate to this familiar story in much the same way.)
But, oh, I cannot help but wonder now what has become of those 13-year-old’s since. They would be in their 40’s by now. They will have lived long enough to have found themselves ‘lost’ themselves — perhaps more than once — and if they are fortunate have, like the younger son, also been ‘welcomed home’ with open arms. They would have children of their own by now and certainly would have experienced their own hearts being broken as beloved children have found ways to get themselves lost and (hopefully) found again. Oh, my hope for them and for us would be that while we may see ourselves in the ‘older son,’ we might also recognize that he was as ‘lost’ — maybe more so — than his younger brother ever was. And that the great yearning of this parable is that we might allow ourselves to be ‘welcomed home’ as well.
For we know this is so, don’t we? One can surely get ‘lost in place.’ One does not have to travel far distances or squander huge fortunes to be as ‘lost’ in our relationship to one another as was the younger son in the parable. Only because it is less obvious, perhaps, less egregious, if you will, if you are ‘lost’ in this way, you may never even have to admit it. And never admitting it? You also never know the wonderful ‘grace’ of being found. Of coming home again. And so it would seem that the younger brother in the story is the fortunate one for he has experienced the wondrous grace of the ‘welcome home.’ Some among us can see ourselves in him. But for many, I expect, we are more like that older brother whose ‘end of the story’ is still untold.
This being so, I cannot help but wonder now:
- How will our stories end?
- Will we allow ourselves to acknowledge our own ‘lost-ness’ and let ourselves be ‘found’ in relationship to our brothers, our sisters, our parents, our neighbors, our friends,our enemies?
- Will we allow ourselves to love more than we judge and just join in the party with all the rest?
For that is finally the point of today’s parable, wouldn’t you say?
- A man had two sons.
- He loved them both — even in and through all the ways they let themselves become ‘lost.’
- And he only wanted to welcome them both ‘home,’ for that is what love looks like.
- So what shall it be?
- Shall we just admit we, too, have been ‘lost’ and just come on home? Indeed, what might it mean for you, like the younger son in the parable, like my sister, Martha so long ago, to ‘remember your way home?’ Can you imagine what kind of welcome is waiting for you there?
- And how shall we be with other ‘lost ones?’ How shall we, too, live out the powerful grace at the center of this short story Jesus told so long ago?
- How shall we do so both with those whose ‘lost-ness’ is obvious? How shall we do so with those who just as ‘lost,’ even though they never actually ‘left home?’