“I thought you were dead”—the line I’ve always imagined the elder son saying when he hears music and dancing and learns that his younger brother has come home. You see, I read the parable of the prodigal son this way: this is a story about a father who will one day entrust the family business to his sons. When the younger son asks his father for an early inheritance, the father grants his request. When the younger son sells his portion in bad real estate deals and returns with a half-baked apology, the father not only welcomes him home, he restores his place in the family. And the older brother is livid. He says, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.”
And the whole parable feels really quite unfair. Which is exactly the point, some commentators would say, for this is a story about exposing the relational logic of the kingdom of God, “which runs contrary to the legal logic” of Jesus’ listeners.[i] The point of the story is that God’s grace just doesn’t make sense.
And I wish I could leave you with that interpretation and put this parable to rest. But the truth is, “grace just doesn’t make sense” feels to me like an easy out. And I feel that way, because there’s a part of me that uncomfortably identifies with the angry older brother. When I hear about the younger brother and his “dissolute living,” I imagine a modern telling of this story, and I hear the older brother talking about his younger brother like this (and tell me if this sounds familiar): “He has been given everything; don’t feel sorry for him; he was given a fair share—it was his choice to squander his paycheck; it was his choice to get addicted to drugs; he could’ve gotten himself an education like every other self-respecting citizen; he hasn’t even been paying taxes!”
I’m sort of scared to admit this, but I identify with the angry older brother because I think the older brother is in our DNA, DNA that reaches back, for a lot of us, to our Protestant settler history—DNA which has written into it, for example, some ugly stories about the people with whom we claim to share a national identity and what they are doing with what we deem to be their share of Canada’s inheritance. Stories like: “Why can’t they just kick their addiction? What do you mean they need more money? Where do you think all our taxes have been going?”—stories which contribute in a big way to racism in this country.
Melanie Delva, Reconciliation Animator for the Anglican Church of Canada wrote about another side to this a while back. She was having coffee with Bishop Mark Macdonald and reflecting on the Mississauga Declaration which renewed the commitment to the 1994 Indigenous Covenant and Journey of Spiritual Renewal, a document that “acknowledged the immense damage wrought on Indigenous peoples by colonization, and covenanted to creating an Indigenous self-determining community within the Anglican Church of Canada.” Melanie was saying to Bishop Mark how she felt sad that Indigenous people wanted to leave the church and Mark said in response, “This isn’t Indigenous Anglicans threatening to leave; this is Indigenous peoples threatening to stay.”[ii]
It complicates things, doesn’t it, when people who disrupt the way “we” are show our narrow vision for humanity to be a façade and then threaten to stay? Sometimes we are pathological in our efforts to keep up that façade and Canada’s legacy of residential schools is a prime example. And sometimes we are a little more subtle, kind of micro-aggressive about it, acting like the angry older brother and continuing to tell stories in our families and churches about, for example, what people are supposedly doing with what we deem to be their share of Canada’s inheritance.
So what do we do with a parable like this? What do we do with a story that, if we read it this way, has the potential to expose an ugly side to our national and religious identity, our family history?
Well, first and foremost, we just plain stop telling those ugly stories. We stop telling them ourselves and we call them out when we hear them being told. Racism has no place in this country and racism has no place in the church.
And then there’s the part of this parable that often gets missed, the part of the parable that has a particular call for this community of St Brigids: did you know that no one actually goes looking for the younger son?[iii] There are two stories that we didn’t hear tonight that precede the parable of the prodigal son. There’s the story of the woman who loses a coin and turns over everything in her home in search of it. There’s the story of the sheep who goes astray and the shepherd who leaves the other 99 sheep (to the wolves!) in search of the one. But in the story of the prodigal son, no one actually goes looking for him. It’s as if his disappearance gives the family an easy out; a reason to say, “We thought you were dead.”
Can I tell you, St Brigids, many of you are lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, and 2-Spirit Christians who have threatened to stay—the ministry of looking for the prodigal son is your ministry. Because you know, we know, what it’s like to come home when actually no one’s been looking for us. We know what it’s like to get a message in church that says, “There’s a story going round about what you’ve been up to, how you’ve been representing the family, and actually it might be a whole lot easier if you didn’t return.” And what a difference it makes when someone, when some Christian community goes searching for us and says, “Hey, you’re welcome here.” Because the younger son’s blood is as much our blood as the elder son’s is, isn’t it? There’s a beautiful side to all that ugliness. I believe that’s a rare gift, the gift of knowing both sides of the story, the gift of the older and the younger brother sharing the same DNA, the gift of knowing what it is to be cast out, unwelcome, and the gift of coming home.
So who is it that God is calling you to reach out to, to say, “Thank God you came back; thank God you survived; thank God you’re threatening to stay.” Go looking for prodigal grace; don’t wait for it to show up on your doorstep. Go searching for the younger brother (whoever they might be); go looking for the prodigal son and tell them they’re welcome home anytime.[iv] Amen.
[i][i]David Lose, “Preaching the Prodigal”, 03 March 2013. Found online at http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2462
[ii]Melanie Delva, “Threatening to Stay”, 12 April 2018. Found online at https://medium.com/ministrymatters/threatening-to-stay-c1a3d29956d3
[iii]With thanks to the Rev’d Marnie Peterson for this insight.
[iv]The Rev’d Joseph Graumann Jr., “Prodigal Grace”, 19 March 2019. Found online at https://modernmetanoia.org/2019/03/18/lent-4c-prodigal-grace/