The Rev. Alison Cornish
March 19, 2006 -
The story of the lost son – or two sons – or the return of the prodigal son – in Luke’s gospel is one of the best known, and most interpreted of the parables attributed to Jesus. As a Christian teaching, the story is about the loving forgiveness always available from God-the-parent. As a symbolic tale set in the political context of the New Testament, the youngest son has been interpreted as representing the sinners and tax collectors, and the elder son, the self-righteousness of the Pharisees. And as an allegory, the tale has described the succession of the church (the younger brother) over the synagogue (the elder brother). All of these ideas and interpretations are out there, and make for great reading.
But I see this story as an archetypal tale of reconciliation filled with the same ambiguity and contradiction we, each of us, face when we are deeply mired in matters of estrangement, and it’s from that point of view that I approach the text this morning. For all tales of reconciliation have at their root a separation that results in estrangement – to treat someone as if they were a stranger. And I believe that, over a lifetime, each of us experiences estrangement, and, if we are fortunate, also the long journey towards reconciliation. Sometimes the estrangement is as close by as siblings and parents; at other times, between friends; or even within communities – like congregations. We can also be estranged as peoples – I think of the distance between races, or from our ancestors, or homelands; or even as a species, estranged as we are from the natural world that surrounds and sustains us.
Luke’s version of the tale of the two sons (my preferred title) is rich both in what it does – and doesn’t – tell us. There’s the youngest son, asking for his due, ready to take the world by storm. Nothing in the text tells us that he leaves in anger, or after any sort of conflict, only that he gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and proceeded to be quite foolish about his lifestyle and resources. Oops. And there’s the father, who has given what was asked by his young son. We don’t know if he gave it begrudgingly or generously, with conditions or warnings, whether he missed his child, or was grateful that the rascal went searching for his own path. Much mystery. And finally, there’s the elder son, who we only meet late in the tale, filled with indignation and resentment at the reception given to his lost brother. We sense that being dutiful and diligent hasn’t been any fun, but we don’t know whether, given the chance, he would have done the same as his younger sibling – flown the coop and set out to see the world. As the story closes, we are left with the feeling that one estrangement – between the father and youngest son – may be reconciled, but another – between the brothers – may still be brewing. Like so many estrangements, what caused the rift, and who was at fault, may pass into history, leaving only brokenness behind.
The story is a parable, and all parables – ancient and modern – share some specific qualities. While myths tend to comfort us, assure us, and tell us everything is going to be alright, parables present us with an unsettling experience. Parables introduce contradiction into situations that look, on their surface, to be comfortable and easy.
In the words of one author, parables challenge and dispute the reconciliation that our myths have created. (Anderson and Foley, 14-15) The ambiguity and lack of resolution we find in stories like the two sons is unsettling.
But it wasn’t until I read theologian Henri Nouwen’s book about this parable that I began seeing how intriguing a tale it really is. The first thing that hit me was his idea that the three characters actually represent the different characteristics of the journey from estrangement to reconciliation. The young son gives us repentance: I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son. He himself names his fault, and rather than seeking absolution, he suggests that his father treat him like one of his hired hands. The father gives us compassion, and with his actions to restore his son’s status with his garb (the best robe, a ring and sandals), and with a celebratory meal, he embodies forgiveness. He does this because his son was (as) dead, and is (now) alive; he was lost and (now) is found. There are no recriminations or chastising words, simply the acceptance of a relieved and grateful father.
Repentance. Compassion. Forgiveness. What happens between the young son and the father is the mythic version of reconciliation, when everything comes out alright in the end. And they all lived happily ever after. It’s the myth that leads us to the hope that reconciliation is possible, and that allows us to dream and to believe in a future better than the present, even in the midst of the most difficult of times and circumstances. But parables disallow us from living in a dream world Ö and deter us from trusting in any hope that does not face the hard reality of the present. (Quotes from Anderson and Foley, 15) It’s the elder brother that turns this tale on its head, to show it to be a parable at heart. The elder brother gives us resentment and righteous anger. He is the wronged one, the injured party. He may choose to stay angry for a very long time. He represents all the rage and regrets that are present in any attempt at reconciliation. No estrangement can be fully healed as long as this kind of anger is unresolved. Yet, to ignore the rage and resentment would be a folly, for pushed away, or covered over, the healing of reconciliation can never be complete.
In his book, Henri Nouwen says that we can learn a lot about ourselves when we read this story and ask: with which character – and characteristic – do I identify? In any estrangement, each of us carries within us the means to play any of these roles. With the elder son, we, too, can be the wronged one, the victim, righteously holding on to our anger. With the father, we, too, can extend compassion and forgiveness, even in the most painful of moments, even when we are tempted to lead with recriminations and blame. And, with the youngest son, we, too, can choose to name our own faults and the ways we have betrayed the trust of another.
About now you might be wondering about the title of this sermon Sharing Our Stories – thinking, when is she going to get to the stories? Not the ancient stories, but our stories. For the past several weeks I have advertised my hope that you might share your stories of estrangements with me, stories that would form the foundation of my remarks this morning. I did receive one such story – a daughter’s remembrance of a rift between her mother and aunt that was finally healed just a week before the aunt quite unexpectedly died. A moving recollection, though one now seen through the lens of time. What I did hear people saying, quietly, was I plan to come to that service, because my son hasn’t talked to me since or I’ve lost a good friend over such small conflicts or, I don’t even know where my nephew is now. What I heard you saying is, I’m not sure I know how to – or if I want to – talk about this; it’s too raw, painful, too unresolved. And while one sermon can’t possibly cover all the ways we experience separation, and the paths to reconciliation are as varied as we are individuals, I have found wisdom in Laura Davis’ book I Thought We’d Never Speak Again. She helps to identify some of the steps that constitute the road from estrangement to reconciliation for some of the hundreds of people that she’s interviewed. (Davis, 50-53).
We all start with a perception of an estrangement – what caused it, who was at fault, ad why it’s continued. Of course this is biased by our point of view – it’s our own sense of injustice, our need to be right, that often colors the picture. So, according to Davis, the first thing is to be clear about the present, not what happened back then. What’s happening now? Every time I talk to my mother, I feel like I’m walking on eggshells.
She’s clearly angry, yet she won’t tell me why. Then, Davis says, list all the complaints, all the resentments, you have about this person – everything that’s bothered you about this person in the past. The big and painful, the small and petty. And then, she says, list all the regrets you carry, all the things you wish you had said or done differently. Honestly own your own role in the relationship – and the separation.
Then identify all the ways that the estrangement is benefiting you. Davis says this may seem like a crazy thing to do, but even a situation that hurts you may have rewards, such as sympathy, or safety. By doing this, you might see how you have an interest in maintaining the status quo. Only after this exercise, ask yourself how the estrangement hurts you. What price am I paying for not having this person in my life?
Finally, Davis says, ask how far into the future will this affect me? Although there are some things worth getting upset about – and perhaps even terminating a relationship over – many issues that seem critical in the moment lose their significance when you project their impact over time. In other words, what has the more long-lasting effect, what happened to cause the estrangement, or the estrangement itself?
What’s interesting to me about Davis’ steps is that she helps us to acknowledge that both sons live inside of us. The resentful and the repentant are both there, but like a tangle of yarn, they need to be teased apart. And that’s the work that prepares us to offer forgiveness, to ourselves and others, to lead with compassion.
But even with Davis’ helpful steps that assist us with self-reflection, even with the best of intentions, each of us who has experienced estrangement knows that the road to reconciliation is filled with potholes, unanticipated changes in direction, speed bumps and other hazards. We can easily wrap ourselves in the elder son’s righteous anger, loving our rage, and refusing to see the sorrow that is at its center. We can say that we’re seeking reconciliation, but really be in search of an apology, or hope that the other person will suddenly change their mind, or their personality, to suit our needs. We may think reconciliation should happen on our schedule, that it’s time to be done with all the anger, disregarding that there are others involved who move at a different speed than we do. Or we might believe that reconciliation can happen without generosity of spirit.
Or without grace, the unanticipated opening of a new way forward.
There’s another aspect of this parable of the two sons, and that’s the invitation to explore estrangement and reconciliation in the most intimate of situations – a family. It’s in our families, and family-like relationships, where the hurts of separation are most painful, and the deep, transformative work of reconciliation is most powerful. I see these relationships as our nurseries, our training grounds, for the skills and practices that will be needed in every area of our lives for as long as we shall live. For it seems to me that no matter which way I face today, I am peering down the road towards a distant destination of reconciliation. Some those paths are personal – relationships that have ended far before I had hoped they would. Many of them wind through the communities where I spend my days – congregations split over fractious issues, neighborhoods divided against themselves for long-past hurts. Today, on this sad anniversary of the Iraq war, a goal of reconciliation not only with the people of Iraq, but with our nation’s leaders who seem incapable of moving beyond grudges and blame, who have drawn us into this insidious war, that goal of reconciliation is barely a glimmer on the horizon.
When I sight down these long roads, I see precious few compassionate parents, willing to offer a forgiveness born of gratitude for life rediscovered. And I search in vain for those rare folk who willing to honestly name their own faults, who repent. What I do see are so many versions of the elder brother, people, communities, whole countries holding tight to their justified anger and resentment, and the need to be right.
The many roads from estrangement to reconciliation are ours to tread. You see, that’s the final lesson that I take from the tale of two sons. There really are only participants – no observers. When it comes to the work of reconciliation, the ancient story tells us pretty much all we need to know. The challenge? Getting on that road, knowing that the hope of reconciliation is always there, always possible – and wresting with the sons along the way.
Herbert Anderson and Edward Foley, Mighty Stories, Dangerous Rituals (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998)
Laura Davis, I Thought We’d Never Speak Again (NY: HarperCollins, 2002)
Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son (NY: Image Books, 1992)