Tag Archives: Jesus

Walking to Emmaus and re-learning the story faith

GOSPEL: Luke 24:13-35
Now on that same day [when Jesus had appeared to Mary Magdalene,] two [disciples] were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad….

Everything about the Easter Sunday story suggests that it should wrap up the story of Holy Week. All the way back from when we shift from Christmas and Epiphany telling the story of Jesus’ birth, to the Baptism of Our Lord Sunday on which Jesus is set on the path of his ministry of the Kingdom. From that moment on as we journey through Lent, the climax of Good Friday is in the background. Lent is not a 40 day long Good Friday, but there is a narrative arc that we recognize. Like an epic movie everything along the way serves to hurdle us to the big confrontation moment on Golgatha beneath the cross of Jesus. 

The empty tomb should be like the hero emerging from the wreckage, the moment of celebration that brings the story to a close. 

Except it isn’t. 

The Easter morning stories are full of confusion and uncertainty and more questions than answers. The resurrect Christ doesn’t spawn a “hero escapes death so don’t ask too many questions just be happy” moment, but instead a whole new wrinkle to a story that supposed to be wrapping up. 

And here we are on the 2nd Sunday of Easter still unpacking just what on earth is going on. 

It seems that the story of Jesus is less like an epic movie and more like a serialized TV season that ends on a cliffhanger, and today we starting season 2. 

We pick up the story right after Peter has gone to verify the unbelievable story of the women last week. Two disciples are on their way to Emmaus, a town near to Jerusalem. 

On the way, these two are met by another traveller. This travelling companion incredibly seems to know nothing about what has just happened over the past week in Jerusalem. Yet when the disciples recount the story from trial and crucifixion to the morning reports of the empty tomb from the unreliable women.

To which the unknown travelling companion proceeds to explain to them how the events of holy week fit into the Scriptures. And still these two disciples don’t recognize that the one travelling with them is Jesus. 

It seems a bit absurd that these two wouldn’t be to recognize their teacher and master. Was Jesus wearing a disguise? Were they blinded by their grief? Did God close their eyes to seeing?

I think there might be another explanation, one that relates to us and this moment in time. 

2000 years on from the first Easter we are stilling figuring out how this story unfolds and works together, let alone those first disciples who had just lived through it. Stories are how we understand this world. Stories and narrative help us construct meaning. Stories are the vehicles for us to make sense of things. It is why we go back a rehearse in our mind the events of an experience that we cannot make sense of, it is why we rely on eye witness testimony so heavily, it is why we are enraptured by good movies, books, tv shows, songs, artwork or a good story teller. 

So these two disciples on the road to Emmaus didn’t recognize Jesus because they didn’t understand the story of Holy Week yet, they couldn’t see Jesus because they didn’t know or understand the story of how he could be walking with them. 

Throughout our journey we too are sorting out just what all we have lived through means for us. As pandemic waves rise and recede with different degrees and risk to our health…

As War in Ukraine and elsewhere stretches out into a longer and more horrific than we every imagined reality…

As we navigate global, national and local uncertainty from the price of milk to the dangers of gas ranges to ongoing and persistent weather and climate crisis… 

As we ponder and wonder and worry about the future of our local communities here, even here at Sherwood Park…

We too do not know the ending of our story. We don’t know how to piece it all together yet and there is no precedent, no version that we have heard before that will provide the guidance we so desperately want. 

And so seeing Jesus among us is just as difficult. Even as he walks with us along our paths we may be just as oblivious as those two disciples. 

Just as Easter wasn’t the end of the story but the next season or next chapter, our story is nowhere near ending…but instead how it will all shake remains to be seen and lived. 

So when Jesus join his disciples on their walk down the road to Emmaus, they have more questions than answers. But rather than just coming out with who he is, Jesus takes the disciples back to the beginning, back to the stories they do know. The stories of God’s people. To the scriptures, the stories of faith. Stories told to children from the moment they are born. Stories told in homes and in the synagogue, stories that help to mark the passage of the days and the years, stories that gave frames of meaning, symbols, images and metaphors that helped them to understand their lives and their world. 

And just as the prophets foretold the coming of Messiah, just as John the Baptist preached out the wilderness, just as Jesus himself preached in the towns and countryside while doing miracles, Jesus begins with the stories they know already. And then Jesus interprets the stories in light of the promised Messiah. 

Yet, still the disciples don’t recognize Jesus. 

So finally when they reach Emmaus, Jesus takes the disciples back to Maundy Thursday. To the breaking and blessing of bread, where Jesus had been revealed to his disciples anew in the ancient familiar meal of faith – the passover meal.  

And all of sudden, these two disciples have a story to tell. They have seen this moment before. They have seen this One breaking the bread before. They know this stranger, they recognize the Christ. The Christ who has come to give them a new story of faith to tell. A story that begins at the Last Supper, that descends to arrest, trial and crucifixion and seemingly ends on cross. But now a story that continues on the Third Day with empty tombs, appearances behind locked doors, and revelations in the breaking of bread. 

Jesus has tied all the events of the last week to their familiar stories of faith, and Jesus has given these disciples a new story to tell, a story that makes sense and meaning of crucifixion, death, resurrection and new life. Jesus brings together the ancient stories of faith to the story of the crucified and risen Messiah.

The story of faith that we have been telling for 2000 years since: Christ has died, Christ is Risen, Christ will come again. 

The story that Jesus is taking us back to in this moment, even in the midst of our crisis, our inability to make sense of things and to understand this moment. 

The story of faith that is grafted onto our bones from the moment we are born and then reborn in baptism. The story that is told in homes and at church. The story that helps us mark the passage of days and years. The story that gives us the frames of meaning, symbols, images, and metaphors that help us understand our world. 

And Jesus reminds us that this story of faith has room for us and our recent string of uncertainty and struggle. We might not have been here before, but the Christ who meets us on this journey has. 

Jesus walks along side us in our confusion and uncertainty, reminding us that our familiar stories of faith still have room for our unknown stories of our present. And Jesus promises to see us through, to see us all the way to the new reality that awaits us in this new world of ours. Jesus promises that even this world of frequent tumult and regular uncertainty is nothing new or out of the ordinary for God.

And from here, Jesus takes us back to our beginnings, to the familiar story of breaking bread that we know so well. And in this moment, in this story Jesus is present and known to us, even when we don’t fully understand what is happening and where we are going. 

And so as we search for our story to tell, for the story that will tell us how to live in this new upside down world, Jesus reminds that there is a story that we already know. It begins with the breaking of bread, and continues through suffering and death, but surprises us again and again with an empty tomb, new life and a risen Christ. 

Who Gets to Tell the Easter Story?

Luke 24:1-12
On the first day of the week, at early dawn, the women who had come with Jesus from Galilee came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.

We have arrived. Through this long season of Lent, through the challenges of Holy Week. We have arrived at the day of the resurrection, the empty tomb and promise of a new creation. 

And yet there is some discomfort. This isn’t like Advent that builds to the birth followed by a couple of weeks of holidays over Christmas. Easter morning brings a lot of discomfort. If Maundy Thursday was the funeral lunch, and Good Friday the burial. Today is the moment of wondering, “Okay, now what?”

But it is more than just not knowing what comes next. It is more than sorting through all that has taken place. It is wondering about how this story will be told? Who will tell it? Who gets to tell it?

We can see already, that the question of who gets to tell the Easter story was there on the first morning. The disciples didn’t believe the first reports, they had to verify. 

And some 2000 Easters later, the question remain. Who will this Easter story? Who gets to tell it? Who should tell it? Questions that add some unexpected discomfort to our Easter experience. In a world of Pandemic, Protests, Inequality, Racism and Colonialism, War, Violence and death… who tells this Easter story is still a question we have NOT truly answered. 

Being uncomfortable with this story and who gets to preach it is not something new. In fact, Luke tells us that discomfort with the resurrection story and the ones telling it is as old as the story itself. 

Three women have gone to the tomb early Sunday morning. It was only on Friday, three days ago that they watched Jesus die on the cross. And because of the sabbath (Saturday), his body hadn’t been properly prepared for burial. They were on their way to do this last thing, one final act of love for Jesus. 

But they arrive at the tomb, and the stone is rolled away. Jesus’ body is gone. Luke says the women were perplexed, but that hardly seems to describe what these women were probably feeling. 

And then a couple of guys in dazzling white clothes show up and tell these “perplexed” women that Jesus has been raised from the dead. 

This isn’t an “Aha” moment. This is more of a “Holy (you fill in the blank)” moment. 

And in that “holy” moment the women are snapped from their grief, their perplexity, their terror and are reminded of what Jesus had been telling them the whole time. 

And they go racing back to tell the other disciples. 

And it is at this point that Luke really starts to get interesting. 

The women go back to tell their news to the “male” disciples. But the men think it is nonsense. Now what the english translation says is that the men think it is an “idle tale.” You know, the kind of inane chit chat of no importance that men think they can just tune out because it’s the womenfolk talking. But that is not what the greek says. The greek says the men hear the story as nonsense or crazy or nuts. The kind of story you hear someone tell and you respond by saying, “No way, that’s not possible, that didn’t happen.”

And then the english translation says the men didn’t believe the women, as if the men actually took the time to consider the content of their story. But the greek says the men didn’t trust the women. The story wasn’t believable because of who was telling it. The men didn’t bother listening to the story right from the beginning.

And then there is the last bit about Peter. Peter runs off to check the tomb for himself. Why would he do that if he didn’t trust the women enough to listen to their idle chit chat in the first place? Well, in most bibles there is a little footnote that comes at the end of this verse about Peter’s “checking on things” at the tomb.

The footnote that explains that verse 12 (this whole bit about Peter verifying what the women had reported) is not included in other ancient manuscripts. Or in other words, the verse is likely an addition to the story. 

So here we have this story of the resurrection that is hard enough to make sense of on its own but the real problem with this story seems to be not with the story itself, but with the people who have been chosen to tell it. The disciples think the women’s story is nonsense because they are untrustworthy women. Recent English translators, who still have a problem with the fact that women are the first ones to tell the story, try to turn the nonsensical report into an idle tale – something not even worth being listened to at all by the men. 

And to top it off, the early christian community added this bit about Peter verifying what the women reported so that somebody credible would be the one telling the story of the resurrection. Because Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Jesus’ own mother Mary weren’t credible witnesses on their own because they were women.

Oh, how things haven’t changed.

As hard as it is to makes sense of somebody being raised from the dead, our real problem is still with who gets to tell the story. 

Christians have spent a lot of time and energy in the past 2000 years telling people who can and who cannot tell the story of Jesus. And it’s not just women. Christians at various times have told people of colour, LGBT people, poor people, uneducated people, and even lay people that they are not among God’s chosen story tellers. 

For some reason our issue has been less with the content of the resurrection story itself than the character of the ones chosen to tell it. 

Because it is hard to believe that of all the people to find the empty tomb, God sends the very people who were considered untrustworthy and unreliable as witnesses. 

How would this story have been different if the disciples simply trusted the women?

When the women arrive at the tomb, early on that Sunday morning they were expecting to find the body of Jesus. Mary’s son, Mary Magdalene’s and Joanna’s friend and teacher. They expected to be anointing a body with spices and oils. They were expecting to finish the Jesus story for good, one last goodbye to the one they loved. 

They most certainly did not expect that all that crazy talk that Jesus had been going on about for 3 years to be true. Betrayal, trial, crucifixion… and now resurrection. They did not expect to find the living among the dead, they did not expect that Jesus had been raised. 

They didn’t yet understand just what Jesus’ death and resurrection had accomplished. They did not know yet that the Risen Christ overturns and undoes the established orders of the world. The first order of which is the established order of death. The Risen Christ upends the order of death and replaces it with a new order, a new system, a new way – Resurrection and New Life. 

But Jesus doesn’t stop there. The Risen Christ also overturns the established order of power and privilege. It cannot be understated just how significant it is that the first witnesses (and therefore preachers) of the resurrection are those without power, those on the margins, those whose testimony is discounted before it is even given because they cannot be considered “trustworthy” by decent and proper folks.

When these women are met with news of the resurrection, they would not have expected that of all the disciples that they would be the ones called upon to deliver this news – Jesus has risen. They weren’t the leaders, the gifted ones, the talented ones, the respected ones. They weren’t even considered trustworthy by the disciples who knew them well. They were just women. They were forgotten, unimportant, unworthy. They were not the kind of people anybody would expect to be called upon to carry out such an important task. They were the wrong people. 

But for the Risen Christ, they were the right people. Because the God of New Life has turned the world upside down. Death is now Life. The Powerful are now the powerless. The weak and lowly are lifted up. And the wrong people to deliver this news, the wrong people like those women… for God, they are exactly the right people. 

The Risen Christ completely changes our world and our reality, Christ’s death and resurrection turns everything and everyone upside down. All the old orders, all the ways in which we told others and in which we were told we aren’t good enough – those orders, those ways are ended. And the Risen Christ says the good news of new life is for not just for the right people, not just for the wrong people. The Good News is for all. Resurrection and New Life is for us. 

And maybe that is crazy nonsense in a world like ours. 

But it is not crazy nonsense for God. 

Good Friday is neither special nor unique

John 18:1-19:42

Good Friday is neither special nor unique.

What happens on Good Friday is no different than what happens others days. 

One falsely convicted man killed by a merciless and cruel government is barely even news-worthy in our world. 

Jesus was no unarmed black man killed by the cops, causing marches in the streets, social media hashtags and widespread shows of support. Jesus’ followers hid away after his death. 

Jesus was no Ukrainian family shelled in from of new cameras by careless or cruel Russian military. Only a few devoted followers wept for Jesus. The whole world weeps for Ukraine and the atrocities committed there. 

Jesus was no missing and murdered indigenous woman, no victim of residential schools. His beating, his death did not spark an inquiry. His unmarked grave did not spark an apology from the Pope himself.

There were no news reports for the crucifixion. There were no hashtags like #PrayforJesus. There were no flags to put on profile pictures, no pundits or reporters or commentators who talked and talked and talked. 

Good Friday is not special. It is just another day for us. 

Good Friday is everyday in our world. 

Just in the past year we have come up with so many new names for Good Friday, so many new names for the violence and death that we simply cannot end:

Kyiv, Bucha, Kharkiv, Mariupol. Shanghai, Tel Aviv, Sacramento, Kabul. Ukraine, Yemen, Sudan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan.

Putin, the Kremlin, Zelenskyy, COVID-19, Variants, Omicron. Convoys, protests, truckers. Inflation, housing, poverty. January 6th, Capitol Riot, Insurrection. Residential schools, reconciliation, climate change.

Our list of new Good Friday words is so long we forget what we were listing off in the first place. 

Our list of new Good Friday words is so long that we forget them almost as soon as we create them. 

Our list of new Good Friday words makes us numb. 
Our list makes violence and death feel normal. 

The first Good Friday was not special. One man died on a cross. 

One man who angered those in power, so they go rid of him. 
One man who didn’t give the chanting crowds their King, so they started shouting crucify. 
One man whose own followers betrayed and abandoned him in his worst hour.

Jesus died like the rest of us, 
Jesus suffered violence and cruelty and hate like the rest of us,
Jesus was just another person to suffer an unjust and merciless death, 

The cross of Good Friday was not special.

Except that not being special is what makes Good Friday special.
We didn’t think that God would be on that cross. 
We didn’t think that God would die at our hands. 

The cross of Good Friday was not special, the violence of the death was not special, the ones who condemned were not special. 

The one who died was. 
The one who died changed everything. 
The one who died was God.

Today, God has died. On Good Friday God has died. 

And all those other words for Good Friday, for death and violence in our world. Those words from that list so long we forget. Those words lose their power. All those days of death and violence and suffering that seem to come at us unrelentingly from the news, from around the world, from our backyards.

All those Good Fridays that seem to happen far too often. 

They lose their power. 

Because the God who died, died with us. 
Because the God who died, lived with us. 
Because the God who died, loved with us.

God died on Good Friday.

But death did not destroy God. 
And God is not forgotten.
And God is not finished. 

Good Friday and all our other words for violence and death are not bigger than God is. 
On Good Friday, God who is bigger than death showed us something new. 
On Good Friday God gave us truly new words. Words that change the world.

Words likes:

Mercy
Forgiveness
Compassion 
Grace
Love

New words that God uses to change us. 

On Good Friday God dies with us.

But what is ended,
What is finished,
What is over is,
the power of death.

On Good Friday death is ended. 
On Good Friday death is no more
On Good Friday death will never have the final word.

Today, on Good Friday, God has a new word. 

One word that changes everything.  

Life. 

__________________________________

Artwork –  Golgotha by Edvard Munch, 1900.

Maundy Thursday: The Last Supper and Funeral Lunches – Moving to the New Order of Things

GOSPEL: John 13:1-17, 31b-35
Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. 2The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper 3Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, 4got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. 5Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. 6He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” 7Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” 8Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” 9Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” 10Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean….”

Each year we arrive at this night having made the journey through Lent. With Jesus we have come through the Wilderness to the gates of Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Sometimes it has been long a difficult journey, sometimes it has been a chance to step out of the business of life and reflect, other years it has been race through the season to Holy Week. 

This year we have been pulled and dragged through the dust and dirt of Lent, maybe just holding on day to day, week to week. The world around us has not made Lent easy, or perhaps rather, the reality of all the struggles that our world faces, that we face have been laid bare before us this year. Pandemic, war, inequality, violence, suffering, colonialism, poverty, violence and death. 

And having come through all that, and still being in the middle of all of that, we arrive on this first night of the Great Three Days of the church. The days in which we reserve time to carefully and painstakingly retell the story of Christ’s Passover from death to life. 

Tonight we arrive at the dinner table of the disciples to watch Jesus and friends through the Last Supper. It is a small and intimate story, one that take places at the family table, in conversations between friends, over the span of just a few moments. And yet each part is worthy of being the focus of a sermon: The dialogue between Jesus and Peter, the teachings on servants and masters, the new commandment given to the disciples. 

And yet there is something about the whole scene which catches our attention. The movement that brought us from Palm Sunday to his feast of unleavened bread reminds us that there is something big coming. One does just ride into Jerusalem being hailed as a king and conqueror only to be forgotten and left to eat a quiet passover with friends. 

As the scene opens, we are reminded that Jesus knows what is coming shortly for him, he knows that Thursday will lead to Good Friday. As he washes feet he is taking the time for a final moment of intimacy with his disciples. And Peter’s argument with Jesus isn’t really about whether Jesus can wash his feet or not. Whether Peter knows it, he is stalling. He is trying to avoid the big thing that is coming next. Peter isn’t even the first disciple to do this. While it was all the way back on the 5th Sunday in Lent that we witnessed Mary washing Jesus’ feet with perfume while Judas objected, it is a story that only comes a few paragraphs before in the Gospel of John. 

The connection between the images couldn’t be clearer and the discomfort of Jesus’ disciples with what Jesus is up to couldn’t be either. 

Peter is holding onto the old ways and the old order. Servants washed feet, but priests washed the whole body to make one ritually clean. But Jesus isn’t concerned with ritual purity like Pharisees, Scribes and Temple Priests were, he was more interested in a new order for the world. And Peter knows that this new order will only lead Jesus into confrontation with the people in charge of the old world. And so he is trying to avoid it, trying to turn Jesus back from the brink of chaos and destruction… but he can’t. 

So they continue on towards the inevitable. 

Then as Jesus speaks to the disciples at the table, it might sound like he is passing on instructions to all future disciples on how to be faithful. But that isn’t really he intention. Rather, he is speaking to his worried friends, knowing that he will soon leave them. Knowing that soon all they will have is each other. Knowing that all that early church community – in which these gospels took shape – would have is each other. 

There is familiarity to the pattern and movement of this scene. We follow a similar ritual of movement today when we gather for a funeral lunch. Unlike just any meal, it is one that arrives from moment of procession and worship, from a time of formal lament and prayers for salvation.

And then when we come to meal, we know it isn’t about the food as much as it is about the community. The greetings and condolences, the company and the words that we share all serve to carry us to the next thing, to the big thing that comes next. As we move through the meal, we know that the burial is still come, followed by a life changed forever. A world with a new order to it. 

And so we know what Peter and the other disciples are feeling on this night, because it is a journey we have taken ourselves. A journey that carries us to the coming grave, to a new world.    The love that we give and receive in community, the hugs and knowing looks, the greetings and care we give to those who are grieving most, the words we share and stories we tell, the community we choose and keep are all the things that buoy us for what is coming, for the grave and the unknown world that comes after. 

Yet, there is one who does know what is coming. The One who washes his disciples feet, the One who bids his disciples to share in bread and wine in remembrance of him, the One who gives a new commandment and order to the world rooted in Love rather than self-righteousness… this One, this Christ leaves his disciples not with instructions on how to live but with a community shaped and formed in his image. 

Jesus is on the way to the Garden of Gethsemane, to betrayal, trail, crucifixion and death. 

But the Body of Christ born in this moment, born at this meal, given to this world is the new order of things. And is the same new order promised and given to us. 

While we know that this meal will lead us into the unknown, into the big thing that coming, to the cross and drama of Good Friday… 

While we know that every funeral lunch sets us towards uncovering a difficult world without a loved one, with an impossible to fill hole in our lives, with another reminder that we too are mortals and one day that funeral and that grave will be ours…

Jesus leaves us with the washed feet, that bread and wine, the new commandment that is found in the Body of Christ. Jesus leaves us with the promise proclaimed by the Body of Christ each time we gather. Jesus is leaving us only to find us again in the new life that comes after Good Friday, in the resurrection that is on the other side of the big thing that is coming, in the grace and mercy of God that will not leave this world to death and the grave. 

And so on this first night of the Triduum – the Great Three Days – we begin with the disciples at the table. We begin knowing that we are being carried from this moment to what comes next, to confrontation between Jesus and sin and death. 

But Jesus begins with us. Jesus begins by washing our feet, by welcoming us to the table, by giving us the care and support and love that we need for what is to come. 

And by reminding us that we now belong to one another and to the Body of Christ.

Parable of the Prodigal Son or Prodigal Father?

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
So Jesus told them this parable:
“There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them.

The definition of the word prodigal is: a person who spends money in a recklessly extravagant way. Or someone who is wastefully extravagant.

I don’t know about you, but I feel like I could use some wasteful extravagance in my life. For two long years we have been living small, keeping to ourselves, pairing down. Nothing these days happens with reckless abandon. Everything is cautious and circumscribed. If that prodigal son was feeling even a bit like we do, it is no wonder he was looking for signs of life elsewhere. 

This story of the prodigal son is a familiar story that most of us could probably retell the if we were we put on the spot. In fact, the term “prodigal son” can be applied to a person or situation, and most people will know the meaning. Even if most Christian images and symbols are being forgotten in culture, the prodigal son and his story endures. There must be something about this story that bears familiarity to our own experience and lives. 

But the problem with familiarity is that meaning can be reduced and simplified. The power of the parable can be lost. And the prodigal son, like all good parables that Jesus tells, is not meant to be a simplistic, straight across comparison where the Father equals God, and the son equals humanity. Instead, good parables demand that we put ourselves in the shoes of all the characters, that we put God in the shoes of all the characters, and even consider that we or God might not be any of the characters. 

A few years ago, a good friend who is also a pastor, shared about his experience teaching his confirmation class the parable of the prodigal son. To help the class embody the parable, he had the students act out the story. They found it easy to play the prodigal party boy son and the dutiful older brother. But when it came time to be the father who ran out to welcome home his lost son, the students would stand and wait with hands on hips, a frown on their face. Or they would scold the returning son for making his father worry. Some even grounded the son when he returned. They just couldn’t imagine a parent who welcomed a delinquent child home without some kind of reprimand.

This well-known parable maybe has something much deeper and radical to say to us that we usually remember. It is easy to assume that the parable of the Prodigal Son is a moralism about doing the right thing. Older son good, younger son bad. Don’t be a younger son, we think is the moral of this tale. But that judgement is not one the text actually makes and to really hear what the parable is saying, we have to step away from the morals and lessons that we assume from the get go.

As with all the parables of Jesus, we need to consider the audience. There are two very different groups that Jesus is speaking to. The first is tax collectors and sinners. Those who owed debts and those who collected, but both of whom were believed to be excluded from God’s forgiveness and mercy. Contrast them with the second group, the Pharisees and scribes, the virtuous religious authorities and leaders who controlled access to God forgiveness and mercy. An audience who represented two very different experiences of God’s love. 

With these two groups in mind, Jesus tells three parables about lost things, the third being about a man with two sons. The younger son asks for his share of his inheritance to strike out on his own in the world. But before we can set to the task of judging this son for his dissolute living, it is important to understand Jewish inheritance practice. In Jesus’ day, it was the norm that the elder son would inherit a double portion of his father’s wealth. The older son in this story would get two thirds of the inheritance, while his younger brother just one third. But not all things were divided this way. As land belonged to families or tribes, the older son would become the one in charge of all the land of his father. He would control not only two thirds of his father’s wealth, but all of his father’s land, his father’s tenants, workers and slaves. And this would include his younger brother. So while we assume that the younger brother is some party animal or that he can’t wait for his father to die to get his hands on his money, it might actually be the case that the younger brother just doesn’t want to spend the rest of his life working under his self-righteous jerk of an older brother. 

And while it might be easy to assume, like his older brother did, that the younger son went and lost his inheritance by immoral living, we don’t really know. It could have been a combination of circumstances, such as poor choices, famine, or being alone in a foreign land. 

Yet, to put the weight of the parable’s meaning on the younger son’s repentance and return home is to miss a key feature of good Hebrew story telling. The last part of the story is often the point. 

And the last part of the story is all about the older son. 

The older son’s refusal to celebrate his brother’s return is more than a mere attitude problem. This older son has fundamentally missed the point. As his father invites him to the banquet, the older son stands in judgement of both his brother and his father. He is indignant. He believes that he is the righteous one. He believes that he has earned his rightful place in his father’s house. He thinks his hard work and obedience entitles him to his father’s wealth and lands, to his father’s position and power. He complains that his father hasn’t recognized his virtue, not even with a modest young goat to enjoy with his friends. Yet, his father has killed the fatted calf for his delinquent brother. The injustice! Never mind that every goat and calf, every robe and ring, every slave and servant (including the younger brother) will one day belong to him. 

It is easy to see the parable of the Prodigal Son about one good son and one bad, yet when we set our assumptions aside and unpack the depths of the story, we can see that it is both sons who are equally lost. And we can see it is isn’t about trying to be more like one son over the other. Instead, we see that there are times in our lives where we have felt self-righteous and indignant, like we have earned our place in the world and more. And there might be other times where we have felt unworthy and unloveable, like we couldn’t possibly be shown mercy and compassion. 

Still, even with a perspective shift in how we see the sons, we are just as unable as those confirmation students to see the radical love of a parent, who loves without reprimand or condition. Yet, the newly understood lostness of both sons helps to sharpen for us just how loving this father is. 

The name western Christians have given this son says much about how we understand this parable: The Prodigal or Wasteful with Money Son. But the Eastern Orthodox church calls this parable the Loving Father. 

Whether it is the son who thinks he is unworthy and undeserving of his Father’s love or it is the son who is indignant and believes that he has earned more than he has received, the father seeks out his sons. Both sons. The well-to-do land-owner father runs down the road in a very undignified fashion welcome his lost younger son home. The generous and compassionate father still goes out to plead with his ungrateful and resentful older son, despite his son’s rejection. This father does not judge, this father does not reprimand, this father does not set condition on his generosity. 

Even when younger takes advantage of his father and loses all that he has been given. Even when older cannot see that he has not actually earned anything, but that his father has freely given all that he has to his son. Both sons are given love and mercy and grace by their father. If anyone is prodigal, if anyone is wastefully extravagant it is the father who is lavish with his love. 

What a radical image of God’s love and forgiveness for Jesus’ audience? A reminder to the Pharisees, Scribes and those of us who think we have earned it, that God’s love cannot be earned because it is already given freely. A reminder to the tax collectors, sinners and those of us who feel unworthy or undeserving, that God’s love is given freely and does not need to be earned. 

This Lenten season we have been confronted again and again with the relationship of love and power. Today, we are shown an image of God’s love that is more generous than we can imagine. 

Today, our Prodigally loving God shows us just how far God will go to find us.