True Inheritance

The Lent IV sermon from the Rev. Linda Mackie Griggs on Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32.


“There was a man who had two sons.”

One of them squandered his inheritance, and the other didn’t.

We call this The Parable of the Prodigal Son, and we’ve known this story since childhood. But this is one parable whose title robs us of much of its meaning. For one thing, when I first heard this story as a child I thought the word, ‘prodigal’ meant ‘badly behaved’, rather than ‘wastefully extravagant.’ This may not be an issue for those with greater vocabulary than I had, but this simple misconception deprived me of part of the deeper meaning of the story. But even more important than that, note that the title focuses on just one character. If we look only at the son we see him as just a son, and not also as a brother. If we fixate on his transgressions we lose sight of the nature of the celebration at the end. And if we fixate on the inheritance of money and property we lose sight of what the two sons’ true inheritance really is.

“There was a man who had two sons.”

One of them squandered his inheritance, and the other didn’t.

Which son was which?

In the chapter where we find this passage Luke has placed the parable with two others—all of which are told in response to the Pharisees’ and Scribes’ judgmental statement and implied question of Jesus: Why do you consort with sinners? And in the first two parables, the parable of the lost sheep (in which the shepherd left the 99 sheep and searched diligently for the one that was lost) and the lost coin (in which a woman lit a lamp and scrupulously swept and searched her house

until she found the errant coin,) Jesus’ emphasis is not on the losing but on the finding of the sheep and the coin, and on the celebration of their return. If we turn a similar lens upon today’s parable, what will we see? What will we see if we shift our gaze away from the loss—the Son who Squandered Everything –and see instead the true nature of the celebration of his return, and what it meant to be invited to sit down at the banquet?

The younger son essentially wished his father dead when he asked for his share of the property. It was that bad. And he wasted it spectacularly, thereafter hitting rock bottom and sleeping with the pigs. And for a Jewish audience hearing this parable—it was that bad. It couldn’t get more unclean and outcast than to be so hungry that he was willing to eat the food meant for the pigs. So ‘coming to himself’ was a hugely humbling experience. He vowed to return home, ask forgiveness of his father and take his place in the household as an employee.

So the father sees him from far off and responds in prodigal fashion—outrageously killing the fatted calf, clothing his son in the finest robe and putting a ring on his finger. Remember, this is the child who—essentially– disinherited his own father. Yet he is welcomed back into a sonship that he had cruelly rejected. And his father is ready to offer all of this even before the son opened his mouth to deliver his well-rehearsed speech of penitence. The forgiveness was already there; the robe and ring ready; the banquet table already set. Ready for the celebration.

So the party begins.

And the Prodigal gratefully takes his seat.

Now let’s shift our gaze to the elder son. He hears the noise of the party, finds out what is happening, and rather than being overjoyed that his brother has returned, he is enraged. It is telling that when he confronts his father he refers to his brother as “this son of yours.” The elder brother feels rejected, wounded at the perceived unfairness of his father’s generosity toward this other wayward child. The elder son has not the least understanding that his father has enough love—enough of everything– for both of them.

It is the nature of parables to be loaded with symbolism, and this one is no exception. Jesus’ stories in response to the Pharisees are an illustration of the nature of God and the Kingdom. Of course the little ‘f’ father is a metaphor for the big ‘F’ Father–God. This Father’s prodigal response to both of his children exemplifies God’s economy of abundance that is completely at odds with an all-too-human tendency toward an economy of scarcity. The elder son is already in possession of his inheritance of property—the father reassures him that “All that is mine is yours”. But not only that, he is also told that he has a place at the banquet. He is called to ‘celebrate and rejoice.’

But he will have none of it. He only wants to feed on his fury. He is a man trapped in the mire of his own resentment. He is actually a figure that is at the forefront of much conversation these days. Jennifer Finney Boylan, in the New York Times last month, wrote an op-ed called “The Year of the Angry Voter.” She expressed her despair at the current political climate; at an atmosphere of othering and vitriol that keeps rising to new heights on a daily basis. Yet, she notes, the problem isn’t necessarily anger per se. It’s a certain kind of anger. And here she distinguishes narcissistic anger from transformative anger. Narcissistic anger is rooted in the wounded ego; in the feeling that I have been unfairly deprived of something that is rightfully mine. It is based upon a worldview of scarcity. It sees others as being in competition for limited resources. Narcissistic anger seeks to exclude; whereas transformative anger is the kind of anger—or passion– that seeks to change the world. It looks outward and inclusively toward the other. It is based on a vision of compassion and a desire for healing and wholeness. Boylan quotes the Rev. Amy Butler of Riverside Church in New York City, who notes how the two distinct and opposing kinds of anger respond to challenges: “Either our instinctual response to threat is all about us—who we are, what we want, what we need—or it becomes about something bigger than ourselves.”

The elder son in the parable is not thinking of anything bigger than himself. He is in the grip of narcissistic anger. He has lost sight of his brother; and of his own brother-hood. And yet. And yet there is still a seat at the table with his name on it; a plate full of food and a cup filled to overflowing just waiting for him. As the father has said, “All that is mine is yours.” There is no less for him now that his brother is home. He has only to choose to take his place at the table with the rest of the family and the household.

But to make that choice will require an act of humility. It will require him to let go of his anger and his ego focus. He will have to see himself as one in as much need of his father’s mercy as is his brother. But for now he does not see himself as being in need of anything. He only sees himself as having been deprived of a privilege that should be rightfully his.

A few weeks ago, on Ash Wednesday, we recognized our neediness. As we began our Lenten journey we were marked with the ashes of our mortality; acknowledging our source and ending in God. One of the most powerful things about those ashes is that we are called to remember that WE are dust. We are not able to see the ashes on the heads of others without deeply knowing that those ashes mark us as well. When we accept the mercy of God we accept, by definition, that we are IN NEED of that mercy. We thereby accept, and embrace, our own vulnerability. It’s a fine distinction, but to internalize it is to begin to see the power, and the scandal of what Jesus was telling the Temple authorities with this story.

The Scribes and Pharisees thought they were not in need of mercy because they had set themselves apart from the sinners and tax collectors. But Jesus was telling them that they too were called to sit with the sinners; the celebration is for everyone who chooses to take their seat at the table. All they had to do was acknowledge that they were hungry for the banquet of mercy set for them. But to do that they would have to climb down off of a mighty high horse; one they shared with the elder son in the parable.

“There was a man who had two sons.”

One squandered his inheritance, and the other didn’t.

Which brother was which?

The true inheritance is God’s abundant mercy. A mercy “like the wideness of the sea.”* It’s an inheritance that has nothing to do with what we have, and everything to do with what has us. And what has us is a God whose last word, like the father in the parable, is Life and resurrection. The inheritance of mercy requires nothing of us save courage; the courage to claim our vulnerability– our brother- and sister-hood as fellow sinners and children of God. The courage to take our seat at the banquet table, where the place card reads, “Beloved.”

 

 

 

 

 

 


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