Monday, February 15, 2016

The Prodigal Son

At our prayer group session this past Saturday, we did an adapted version of lectio divina on Jesus' famous parable of forgiveness, The Prodigal Son. It began with a lot of discussion and settled into contemplation after that. Discussion was so rich and grace-filled that I want to share some of our words with you. And our questions.

This is a famous story and we wondered about that. You can refer to the return of the prodigal in just about any context (a long absent relative comes for a visit, a co-worker gone on disability comes back etc.) and everyone will know what you're talking about. "Killing the fatted calf" is universal code for unrestrained merry-making. Elton John it in "Benny and the Jets." Nobody had to Google it.

Our group was sparked by the addition of one of our regular participant's 10 year old son. He was fully engaged in the discussion which was marvelous. The issue of the famine that hit the distant land and the son's hunger worried him. He couldn't fathom an actual famine or the total poverty that was conveyed in the story. We saw that we, too, might have a bit of trouble comprehending such abject need. How deeply must we feel need in order to throw ourselves on God's mercy? Must we hit rock-bottom? And if we do, is that God's blessing?

Out of this need, the son "came to himself." We wondered about that wording. Yes, there are other, and, in my opinion, weaker translations, but we fastened on the idea of the son's identity and that his realization of it is what sent him home. Whatever he'd done, his sin, was no match for the ultimate truth of who he was...his father's son.

And what was his sin? He asked for what would have been ultimately his own fortune. Yes it was inconvenient and foolish. He squandered his inheritance, he defiled his being, but what was it that actually hurt his father? Surely, it was his leaving. The breach between parent and child was the wound.

We wondered about the people who heard this story from Jesus. What did they think? What did they find to identify with? How did they anticipate the story's ending? Surely there were some in the audience who were certain the boy would come to a bad end in the distant land. That's what happened to people who strayed, who shook off their identity. There were probably some who thought that when he finally made his way home, he would really be "in for it" from his father. Certain punishment. A long spell working in the fields with the slaves. Possibly he would never resume his place in the family. This would seem fair to them, and, if we're honest, to most of us today. We love justice! Did any of Jesus' hearers imagine the forgiveness? the rejoicing? the complete abandonment of retribution?

One of our group noticed that the son had received his punishment in the manner of his experience in the distant land. His poverty, his near starvation, his humiliation and alienation "tried him in the fire," so to speak. His elder brother, who thought he'd got off so easily would have no idea what his younger brother had endured. Are we just as ignorant of the suffering of our friends and neighbors? What do we know about anyone?

The prodigal rehearsed a speech to be made to his father. We understand this behavior. We want to frame things in the right way. It has to be exactly right to make our plea heard.  But the boy's father forgives him long before he even gets to recite the speech. His father barely hears him. Excitement reigns. Kill the fatted calf, bring the musicians, give this boy some nice clothes. Put a ring on his finger. Pull out all the stops.

In the rite for the Sacrament of Reconciliation in the Book of Common Prayer, we find the words "Now there is rejoicing in heaven; for you were lost, and are found; you were dead, and are now alive." (p. 451) This is why the father tells his eldest son they must celebrate. The family is restored. The death that is sin has been turned into the life that is our true being, our true self.

That sin? Poof! It's gone. Forgotten. What sin? Here wear this ring.