Reflection by Anne Stewart
Luke 15:11-19 Part 1
When I left home, for the last time at the age of twenty one of my three brothers had already left a month or two before and the other two were on their way. That’s a family of six reduced, in under twelve months, to a family of two, a situation my parents hadn’t known for over twenty seven years. I have often reflected on the enormous changes that my parents had to adjust to in that year. It’s hard enough, isn’t it, to watch a child pack their bags and leave home. Hard enough if they are leaving because they are off on some wonderful adventure, or they are going to study, or to begin a new and potentially exciting life somewhere different. We all know they have to go at some stage, we spend all of their lives, up to this point, preparing them for that moment, but I am not sure that we always prepare ourselves that well. But it’s another thing again when a child leaves in a huff, or because they don’t want to be around you anymore. I recall someone here telling me once about his son, who as a teenager decided he could have a better life elsewhere – and he was going to do it. His father’s reaction was, great, let me help you pack. I guess he knew his son well enough to take that risk and sure enough that offer of help was enough to take the puff out of his son and he didn’t get far before he was back home. But what if your son not only announced he was going somewhere better but that he wanted his share of what would be his one day with which to finance the escape from you, or to go anywhere because he believed anywhere was a better place than with you! In the context of today’s parable that was the equivalent of telling his father to drop dead! Give me what I am owed and I will be gone and you will be dead to me, because I don’t need you anymore.
Given all of this, the father’s reaction is nothing short of extraordinary. Have a think about how you might have reacted as the father in that situation. What do you think you might have said or wanted to say? Any thoughts? But this, of course, is not how the father in this parable reacted. This father, despite what he might have been feeling, simply divided his property between his sons. It is presumed he gave one son the farm and paid the other out in cash. There he was, finished as a father, in effect having to accept being left for dead. No longer needed or wanted by one of his precious sons. We don’t hear anything about how the father felt about this – we don’t hear any reluctance on the father’s part, or any parting instructions about spending the money wisely or not all at once. He just split the money and handed it over. There is no pleading for the boy to stay where the father can keep an eye on him, no father distraught over losing his son, nor do we hear of the father’s fears for the boy and what might become of him. There was no repayment plan demanded – no advice, no lectures, no questions. The father laid aside his own reactions and played dead. Why did he do that? What did it take to just let his son go, and all he has worked for? Was this a father who was simply wise enough and brave enough to take this enormous risk? Was this a father with a profound faith in his son and trust in his ability to find home again if and when he needed to? What does how the father is in this story tell us about being church? What would it look like for the church to lay itself down, play dead and risk giving of itself so generously? Is this how we are to be – that we have enough trust in the community of God, Father, Son and Spirit who has led us this far and who promises to never let us go.
You know, at The Village we do try to be this way. When people come by and need a hand, we help without any thought of the help being returned. Those asking almost always promise they will pay it back but we never ask for it, nor do we expect it and almost always, despite the promises, it doesn’t come back. We don’t provide repayment plans, give advice, lectures or ask questions – the first time anyway. Repeated patterns and obvious shysters are another thing, but we want people to experience the church as witnessing to a generous provider, a grace-filled provider.
But maybe the biggest question this parable raises is this – which character in this parable represents the church? Do we behave as the gracious and welcoming father, the defiant younger son, the petulant unsatisfied older son who expected better? Which one do we want to be?
Luke 15:20-32 Part 2
One of the questions that this part of the parable raises for me is, how did the younger son find his way home? I have often wondered how far from home we can wander before we can’t find our way back. Is there a ‘too far?’ In the end I don’t believe there is. I believe that God will search and God will wait, even until after our earthly life is done. God will never give up being ready to welcome us back. We may have trouble knowing where home is, or recognising it after a long time away, but God still knows and recognises us. You might also have noticed that there are no details given of time-frames in the parable. We have no idea how long this process has taken. It feels like maybe a few months or a year even. For some who have undertaken journeys into the far country it can take a lifetime. Home can be elusive and wills can be stubborn. But what we can say is that the son is not abandoned, and God’s Spirit is not locked out of a presence, in the far country, maybe still sighing with love too deep for words.
I asked you before to give some thought to which character we as a church play in this parable. I asked that because I really am curious to know the answer myself. I wonder if some of the different styles of church take different parts. There are some who want to follow the Spirit and change people’s minds, convert them, or transform them and even demand the change before grace is given. Others are more suited to accompanying the lost on their journey home. And others wait and welcome. Maybe we all try and do a little of each of these things in our own varying ways. I think at The Village maybe our predominant role is the wait and welcome. Not all of us, probably none of us, are comfortable on street corners telling people they need to find another way. Maybe some of us are very good at accompanying and guiding, often quietly and without fanfare. We can all do the welcoming and drawing people into our community. We can all welcome the stranger and then find ourselves richer for the wide range of people who God weaves into God’s family here in this place. I guess our challenge is to be ready and prepared for the stranger, to be emotionally open, to make room even if we have to give a few things up in order to do that. Even if we have to lay some things, like our reactions aside in favour of being generous and offering the kind of trust in God is able to do amazing things despite us.
I want to finish with a story about a father who was called on to lay aside his own stuff in order to welcome his daughter home. The chaplain at a Christian college had a terribly upset student come into his office to talk. She sat sobbing uncontrollably and holding her head in her hands in a posture of hopeless despair, as she explained that she had been ‘outed’. Some girls in her dormitory had discovered she was a lesbian and the story had spread throughout the school. She was terrified about the reaction when the news got back to her father. Her father, she said, was a good man but he was terribly legalistic and his literal reading of Scripture left no room for anything but condemnation of people like her. She knew he would find out and believed he would reject her. She knew she had to tell him before he heard it from someone else but she lacked the courage to tell him herself. The chaplain said, “You don’t have to tell him. I’ll tell him and I’m going to do it right now.” He picked the phone up, rang the father and explained that he had his daughter in his office. He talked about what a wonderful Christian she was and how she served Christ so well in the school. How she led worship and spent hours tutoring inner-city kids and how she is known and loved by everyone at the school. The father interrupted and said, “You’re not telling me anything I don’t already know. I’m proud of my daughter. When she is home during the summer, she works right alongside me in the life of the church. She visits the elderly, she leads the youth programs, and her presence adds joy everywhere she goes.” The chaplain responded by saying, “Then we are agreed. Your daughter is a lovely person and a committed Christian – and in the next thirty seconds I am going to find out whether you are worthy to be called her father!”