March 31, 2019
Dell Spree and the Prodigal Son – J. Barry Vaughn – March 31, 2019
My first job as an Episcopal priest was serving three little churches in deepest, darkest southwest Alabama, ninety miles from Birmingham and thirty-five miles from Tuscaloosa. One of the churches, St. Mark’s, only had one service a month, and it was more or less a chapel for the Spree family who ran a three thousand acre catfish farm. The matriarch of the family was Delphine Spree. Dell was in her seventies, and it was said that she hadn’t liked any of the priests that the bishop sent to serve St. Mark’s, so I was nervous about meeting her. I went out there on a Saturday afternoon to scope out the place before leading my first service. Dell was pulling weeds from around the graves in the cemetery, a cemetery that included men who had served in the Civil War. Dell told me that she often talked to the folks in the cemetery, and I told her that I figured that she had some interesting conversations with them. That was the right thing to say, so we were off to a good start.
On another occasion I arrived early for the service, and the gospel reading was the one that we have this morning – the story of the Prodigal Son. Dell said, “I always did think that that boy deserved a good whupping!” Dell’s theology may have been a little deficient, but you always knew where she stood!
They say that all the characters in our dreams represent different aspects of ourselves. I think the same may be true of Jesus’ parables, and I’m just about certain that it’s true of the story of the Prodigal Son.
The theme for our Lenten series is “Who is my neighbor?” I believe that we are all the characters in Jesus’ story at different times. In other words, they are all our neighbors, and we should get to know all of them because that is how we will get to know our own hearts.
I hope it’s true of the Prodigal Son. I have to confess that I have a difficult time imagining myself as the father, because I am not good at forgiveness. A college friend once did something profoundly cruel to me, and I was estranged from him for about twelve years. Notice that the father forgives his wayward son even before the boy has finished reciting his prepared speech. The boy has planned to say to his father, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” But when he returns to his father, he says, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” And before the boy could finish, the father calls his slaves to dress the boy in a costly robe and prepare a feast.
I’m afraid I would have demanded a detailed recital of his misdeeds and then put him on probation before I would have forgiven him. Even then, I would have been suspicious that he was faking it.
I also have a difficult time imagining myself as the younger son, because I’ve always been good at following rules. I’ve never spent my family’s money on the wrong side of the railroad tracks drinking cheap liquor and hanging out with women of questionable reputations. I was a good son.
To be perfectly candid, the character I’m most similar to is the older son.
Like so many of Jesus’ short stories, this one leaves a great deal unsaid. I wonder what happened AFTER the welcome home party, after they killed the fatted calf (the one that the older brother was saving for a party with HIS friends), after the father had completely forgiven his wayward son.
Theologian Debbie Thomas writes, “Here’s what I’d like to know: was your penitence genuine? Did you mean that pious speech you composed in the pig sty, or were you just a clever talker . . . ? Did you feel bad about your adventure, or just bad that it failed dramatically? . . . did you get your act together, once the party was over and the fatted calf was eaten? Did you get up early the next morning and pull your weight in the fields? Did you apologize to your brother? Take care of your father? Make peace with the villagers you scandalized? Did you get that everything . . . would have to change? . . .
“I really need to know what is this bitter root in ME that needs a guarantee? I want to know if you understood just how much fear, destruction, and sorrow you caused . . . I don’t understand why I need to withhold forgiveness. . . What will I gain if you bleed repentance first? I know that my spite, my withholding, is my problem. . . .
“Everything in me accuses you of having no empathy — of not giving a damn about how you ripped your father’s heart out of his chest — the truth is, I’m struggling pretty hard to empathize with you.
“Who are you beneath the labels? Beneath “prodigal,” beneath “selfish,” beneath “sinner?” . . . Your journey ends in a passionate embrace, unrestrained welcome, overflowing joy. Were you grateful? Were you indebted? Did you try extra hard in later years to earn the feast your father lavished on you? Or did you simply rest in his prodigal love, knowing it can never be earned?
“It seems your father didn’t much care; he just wanted to feed and clothe you. There’s so little of your experience I can applaud. Despite my best attempts to reconcile my heart with yours, my envy remains. Your Father ran to welcome you. He cared for nothing in this world so much as having you safe and snug in his arms.
“To hear we are loved is one thing. To feel ourselves embraced is another. Do you know how fortunate you are? . . . Something jealous in me wants to make sure you know it.” (From “Journey with Jesus: A weekly webzine for the global church,” journeywithjesus.net, March 24, 2019.)
Taylor also imagines saying to the older son:
“The truth is that my sympathies lie with you. Your story haunts me. Your resentments are my resentments. Whenever I think of you standing there — appalled — outside your father’s house, your brother’s easy laughter ringing in your ears, I ache inside. I imagine you sore and sweat-stained after a day in the fields, longing to go inside for a shower, a meal, a bed. . . . only to be thwarted by a robe, a ring, and a fatted calf not intended for you.
“Theologians tell me I’m supposed to look at the older son and see self-righteousness, arrogance, and unholy spite. But I don’t; I look at you and see pain. I’m an oldest kid, too. I’m used to being responsible, staying home, and getting things done.
“By temperament, I’m careful, I like order, and I don’t mind work. But I’m a stickler about fairness. I care about fairness a lot. . . . I don’t confront; I seethe . . . just like I imagine you did.
“Tell me: How long did your bitterness fester? How many weeks, months, or years did you suffer in silence, mistaking restraint for righteousness? Did your father shrink in your eyes as your anger grew? Did every word he spoke, every request he made, every sigh he sighed, grate on your nerves?
“Did you lie in bed at night and wish you’d had the audacity to leave like your younger brother did? . . . What would have happened if you’d looked your father in the eye and said, “Yes. I know that all you have is mine. But it’s not enough. I don’t understand it, but for some reason your “everything” is not enough for me. I can’t find contentment. I can’t make my way to love. . . .
“What if you had said, “Something in me is broken. Something in me can’t embrace or enjoy what’s mine. Something in me doesn’t understand the joy that lives in giving myself away. Please help me. Wrap your arms around me. Hold me. I am full of hatred . . . Please teach me how to love.”
Taylor goes on: “The challenge of your story . . . is that justice is on your side. . . . You are right to ask why your brother’s sins incurred no consequences and why your own loyalty seems to count for so little. You are right to find your father’s version of love a bit much, a bit scandalous, a bit risky. Because it is. You’ve understood the point of your own story better than anyone.
“Yes, your brother squandered his inheritance. But perhaps you’ve squandered your own inheritance by hoarding and withholding. The real prodigal in this story is your father, is he not? Over-the-top, undignified, and hair-raising in his love?
“I don’t know why your father never gave you a young goat. Or threw you and your friends a spontaneous party. I wish with all my heart he had; it makes me angry that he didn’t. Was he waiting for you to ask? Were you, in turn, waiting for him to initiate? I know that mingy, self-protective mindset so well: “If I have to ask for it, then it doesn’t count.”
“Some lessons can only be learned as you laugh and dance. Some hearts will only be healed at the feast. The power in this story is the older son’s. It’s yours. Your brother is inside; he’s done breaking hearts for the time being. Now your father stands in the doorway, waiting for you. Waiting for you to stop being lost. Waiting for you to come home. . . . You get to write the ending of this story. It’s getting cold outside. The sun is setting, and the party beckons. What will you do, as the music grows sweeter? What will we choose, you and I?”
I have felt like that. I have watched as friends, or even strangers, who never worked for it, who never followed the rules, who refused to dot the i’s and cross the t’s the way I always did, receive grace upon grace and gift upon gift . . . I have watched with envy and resentment as they got invited to the best parties and seemed to climb the ladder of professional success effortlessly. And I have wanted to say to our Father in heaven: “All these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!”
Have you ever felt like that? I’m sure that some of you can identify with my feelings.
But I also wonder if some of that terrible and soul-killing envy is at work in our country at large. Is that what makes so many Americans want to close our borders? Do some Americans want to keep out some of the people who come here from countries torn by war or impoverished by mismanagement or just devastated by famine and natural disasters, because deep down they feel as though these people have brought these terrible things upon themselves by their own fault?
Are there people in our country who believe that black people and Latinos and women have not yet waited long enough to get to the head of the line? To have their turn at leadership and success?
I am so afraid that I am right, that our country has many people like the elder brother in Jesus’ story who look at those who are of a different color or a different gender or a different sexual orientation and believe that they haven’t tried hard enough or haven’t waited long enough.
I’m afraid of the envy and jealousy abroad in our country because every once in a while I can feel it in my own heart. And if it’s in my heart, then I know it’s also in the hearts of others.
Do you ever feel like the older brother in Jesus’ story? I do. And I know it’s not good. Sometimes I feel like my parishioner Dell Spree felt, that that boy who ran off and spent his daddy’s money having a fine old time drinking whisky and hanging out with loose women . . . I feel like he deserved a good whupping.
But I also know that if I let those feelings have their way, then I am lost, because if one of my brothers or sisters comes back and repents and says, “I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your daughter or son,” then God forgives him, God forgives her, and so must I. Because I need God’s forgiveness for my envy and hardness of heart, and it is so much more difficult for those of us whose hearts are hard and who envy our brothers and sisters to recognize our need of forgiveness and repent.
If we have spent our lives following the rules and trying to please our heavenly Father, then in a strange way it is difficult for us to recognize how generous God has been to us. It is hard for us to see that every single thing we have is God’s gift. We want to believe that we have earned it all.
But God is not an accountant who pays us so much grace for every good deed we do. We like to imagine that there is a heavenly ledger in which every good deed and every bad deed is written down, a heavenly Quikbooks program that calculates each sin and each virtue. But that’s not true. God is not a CPA.
As has so often been pointed out, the story Jesus that told to the theologians who complained that he was sitting down at table with thieves and prostitutes should really be called the parable of the Prodigal Father, because our heavenly Mother, our heavenly Father, IS prodigal with his gifts, she is extravagant with her love. And we don’t deserve any of it.
So whether you are the son who wandered into a far country and wasted God’s gifts or whether you are the older sister who stayed home and worked the farm and took care of your aging parents, you are welcome. God is ready, God has always been ready, to put dancing shoes on your feet and give you a pair of designer jeans and fire up the barbeque so that you and your friends can have a great time.
You are welcome. You are forgiven. You are loved. Amen.