Year C Lent 4: The hungry sons

I’ve been thinking this week about titles for this story, this famous parable of Jesus, so familiar and so well-thumbed that we defy ourselves to find anything new in it.

I do wonder if it needs a new title.

“The Prodigal Son.” Prodigal is not a word we use everyday, nor often at all. Chances are, ninety-nine percent of the utterances of that word that we have made refer to this very parable. So all it relates to is a character in a story, an example, a cartoon. It has no meaning left for us.

“Prodigal”, if you look it up in the “Shorter” Oxford English Dictionary, means as an adjective applied to a noun, like “son”

“Recklessly wasteful of one’s property or means, extravagant, lavish, proud, conceited”

We tell this story, time and again, as a tale of God’s love for the repentant sinner, as a tale of grace and forgiveness, of coming to one’s senses and the joy that follows, and yet we label it as sin, as profligacy, as shameful and wasteful and bad.

I have a hunch that the elder brother would approve, the elder brother who stayed in his father’s house, at his mother’s side, while his sibling packed his bags and wandered away, thumbing his nose at his family.

The elder brother is so angry at his sibling for getting away with it. That’s how he sees it – he got away with it! He comes home and all is forgiven and all is restored, he is loved and he is cherished – he got away with it!

This brother is blind to the self-harm that his sibling has suffered – the self-imposed exile, the shame, the degradation, the damage to his own self-worth that prompted him to exclude himself from his father’s love: “I am no longer worthy to call myself your son; treat me instead as your servant, your slave.” The elder brother has no idea of the depths of his younger sibling’s hunger, the hunger that was stronger even than his shame, the hunger that drove him home.

But more than that, he is blind to the present and to the future; he is stuck in the past, judging over and over again his brother’s past actions, instead of meeting him in the road, as their father does, and embracing the new reality of a restored family who will work out a new future together, one in which, by the way, one brother has no inheritance left and will have to start over building his retirement portfolio. All is forgiven, but some consequences remain.

The elder brother is stuck in the past, like the impatient owner of the fig tree – “No fruit the past three years – cut it down!”, or Jonah outside the city of Nineveh, “What if they repented? Smite them anyway! They deserve it.” [If you’re wondering what Jonah has to do with it, last week’s sermon is available here:]

His anger has been balled up so long it turns to bile and bitterness. His stomach is too sour to enjoy the fatted calf, his spirit too sullen to rejoice. Part of the elder brother’s anger, one suspects, is at himself, for never trying kicking up the traces, never risking the wrath of his father, never over reaching; he is as angry at his own self-imposed servitude as his brother was despairing at his own self-imposed exile. He does not understand how his father could forgive, could embrace, could love his brother, because he has never understood how much his father loves him. He has lived in fear of offending his father, when all of this, all of this grace, all of this love, all of this embrace was his all along for the asking.

If you look at the verse numbers of the gospel reading that we heard this morning, you will notice a gap. At the beginning of the chapter, the Pharisees and the scribes are grumbling, because Jesus dares to dine with dissolute types, the prodigal sons, the wastrels and the profligate losers, the ones hungry enough to sit down at table with him and eat. They are angry at Jesus’ extravagance, his lavish lifestyle; they think him proud and conceited.

Jesus responds with a set of stories. The first, which we didn’t read, is the story of the ninety-nine sheep, and the one which was lost, and the shepherd who sought it out in the wilderness and brought it home rejoicing. The second is about a silver coin which a woman lost, and even though she knew that it must be still in the house, that it had never left, that it was always there – still she turned the house upside down until she found it and restored it to its proper place, and she rejoiced when she did so.

Then the stories of the two brothers, the one who stayed, and the one who’ll come home when he’s hungry, both beloved of their father, both the apples of his eye and the joy of his heart, if only they knew it; one in the wilderness who so nearly never came home out of his shame; and one who was in the house all along, but hidden from sight by the shadow of his own self-righteous anger. We saw last week how such self-righteous judgement is a two-edged sword; “Why do you love him?” spills over too readily into, “Why don’t you love me more?”

In the story of the lost sheep, the shepherd left the others safely penned and went out looking for the lamb. In the story of the lost coin, the widow stayed home and searched diligently till she found it. In the story of the lost son, the father gave him all that he had to give, and waited, sorrowing but ever hopeful, for his return.

I grew up with a  brother who would, from time to time, express his displeasure at his parents by leaving home. He would pack up his little bag with his worldly possessions – a few choice comic books, a few pennies left from his weekly allowance, his Peter Rabbit stuffed animal toy, maybe a bag of chips for the road – and he would set off, announcing his intention to leave home and make his own way in the world. For us, “the world” was fairly well bounded by the shops on the hill, by the main road on one side of town and by the sea on the other side, and by the lane past school, where my brother spent most of his adventurous afternoons sitting in the tree we had claimed as a den, eating his chips and reading his comics. Our mother would say, “He’ll come home when he gets hungry,”

He’ll come home when he’s hungry.

In the story of the elder son, the grumbling son, the father went out to him, and pleaded with him, reminded him, “All that is mine is yours.” His father loved him, and when he finally gets hungry enough to give up his anger and come and join the feast, he will find himself as celebrated as any sheep.

Very soon, we will find ourselves invited to a feast that God has prepared for us, a table set with a white cloth and silver plates and fine chalices. We will be invited to take part in the most extravagant meal imaginable, to partake of God, to share in the mysteries of God’s sacramental presence with us.

And we will approach it like repentant sons, hungry and poor and penitent, “Most merciful God, we are not worthy so much as to gather up crumbs under the table” – we are not fit to be even your servants, cleaning up after the meal. But we remember that God is always waiting for our return, that God loves us, so we pray, “but your property, Lord, is always to have mercy. Therefore, grant us so to eat.”

We all know what it is to be lost, whether in the wilderness or in some dark corner of our own homes, our own lives, buried in the dust and ashes of our desires, our regrets, fermented into bitterness; we all know what it is to be hungry.

So if, after our prayer, we like the Pharisees and the scribes, like Jonah, and like the elder brother, are in our hearts still grumbling a little at life and luck, at the love that God has for our neighbour, may God meet us in the aisle and challenge our angry assumptions and convict our self-righteous hearts, unravel our regrets, and smite our sullenness, so that we might also know God’s mercy, God’s compassion even for us, and feast on God’s love, and be satisfied.

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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