It is such a familiar story, and one which we love: God running to us, skirts hitched up, “my child! My child!” It is all the good news that we need. We were dead but are alive again, by the grace of god, the love of Christ.
But the first ones to hear Jesus tell the tale did not have any such tradition of layers of interpretation. Just for a few minutes, I want to see if we can set aside the Sunday school children’s bible picture of the father God running in the road, and hear the story of an ordinary family, as though for the first time.
A man had two sons, the one who left, and the one who stayed away.
Thirty years ago, or so, I was still at home finishing school. My brother was living in a land to the west, working drudge shifts in a fancy hotel. An acquaintance reported seeing him lately in town. Nonsense, said my father; he is working out west in a fancy hotel. But then my parents got to thinking that it had been a while since they had heard from him, and when they tried to call the fancy hotel, he was no longer living there, or working there. Some trouble over drugs, the manager said. For a week or two, we wondered where he might be, whether the neighbour had truly seen him, and not some ghost that looked like him.
We found him, in the end, because in his desperation and degradation and drug famine, he broke into the pharmacy at our doctor’s surgery.
There was no feasting at his return; but there was some kind of relief, resolution. My brother, who might have been dead for all that we know, was alive, and kicking; and although there was no fatted calf, there was a bail-out.
Or am I conflating his infinite cycles of exile, disgrace, and restoration; his many returns from the dead?
I read this parable, and it is impossible not to recognize the addict in the younger brother. Even as he is coming home he is working out how to get around his father, calculating the angle that will get him off the hook, because he is hooked. And even then, reading him, his blessed return, it is impossible not to weep for the ones who never made it home.
Last year, according to figures from the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner’s Office, deaths from heroin overdose totalled 183, or one at least every two days. Add in Fentanyl, oxycodone, other opiates, and the death toll rises to 279, in Cuyahoga County alone, in 2015. In one graph, Euclid is second only to Lakewood as a suburban site of overdose death. In another graph, Parma throws out the curve and Euclid is third; but we are head and shoulders above the next-placed city, and this is not a competition we want to be winning. We are our brothers’ keepers, are we not?
There are some things we are beginning to get right, in spite of our Pharisaic impulses to self-righteousness and morality plays. “Just say no” is so much easier to say from outside of the spiral of addictive disease. But there are some things we are beginning to get right: zero tolerance is beginning to give way to an understanding of acquired tolerance, and the dangers of overdose after withdrawal and treatment, when that tolerance has dropped, and the same dose that used to do it for us now is deadly. Zero tolerance is not, anyway, a good Christian response to chaos and crisis. Healing sounds more like the Jesus we know.
It is easy to be bitter, to remember that when black bodies were dying of the same addictive, predatory disease, the answer was to declare war, waged less against drugs than against drug addicts, as it happened. It is worth noting that cocaine still accounted for 109 deaths in Cuyahoga County in 2015. It is worthy to point out that more than 75% of people dying from heroin are white; and in the face of that crisis, we are willing to extend our tolerance, even beginning to venture out to meet them on the road, to catch them with our naloxone kits, to save them. Those who were dead are alive again.
But one who was dead is alive again, and may we all learn to live again. I don’t know that I have the right to say so, but I am trying to be honest with you.
I have wondered, this week, how we are called to respond to the family crisis unfolding around us. I have not always been able to do much for my own elder brother. None of us saves the other; but God, who is the father and mother of us all, loves each of us beyond understanding, beyond all reason.
That, I think, is what we have to offer. That is the good news that should send us flying out, skirts hitched up, to forestall the one who is lost on his way to death. One way or another, there is always a place for you in God’s house, we should tell her, your own home. One way or another, we tell her mother, his father, one way or another there is welcome, there is food, there is life. And we will do our best to leave our own baggage in the fields, and come into the light with the lightness of love hitched up to join the feast.
Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi (HarperCollins, 2014)
Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press, 2010)
Kelly Brown Douglas, Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God (Orbis, 2015)