The video of the worship service:
In Grade 13 we read Fifth Business. It was the first novel that got me thinking deeply about the meaning of life. I was so taken by it that I read the next two in the Deptford Trilogy and went on to devour every novel Robertson Davies wrote.
I re-read the Deptford Trilogy at least once a decade. I am due to dive into them again soon. Probably this summer. I get more and different things from the books as I travel through the seasons of life. It might also be that way with today’s parable. Hopefully, we learn as we go along in life.
Let’s start with the word Prodigal. This story’s given that word a bad name. Prodigal has come to be understood to refer to a problem child, a wastrel. But the word comes from same root as “prodigy”. A child prodigy is one with an extraordinary talent or ability. It may cause them problems in life, but a prodigy is someone given a great gift.
Maybe the youngest son’s gift was absolute candor, even to the point of being offensive. No filters. He petitioned his father to grant his inheritance ahead of schedule.
“Hey Dad, we both know I’ll get my share when you die. Can we skip ahead to the part when you’re already dead, so I get my percentage now?”
Maybe this seemed reasonable to the young man. But it wasn’t as simple as writing a cheque or handing over a few bags of coins. The bulk of the farmer’s wealth is often tied up in assets- land, stock, machinery. In the Ancient World, these holdings would include slaves.
The story as we heard it sanitized the word slave, and spoke instead of servants, but the labour force included captured foreigners, and locals who’d been sold into slavery to work off their debts.
To grant his son’s request, the father would likely have to liquidate some holdings. Sell land, and chattels, meaning livestock, and slaves. Some of the slaves might be moved, separated from their friends or family.
We can imagine the havoc that would cause, the time it would take, and the talk it would inspire among the neighbours. What’s he up to? Why is he selling out? What does he know that we don’t? Is there another drought coming? He’s selling to give his youngest their inheritance? Hunh? What’s wrong with this guy?
The youngest son grew up in an agricultural community. If he didn’t understand the ruckus he’d cause, he’d see it unfold, at least until he hit the road to fun city.
The damage caused to the viability of the farm, and to his father’s reputation would likely outlast his youthful adventure.
On the other hand, having grown up in this environment where everything was everyone’s business, and he had no way to be known, or seen, except as the child of this farmer, or the younger brother- we can see why he might want out.
He’d always be the youngest. There was only one way to could climb the ladder. His older brother would be his father’s successor, unless he died. Then the younger one would be obligated to take care of his brother’s household, and take his wife, or wives as his own. He’d have all the property then, but also all of his brother’s responsibilities added to his own. How to be yourself when your destiny comes pre-packaged?
Do you remember Hermey the misfit elf in the Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer cartoon? He’s supposed to go into Santa’s business, and make toys, but all he wants is to be a dentist.
Hermey and the prodigal are poster boys for the human ego. Especially when we’re adolescents, we are driven to individuate, to show we have identity, personality, not defined by the major forces in our lives. Many sort out who they are, partly by naming what they don’t want to be.
In the iconic scene with Marlon Brando in The Wild One, someone asks, “Hey, Johnny, what are you rebelling against?” He says, “What’ve you got?”
The youngest child, not really a hero, but still a central figure in the drama, ventured out in an ill-conceived effort to discover himself, and got lost. He became caught up in things that drained his strength, diluted his spirit, dissipated his cash, and left him hungry and alone, and longing for home. We can recognize the desire for a safe resting place after suffering a hard time.
Is the oldest child the opposite of their younger sibling? The one who built a sense of themselves from everything the younger one rebelled against? Rules, structure, responsibility, order, common sense? Was he happy with this constructed personality, or did he secretly resent his younger brother’s carefree ways? Did he sympathize with his little brother, or did he use up all his compassion trying to cheer up his father, who gave the young one all he asked, and watched him walk away?
When the oldest son said, “Dad, you never gave me so much as a kid goat to celebrate with my friends,” does it make you wonder how many friends he really had?
The oldest son might have been happy with his life, but he doesn’t come across that way. This could be an interesting comment Jesus was making about the rule-enforcers in his life- the Pharisees who followed him around with their letter of the law objections to his acts of mercy and kindness. He might have been saying, ‘Really, how’s this working out for you?”
In many sermons a lot is made of the father’s generous, gracious welcome of the wayward son- the one who was lost is found, the one who was dead is alive. Have you ever thought, “wait a minute! What kind of parent gives their kid everything they want, just because they asked?”
Is that an illustration of God giving us free will, including the freedom to make a shambles of our lives? Or is it just bad parenting? Or is it both? As my children grow up, I’ve recognize that if I want to keep the communications channels open, and I want them to know they always have a safe place to land, I had to get over thinking of myself as the smartest, wisest source of advice in the room. They will make choices that don’t make sense to me and they may even have good reasons.
Ultimately, saying welcome home has got to be better than I told you so.
The two brother and their father each have roles we recognize in this ancient and universal drama of wandering, getting lost, and finding the way home. But have we forgotten anyone?
The father has come to represent unconditional love, and forgiving grace, and the possibility of a fresh start, a do-over. Would this be a different story with Mom in the picture? Where is she?
It could be the mother was dead. It’s more likely that in this time, in this part of the world, the female characters were just not considered interesting or important. The story, even though we love it, is an artifact from a particular culture. A patriarchal and misogynist culture, in which women were considered lesser beings.
Cultures shift, and human societies can evolve, and we are learning to value all people. But the past leaves deep wounds, and is not, should not be easily dismissed, or forgotten.
This week I listened to news about the visit of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge to the Caribbean. Their Royal Tour is intended to commemorate the Queen’s 70th year as the Monarch.
In 1973, when the Queen and Prince Philip came to visit my home town, Thunder Bay, it was a huge deal. It seemed like everyone was glad to see them.
It caught my attention this week that in Jamaica, a lot of people questioned the expense of the royal tour, and don’t actually want the royals to come there unless they are bringing an apology for the family’s involvement in the long and bloody history of human trafficking, and for the fortunes that were built, including those of the royal family, on the backs of people exploited as slaves.
Did you know that when slavery was abolished in 1833, by an act of the British Parliament, reparations were paid to the slave-owners, who had to give up their valuable property? What about the ones who were treated as property?
The news from Jamaica got me wondering how the slaves in the story would have viewed the goings on of the wealthy family they served. The prodigal son asks for his share, and land and slaves are sold to pay him out. He then squanders it all, is welcomed home, and it’s the slaves who clean him up and put nice clothes on him. It’s the slaves who cater the welcome home party, and later, they’ll be the ones to clean up the mess. Will they get to sample any leftovers of the feast served to the guests?
The project of re-reading the story and asking how it might look from the perspective of those who were enslaved, is sometimes called de-colonizing. It’s complicated. Jesus was a Jew, who lived in country that had been conquered, and claimed as a Roman colony. The Jews did not ask the Romans to occupy their land, any more than First Nations people expected Europeans to take over this entire continent. Jesus was likely a poor peasant, speaking mainly to peasants, and to slaves.
You and I have been taught to read his stories, actually the whole Bible, with the mindset of people with far more privilege than they could ever imagine. We have a lot to learn. Amen