The Drama of the Prodigal Children

December 10, 2006
Rev. Victoria Weinstein

And the angels said, "Peace on earth, goodwill toward men [and women!]"

But a Chinese philosopher reminded us long, long ago that if there is to be peace in the world, there must be peace in the nations. If there is to be peace in the nations, there must be peace in the cities. If there is to be peace in the cities, there must be peace in the home. And if there is to be peace in the home, there must be peace in the heart.

Peace on earth starts at home.

Peace on earth starts with the family. Peace on earth starts with the experience of being loved; something that happens for most of us -- however flawed and imperfectly – in the home, among family.

If you are groaning now and thinking, "Oh please, there' s more likely to be peace between the Iraqi Sunnis and the Shi' ites before there will be peace in my family," you are not alone. And let me tell you something – if you haven' t read the Bible recently, or ever, it' s full of the most incredible stories of family dysfunction you can ever imagine. Far worse than your own family, I' ll bet.

Today we' ll take a look at one such dysfunctional family – the family featured in Jesus' story of the Prodigal Son. But before we do, let me share with you a story from a more contemporary holiday family story taken from my very own (beloved and) dysfunctional family.

A couple of years ago my own immediate family prevailed upon me to "come home for Christmas," which in this case meant my brother Chip' s home in Pennsylvania. "Come home for Christmas," they said. "It will be so fun to see the babies and to watch Nick open presents. We know you' re tired after such a big church night on Christmas Eve, but come on! Make the effort!" And what I heard in that, of course, was the plaintive cry, "Don' t you love us?"

I should have known better than to fall for this. But I was a brand new auntie of two tiny, beautiful boys and my head was full of visions of happy family life -- six adults, two dogs, two cats and the two baby boys all together, hugging, opening gifts, eating wonderful food and laughing. My little slice of peace on earth.

So I led the two Christmas Eve services here at church, went to sleep that night, dragged myself out of bed early on Christmas morning, and drove to the Amtrak station on Route 128 where I boarded an Acela train and rode for five hours to Trenton, New Jersey. By 3 pm I was totally exhausted and in the bosom of my family: six adults, two babies, two dogs, two cats and a big Christmas tree.

By the time I got there, the gifts had all been opened – an explosion of paper and ribbon. ("We didn' t think you' d expect us to wait for you. You' re not upset, are you?") Everyone was tired and tense, the atmosphere strained. The food had been eaten. The babies needed a nap. My brother and sister were crashed out on the couch watching "Napoleon Dynamite" on the television. It wasn' t exactly a scene from Currier and Ives. I was cranky and peevish. I went to bed early.

The next morning, Dec. 26th --just when I thought we would all settle down for brunch and a long, happy family visit – six adults, two babies, two dogs and two cats – my sister breezed in to say goodbye. She was leaving.

She was leaving?

Then my mom and step-dad hollered down the stairs that they too were hitting the road. Wait a minute! What happened to "come home for Christmas?" I just got here!

There were admonitions. There was a slammed door. There was a temper tantrum from Yours Truly, and tears. I got back on that Amtrak as fast as I could and reversed my journey until I was finally back home at 644 Main Street, where the safe, peaceful, parsonage awaited me. One cat, one me, none of that crazy family love that hurts so much.

Come home for the holidays! Don' t you love us?

Oh, I fell for it. And you do, too. We all do. Most of the crazy, expensive, exhausting things we do at the holidays are an attempt to prove love. Stuffing the kids in the car and driving for six hours is proof of love. Exchanging gifts is proof of love. Sending 50 cards to far-flung friends, proof of love.

Part of why we fight so bitterly and so irrationally this time of year is because our love is imperfect, and therefore our proof of love imperfect. But we are both tender and resilient beings, and we keep hammering away at it. Love. It' s human nature to do so. Something in us knows we' ve just got to get better at this. No peace in the home, no peace on earth. The good news and the bad news from the Parable of the Prodigal Son is that not only do we have to learn to love more perfectly, we have to learn to be loved more perfectly. No love, no peace. Know love, know peace.

Is this possible in this lifetime, in mortal families? Let' s look at Jesus' story and see what we can learn.

Let us begin with the Prodigal Son in the story, the younger, the star of the story. The baby. Can you relate to this guy? Have you ever been this child? So ready to sow some wild oats. So entitled. So arrogant. "Hey Dad, can I have the keys to the car? And while you' re at it, how about giving me my inheritance now?"

Let me tell you something. In the ancient Near East, this would be equivalent to saying, "Hey Dad, die already so I can get what' s coming to me." No respectful son in this culture would have ever, ever asked for his inheritance and abandoned his father for distant lands. It would have been shameful. Scandalous. Neighbors would have clucked their tongues and held him up as a bad example for their own children.

But that Younger Son gets his inheritance and goes out into the world and then what happens? He gets beaten up by life. You may relate to this too. He doesn' t make it in the big time. Far from it, in fact. Things go so badly for the Younger Son that it occurs to him that might actually starve to death. He gets scared. Maybe things were better at home than he thought. Maybe he didn' t appreciate home enough. Maybe it' s time to hit up Dad again. "Hey," he thinks, "even my father' servants have it better than this – maybe if I go and apologize, I might get at least as much as they do!"

The younger brother may be an irresponsible party animal, but he isn' t completely stupid. He does realize, as we often do when we bite the hand that feeds us, that it would be a good idea to acknowledge that he' s screwed up and to apologize to his dad. What I always wonder is, is the Younger Son truly sincere in this apology or is he kind of working on old dad so that he can come home and be forgiven? It' s hard to tell. What was their previous relationship like? Did he love his father only when he could successfully manipulate him?

We don' t know. We just know that when he' s at the end of his rope, this son heads home knowing full well that the door could be slammed in his face, But that' s not what happens. Despite his disrespect, his mistakes and his rebellion, he is greeted with open arms.

Have you ever been loved like this?

Did it create a sense of peace and security in your heart, or shame and guilt? Is this the way to peace on earth, or a one-way ticket to the therapist' s couch?

And then there is the father. Have you been the father in this story? Have you ever managed to love anyone the way this man loved his younger son? "My son was lost and now is found! That' s all that matters!"

In Rembrandt' s famous painting entitled The Return of the Prodigal Son the father is old, bearded, so gentle. He wears flowing robes of the warmest red, and he bends over his penitent son, who kneels before him shaven as bald as a prisoner, missing a sandal, his callused feet telling the silent tale of many miles' journey, his robes dirty and tattered – yet the father' s expression lacks any kind of judgment, any recrimination, any anger. His eyes are blurred -- suggesting that he has shed many tears over this boy. And yet, the open arms. No guilt, no "where-have-you-been-and-what-did-you-do-with-all that-money-I-gave-you?" In Jesus' telling, we are meant to understand that the way this father loves his son is the way that God loves us.

The notion of God' s unconditional love for all of us is hard enough to comprehend and to accept. The notion that you and I can model that love is even more difficult. Why can' t we all love this way? Why can' t we all be loved this way, not by God but by our own human parents, kinfolk, spouses, friends, children? Without expectation, without grudge or resentment, without the accumulated influence of past wounds, slights, downright insults, unmet needs.

Peace on earth begins with peace in the heart. Peace in the heart begins with perfect love. None of us are there yet. None of us are even close. That' s okay. Now we can be clearer about something we really want for Christmas: the ability to more perfect love and be loved.

That Christmas when I dragged myself and my bags onto the Amtrak train, how might things have been different if, instead of seeing myself as the Grand Martyr Minister, making the enormous sacrifice of traveling so far on Christmas Day and expecting to be fawned over, I had prepared my heart to love my family as they were? What if I had spent that five hour Amtrak ride-- not congratulating myself for how virtuous I was to leave the comforts of my actual home in order to play out my family' s fantasy of "home for the holidays" -- but steeling myself for the inevitable chaos I would find upon my arrival? What if I had practiced preemptive forgiveness on the Amtrak, instead of egotistical expectation?

We fight with ourselves about how to love the right way. Yes, we should be forbearing and forgiving, but we shouldn' t let ourselves be walked all over, right? Do our children and our family not stand to be corrected now and then? Shall we not express our disappointments with them? Shall we not be honest and real?

Play this question out on a global scale, and ask it not only of the relationship between parents and children, but between nations: Does world peace begin by adoringly accepting everything that everyone does? Of course not. In all healthy relationships, there is still the need for boundaries. There is always a need for mutual respect for privacy and difference that protects and borders the self and others.

All that said, one of the reasons the story of the Prodigal Son is so touching to us is that we recognize the father' s gift for unconditional love. He does not say to his Younger Son, " If you come home with a good job I will kill the fatted calf for you and we will celebrate! If you marry the right kind of person and have charming children I will welcome you with open arms! If you choose the kind of lifestyle that your mother and I think is acceptable, you will be cherished!" There is just love and open arms.

What human is there that loves like this? What institution, what nation, what community?

I think of a friend who is an actor, director and playwright. When he had just graduated from college, he landed a wonderful job in the drama department of a high school. He brought this news to his parents with great excitement, but his father' s first question was "Well David, what kind of benefits are they giving you?" It has taken him twenty years of success in the performing arts as a teacher, actor, writer and director for his parents to stop grilling him on how he' s going to keep body and soul together in his chosen profession. It has taken him twenty years of doing well and asking for nothing from them for them to stop assuming that he' s destined for professional failure and personal unhappiness for his impractical choice of livelihood. His parents never fully celebrated who he was until he brought them home a son of his own. Only then, were they finally totally pleased with him.

Again and again the child comes limping home after a long, difficult road of self-discovery only to be halfway welcomed home; welcomed home with so many conditions. Mother and father stand in the street with arms folded, promising entry only when the child has proven some kind of merit. This original wound gets passed through down through the generations.

Henry Nouwen asks, "Why do I keep ignoring the place of true love and persist in looking for it elsewhere?"
Which brings me to the third main character of the gospel story of the prodigal son who is worthy of our attention and perhaps our sympathy: the elder son. This is the guy who stayed close to home and who never asked for his inheritance, and who never went off to sow wild oats. This is the guy who has a legitimate beef when he cries out to his father, "Hey! I' ve been here all along, never disrupted anything, never insulted you, never went off gallivanting and broke your heart – where' s my party!? Who' s killing the fatted calf for me?"

I feel for this son, and perhaps you do too, but his pain is not resolved in the story. You will recall that his father says, essentially, I love you too – you are equally precious to me and all that I have is yours -- but we don' t know if this explanation worked as the healing balm it was meant to be.

Perhaps the elder son stood in a jealous or offended stance at the sidelines of the celebration, waiting to be acknowledged, resentful of all the attention showered on his younger sibling. Or maybe he put away his anger and was able to be glad in his brother' s homecoming.

Maybe his outburst was a very temporary attack of temper and he was generally a great guy and partied all night, hugging his brother around the neck and making dozens of toasts to his health. We don' t know. From our own perspective, knowing how painful it is to hold onto righteous indignation, we can only hope that he was able to forgive both his brother and his father. If he will not, and if he cannot, he will never have peace in his heart. And if he cannot have peace in his heart, he cannot have peace in his home. And so on and so on. You know where this is going.

We will come together with family – chosen family or blood kin -- over the holidays with these best intentions and the deepest needs. We come together on the original stage where we first played out the drama of love with characters as quirky and flawed as we, and often from whom we learned many of our worst habits of loving.

Some of us will walk in the door as the prodigal child – welcome with open arms despite the mistakes and insults we have dealt our families. If so, our responsibility is to live up to that love, and to freely distribute it.

Some of us will open our doors as did the father – unconditionally welcoming, completely accepting, entirely generous in spirit, forgiving all, trusting all, spilling over with the joy and perfect love that casts out all fear. If so – if this is you -- thank you for your beautiful gift of love. Thank you for modeling how to do it for the rest of us.

Many of us will stand back as did the older brother, comparing how we are loved with the love that is showered upon others around us – a little hurt, a little competitive, a little resentful, wondering if there can be enough love left over for us, wondering if perhaps we shouldn' t act out, rebel, leave home in order to earn a similarly rapturous welcome. If so… healing for you, my friends. Healing and understanding fill your hurting heart.

If there is to be peace on earth, there must be peace in the home. If there is to be peace in the home, there must be peace in the heart. I wish you this peace. And until such time as you are held in the embrace of a perfect love, may you believe in its possibility, and may you make yourself the instrument of its longing to be born into the world through you.