Preached on Sunday, March 10, 2013 at the Church of the Holy Trinity on Manhattan's Upper East Side. Lectionary text that this sermon is based on can be found by clicking here. You can listen to a recording of this sermon on the parish website by clicking here.
Our gospel reading today is a very famous one: the Parable of the Prodigal Son. It is the longest of Jesus’s parables in all the gospels. And it is one that only recently was included in the Lenten cycle of lectionary readings. Before, this reading would have been part of the ‘green’ season, the long stretch of ordinary time that follows Pentecost through the summer and fall months until we approach Advent once again.
When read in that context, the tale of the prodigal son has a particular focus. We read it and remark upon the infinite mercy of God for the most unworthy sinner. We look at the resentment of the brother in the parable and note how God’s mercy towards us is greater that we would think justified, we who judge in merely human terms.
But as we read this parable in Lent, other aspects of the story come to the fore. We are called to notice and remark upon the prodigal son’s sin, and his repentance.
And the sin of the prodigal son is a grave one. The son asks for his inheritance from his father. Biblical scholars point out the insult that is inherent in this act in the ancient world. To ask for one’s inheritance before time was not a tax dodge as it might be today, it was like saying to one’s parents, ‘You are dead to me. Our relationship is at an end.’ And that is exactly how the prodigal son acts. He takes his money and runs; to a far off land leaving his father, his brother, his people, their laws and customs, and their religion, behind.
And the prodigal son suffers for his sin. As is often the case for those with great wealth at too young an age, those who receive great bounty that they themselves did not work for, the prodigal son squanders his fortune in what Jesus says is ‘dissolute living’. Later in the parable the disgruntled brother will put a finer point on it when he says that his brother has devoured his inheritance with prostitutes. Dissolute living, indeed.
And with no money left, and hard times upon the land to which he has fled, the prodigal son is forced to hire himself out as a common farm laborer, one charged with tending the pigs. To have the task of tending pigs would be particularly insulting for a Jew, but to envy the very pigs he is tending and to covet the seedpods and fodder that they eating, is to sink to the lowest of depths, to hit absolute, rock bottom.
Then Luke says that the prodigal son ‘came to himself’. He came to himself; and he makes his decision to return to his father and to seek his forgiveness, but not so that he can be restored to his father’s favor. That, he knows, he doesn’t deserve. But merely to be treated like one of the laborers, like one of the hired hands, who have bread to eat, and a respectful occupation by which to earn it.
Remember that the prodigal son has as much as declared his father to be dead to him, and has fled from him and his brother and his country and their faith, to a far off land. He has separated himself from all that he has ever known. And in so doing, he has separated himself from his own selfhood. He is disassociated, he is divorced from his own identity, he is not who he once was. He’s not just lost his way, somehow he has lost his very self in the process.
There’s an essential truth about the nature of sin and the effects of sin on the sinner in that. Sin separates us from our truest natures, from our identities, from our true selves, our most sacred selves. Sin is that which causes us to deny the truth of who we are. Sin is that which rejects the truth of who those are around us really are. Sin is a rejection of the respect and honor due those we love, with whom we share community.
When we reject the honor and respect due others, when we seek our own gain regardless of the effect it will have on others, when we abandon those we are bound to in love, we sin. Not just against them, but against our selves.
Don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying that we are not to think critically about our relationships, nor to stay bound to those who mistreat us, or who dishonor and disrespect us and the love we bear them. Such actions break covenants, sometimes inextricably, in which case, we come to our selves most truly when we separate ourselves from such abuse and disrespect.
In coming to ourselves, we acknowledge the painful truth about ourselves and the actions we have taken. And in so doing we experience not degradation, rather we experience clarity, and we begin to see some glimmer of hope, for ourselves and for our future. Like the prodigal, we begin to envision our way back. We are conscious of the amends we must make, and the reconciliation we must seek with others.
In the parable, the prodigal’s unearned enrichment and self-aggrandizement are what precipitate his disconnection, dissolution and degradation. But it is his acknowledgement of his sin that brings a reconnection where there has been disconnection; and a solution where there has been dissolution. He sees, finally, the path he needs to take to become whole again.
A friend of mine who has been in recovery from addiction for many years puts it similarly. He says, ‘I used to call the day I hit my absolute, rock bottom as the worst day of my life. Now, I know, it was in fact the best day of what had been a truly miserable life up to that very point.’
Where have you become disconnected from your truest self, your essential identity. We are all of us many things: spouses, parents, siblings… bosses and workers, citizens and advocates… But our essential identity is that we are all of us beloved children of a merciful God.
If you need reminding of that identity, come to this place, when you can, when you are drawn here. And come again, and again. And as you do, you may find that you are able, somewhat to ‘come to’, to awaken in a new way, to see in a new light. And after you have come to, come to yourself, your truest self, your most sacred self, a beloved child of a merciful God. A loving God that has prepared a great feast for you, here in this place where you have come, and again in the wonderful world to come. Amen.
© The Rev. Mark R. Collins