by Ellen Sims
Text: Luke 15: 1-32
In each of today’s three parables, something is lost: a sheep, a coin, a son. A shepherd responsible for that sheep, a woman desperately needing that coin, and a father who deeply loves that son—are seeking what has been lost to them.
But today—as we focus especially on the most tender and well-developed of all Jesus’s parables—let’s imagine that in the story of the prodigal son it’s the father who’s lost, it’s the parent who is the prodigal.
As we categorize the father as the prodigal, recall the meaning of prodigal. In this story popularly titled “The Prodigal Son,” we usually pair that adjective with the son who has grieved the father. And because the younger son wandered off, wasted his inheritance, and fell into disrepute, we’ve collected negative associations around that word prodigal. But prodigal actually describes someone who spends resources freely, does something lavishly, extravagantly. The younger son in the parable spent his inheritance without counting the cost. But you could also say that the parent in this parable loved his son without counting the cost—giving and forgiving generously, caring extravagantly. That’s one reason I think we can name the father as prodigal, too. We’ll return to this point later.
But there’s another reason to title this story “The Prodigal Parent.” If we do so, we might be able to imagine that the welcoming Father, who represents God, is actually the one who is lost, in a sense, in this third and culminating parable of lost things. If we can picture God the Parent as lost, then each of us can enter the story as the seekers and searchers. As children of God, we’re authorized to search for God. We may need to explore this story as one searching for an elusive God who slips beyond all of religion’s certitudes and obfuscations. In the church of my childhood, we thought it was our role to reach out to a lost world. The world was lost. The world was filled with prodigal children who needed to “come home, come home, ye who are weary come home, softly and tenderly Jesus is calling, calling, O Sinner, come home.”
But you and I are more likely to feel as if it is God who has gotten lost . . . in religious clichés, inflexible doctrines, damaging theology, in all the Christian presumptions. It’s not that God is hiding from us. Nor is God an object to be discovered like missing car keys. For many of us, the God whom cultural Christians seem to know with such confidence lacks depth and relevance and, often, loving kindness. But that God people conveniently carry around in their pockets and use as a lucky silver dollar has lost its currency. If today’s parables and the Gospel in general authorize us to seek God, they also implicitly urge us not settle for the God who shows up everywhere and helps you score political points or justify your own narrow mindedness and meanness. The welcoming God is, admittedly, scarcer. But that’s the God worth returning to or searching for. That’s the God who might be lost.
As many of you know, I am experienced at getting lost. I have no sense of direction. I can go around the corner and not know how to get back. Years ago while driving somewhere with our then 4-year-old daughter, I was, well, getting to my destination by way of an inefficient route. Okay. I was lost. After several wrong turns, we made it to wherever we were going. Georgia, then in a phase where she was making up silly songs, improvised this little ditty sung cheerily from her car seat in the back: “She had to turn around and go another way, go another way, go another way . . . but she finally got it right.” Thanks for rubbing it in, Georgia. But within another year or two she became my navigator, which she remained until God created GPS. One day not long after that Georgia wandered away from me for a few seconds while we were shopping. With relief, I found her in next aisle. “Mommy,” she said close to tears, “You got lost.” It’s a matter of perspective, I suppose.
Prodigal child? Prodigal parent? In some sense it doesn’t matter who is seeking and who is finding. What matters is the longing of both parties in a severed relationship, the celebration at the reunion. In today’s parable both the father and son are aching for the reconciliation. Both feel “lost” without the other. Our chief spiritual task is to find our deep purpose, ultimate reality, a source of compassion, loving union with all, a relatedness . . . which we call God.
The ways we have “lost” God are many. One way we lose God, have lost God, is simply by not recognizing God’s prodigality, which brings me back to my first point. We lose sight of God—the God Jesus understood—when we fail to recognize God’s radical generosity. When we create God as a bully to justify our greed or violence and to assuage our fears, then we lose sight of the true God. God is prodigal: that is, generous beyond reason, extravagant in mercy and forgiveness and loving kindness.
Later in Luke’s Gospel Jesus will say that he has come “to seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10). Sadly, Jesus’s mission to seek and save the lost has been interpreted by some to mean that he came to divide the world into the saved and unsaved, to reward the former and punish the latter. Somehow the metaphor of God seeking the lost created an idea of God as coercive, punitive, even violent. Getting “found” and “saved” came to mean assenting to Christian doctrines, particularly an atonement theology that says God required the blood of an innocent in order to “save” a lost world. So pervasive are these negative associations with a God who seeks the lost that you and I don’t go around describing another person as “lost” or “unsaved.” But these spiritual metaphors, if stripped of fundamentalist associations, are actually comforting. Who doesn’t want to be “found” by a loving shepherd? Who would not want to be as valued as a woman’s most cherished possession? Who wouldn’t pleased to be celebrated as a loved child returning home? “These characters [the shepherd, the housewife, the prodigal father] help to define the character of God and the mission of Jesus” (Tannehill Luke Commentary 239). There is no anger in these characters.
The God we see in Jesus’s parables is a spendthrift—ready to gamble the rest of the flock in order to rescue one lamb, happy to throw a party when one coin is found, besotted with love and overflowing with forgiveness for a returning child. Creation itself attests to God’s prodigality. As nature writer Annie Dillard exudes: “The texture of the world, its filigree and scrollwork, means that there is the possibility for beauty here, a beauty inexhaustible in its complexity, which opens to my knock, which answers in me a call I do not remember calling, and which trains me to the wild and extravagant nature of the spirit I seek” (139 Pilgrim at Tinker Creek).
But we lose that extravagant God when we describe God as punitive and unforgiving. We make that gracious God disappear when we say, for instance, that God isn’t loving enough to accept LGBT folks, that women have a secondary place in the Church, that race and class are reasons to treat people differently.
If God is like the prodigal shepherd, housewife, father . . . then the lost and found relationship has absolutely no sense of condemnation. God’s not mad. God’s not punishing. The God we meet in Jesus’s stories and in Jesus’s life is gentle, loving. How beautiful a vocation to search for God with your whole heart—and imagine that God has been searching for you all the while. Again, regardless of who is searcher and who the searched for, the story ends where all the Jesus stories go. To the prodigally generous Open Table—celebrating our oneness, extending radical welcome, sharing God’s endless gifts.
Here’s what frightens some people about an extravagantly loving God. We’re afraid that the good folks like us won’t get extra credit. Here you are on a Sunday morning when you could have slept late. Doesn’t that earn you more points with God than those who are still in bed? We’re also afraid if God’s too nice, we’ll get too mean. If we eliminate hell from Christian doctrine, if we emphasize mercy and forgiveness, if we really mean that ANYONE can be a part of Christ’s church, we’ll give humanity permission to commit atrocities; if God is too compassionate, then we lose the gatekeeper separating right from wrong. The elder son in the parable functions to represent this very tendency in thought and disposition.
That’s why we’ve created a penal system that punishes prisoners rather than rehabilitates them. We can’t believe that love can lure us into the light. We must, instead, use threats and pain to keep us away from the darkness.
So despite the images of the prodigal, profligate God of endless compassion who’s easily found in Jesus’s life and teachings, we constructed an angry God. We constructed the angry god to keep our derelict neighbors in check. But when we imaged the angry God for them, well, that’s the God we got, too.
We cannot be better than the God we revere. We cannot be kinder, more generous, more loving, more forgiving than the God we worship. If you have not yet found the good and loving God, keep searching, keep searching for that Prodigal Parent.
So leave here for the meadows where other sheep are grazing—and find the most tenderhearted shepherd who prizes each one of his flock as if that sheep is the entire flock. Leave here to search every home until you find the woman most desperate to find the thing she cherishes: you. Leave and find the father of fathers whose love for his child is pure and selfless.The composite of these pictures comes close to a glimpse of the God we thought we’d lost. And we rejoice. Because the prodigal parent has been found.