In seminary, with Chapel most days preached by tired pastors, students, or Faculty (who often preached their class lecture) sermons were quite forgettable or they were remembered for all the wrong reasons. However, in the three years of worship there I do remember a handful, one of which was a great sermon on the Prodigal Son. To that point I can honestly say that the story of the prodigal was virtually meaningless. It was referring to a reality that was foreign to me, or so I thought.
Early in the sermon after a small amount of exegesis and the eyes hazing over for most of the students the preacher said, “Living in California, you are by definition the Prodigal Son.” He went on from there to give us examples, and though some were sketchy at best, I had never really thought of myself that way before.
Knowing the statement to be provocative, the pastor reeled us in to an equally provocative understanding of the prodigal son story that pointed to the focus of the story within the modern interpretations to be completely wrong. In fact, he, for the first, time made the suggestion that this story hit on a fundamental aspect of the reformed tradition that whether we stay or whether we fall away from God, we become prodigals.
Turning the story on its head you could say that this is a question of the vastness of God’s creation. There are those who from the beginning of time have kept the faith, and there are those who have fallen away (either in their choice or through choices of previous generations). Those who have kept the faith are given a perpetual gift of living in the full richness of God each and every day of their lives. Though their lives are by no means easy they know that the reward is great.
The son that runs off taking the inheritance and spending everything that he has finds himself not only broke, but also lost in life. Interestingly, the motives for the lost son to come home were not from a longing for family or need for recompense, but for the selfish desire to make more money and live a slightly better life than he was living. In reality, the son that leaves is an example of selfishness, living for himself and his own exploits.
This is where the whole story gets murky because we the reader place such a negative judgment on the son that leaves, forgetting to see what is going on with the son that stays. If we reread the passage, placing our judgments aside, we can recognize that the son who stayed was not acting altruistically in his choice to stay. In fact, it could be said that he was staying to reap an even larger reward. We know this by the reaction of the son who stayed and had essentially said “How can you come back and take what is mine!”
From the dialogue of the father and the son, we see that both sons have fallen away, just in different ways, because they both began to live for themselves. One of the great problems that many non-church goers have with the church is the “holier than thou” attitude of Christians. While essentially, the attitude is not the problem, the fact that we do not recognize that our practices and our actions often come off as hypocritical and selfish in their own right becomes a turnoff to those who may be seeking a way back, even if it is not for the most spiritual of reasons.
As you prepare for Sunday, think of the ways that you are a prodigal. Are you the one who stayed close to God, only to become resentful of God’s grace towards others, or are you the one who went off a burned your grace only to come back later seeking full restoration, or some combination thereof.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen