*May it be noted that the original definition of prodigal and today’s working definition have significant differences. In this reflection and in light of said difference, I use the word prodigal in the sense of one who has not followed the will of their “father.”*
Luke15:11b-32 is one of the most preached upon passages in all of Scripture. Many well homoliticized Church goers will inevitably hear the beginning of this passage and immediately start to process it through the filters of past sermons. This is where the imagination of the pastor is most important. As you approach this text, may I suggest that you approach it through a new lens, a lens which I believe Jesus had in mind when He first spoke this parable into being.
The lens of community is what Jesus was all about, specifically the lens of hospitality focused community. In this passage, we see that a young son has left his father’s house with his belongings and inheritance. The son is ready to experience life with the zest of his youth and step out into the world on his own, outside the protection and the will of his father. The father allows the young son to leave off on his own will to experience life apart from the father. The young son soon finds himself destitute and desiring a return to the house of his father.
On the way home, he reflects upon what he feels he needs to speak to his father to find a place back home. As he approaches the house he sees the old man running towards him with open arms ready to embrace him and welcome him back home. At this point, the action of the son’s return is more powerful than the words from his mouth. The son has returned; he is home safe. As the pastor begins to preach this passage there will be many a parent in ear shot who will begin to reflect upon their way ward child and while I don’t wish to diminish this needed reflection for them, I hope that the pastor will help to push the bounds of thinking for the individuals in their congregations into the world of hospitality focused community. For many who find their way into the lives of our Churches, there is a narrative that has played itself out over and over again. Rejection…many times rejection at the hands of families.
Their lives have made a turn into something they never expected as did the prodigals.In my local context, I experience life with a number of individuals who have been rejected by their families because of who they are. They chose to be honest with those around them and as a result they were shown the door. Their families surely see them as wayward children; they’re prodigals if you will.
While it is the job of the Church to help in the restoration of relationships, it’s bigger task is the holistic care of individuals, and yes that includes its salvific task. In light of this, the question for the Church is no longer focused on getting the prodigal children back to their families but rather bringing in those who have been labelled prodigal.
We are called to be the representatives of God firmly planted outside the home, arms stretched open wide, welcoming in all who may wish to come home to the family of God.
No longer shall we huddle inside the home amongst the ones who live at home continuing to create a space between the us and thems of the world. Be warned pastor, it is this message that will bring about your strongest criticisms from the “older brothers” of your congregations who seek to keep the Church “white as snow.” For them grace should not be so messy as to welcome in the feces covered pig farmer. No, for them grace should be extended only to those who have spoken words of repentance and have cleaned themselves in such a way that they “fit in.” The Church is called to a different posture that is bigger than the stance of the older brother. Arms folded. Face angrily shaped. Stand-offish and defensive. The Church is called to open its arms, embrace the outsider, the prodigal, the pig farmer… It is to embrace all who turn turns home. It’s the Church that is to rejoice most heavily for such ones because they are the ones that often need such radical displays of hospitality to know they are safe, welcomed, and loved.
As, pastors we are called to lead the Church in welcoming all. As we wade through the difficult waters of becoming a hospitality focused community it is my hope that the bridge created by the outstretched arms of the Church will bring together the world of the older brother, the father, and the prodigals of the world as we seek a new reality here on Earth as it is in heaven.