A Reflection by Rev. Dr. Thom Bower
For March 6, 2016, Fourth Sunday of Lent
Psalm 32 and Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 (Prodigal Son)
Have you ever heard the word “prodigal” used except to refer to someone returning? “Prodigal” has become a single-word allusion to this parable. In the past 50 years there has been attempts to rename this story – “The Forgiving Father” or “A Family’s Forgiveness”. Those attempts have been to change the focus onto the action of forgiveness. But I think a better title would be “Lost and Found Sons” – plural.
This is the third of the three-parable sequence. The first parable is about a woman who loses and finds a coin, the second about a shepherd who loses and finds a sheep. This parable is about losing and finding family.
I set out on a quest to discover just when we began to call this story the Prodigal Son. (When I find out, I will let you know: my guess is that it happens in the middle ages, which is when most of the story titles get inserted into the biblical translations.) Since I could not find a date, I looked up the definition of the word prodigal. I’ve always heard it as something that was lost or errant which is returned. That isn’t the definition. Prodigal means “to spend extravagantly or lavishly, to the point of wastefulness.” So there have been also been attempts to retitle this parable “the Wasteful Son” or “The Spendthrift Son.” Prodigal seems to just stick.
But referring to this character as the “prodigal” son is focusing on just seven words in this parable: “he squandered his property in dissolute living.” Seven of five-hundred and forty-nine words.
But it looks to me like the younger son is not the only prodigal who spends lavishly in this story. When he returns home the father is prodigal – lavish – in his welcoming: “bring out a robe – the best one – and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate” It seems that the young son learned lavish living in his own household.
One of the main points of this parable is that by celebrating those who return we live out the values of forgiveness, acceptance, even hospitality. You know the story: the father’s lavish prodigal celebration for the returned son angers the older son. The father has to plead with his older son to come in: “But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” Celebration for one does not mean exclusion of the other.
Last Sunday I experienced a lot of lavish expenditures – not financial expenditures, but expenditures of relationship. You will recall we opened last week’s worship service with prayers for Stephen Casey. Patrick was scheduled to be our lay reader. As he arrived in the church parking lot, Patrick received a call from the hospital – “the call.” I sat in the pastor’s office with Patrick crying with him. I told him to go to the hospital. A few steps out, I saw Laurie. Earlier she volunteered to be lay reader in case Patrick did not make it to worship. I told her she was going to be lay reader. Lavish prodigal hospitality.
I then went to Wilma; she has been our point person for supporting Patrick these past several weeks. I suggested she should go be at the hospital with Patrick and Stephen. We asked Jan to go to the hospital also. I told them they were being the church, and that was more important than sitting in worship. Lavish, prodigal care.
Before I delivered the benediction, I told you I would not be going to Fellowship Time so I could go straight to the hospital. As you exited the sanctuary, so many of you told me to let Patrick know you were praying for him. About a quarter of you also offered words of support to me. Lavish, prodigal support.
When I arrived at Stephen’s room, Wilma and Jan told me they were indulging in “girl talk” and had sworn Stephen to secrecy. They also told me Patrick was in the conference room. I joined Patrick, Stephen’s father, Stephen’s uncle and aunt; they informed me they had already decided together to suspend Stephen’s medical treatment. I’ve been with family’s before as they made this decision. It is never made lightly, and I have never seen a decision of this magnitude made without care and compassion. I assured them that this was a loving decision. Patrick said “I’ve never done this before. What is the protocol?” We agreed on a sequence of important activities. Lavish, prodigal discernment.
First we went to the medical team. While Patrick had intended to speak with one doctor, we were quickly joined by another doctor and two nurses. Lavish, prodigal attention.
We gathered at Stephen’s bedside. We began by blessing bless the union of Patrick and Stephen. You see, an ongoing conversation since I first met Patrick and Stephen in September was preparing for a wedding when Stephen was strong enough. Blessing their union was the next best thing we could do at this time. I cannot tell you the exact words I said. I did ask Patrick if he would care for Stephen as long as they both shall live. I asked Wilma and Jan if they, as representatives of Lyonsville, supported the union of these two souls. I asked everyone if they would support the relationship of Patrick and Stephen. In all cases, everyone said “I do.” Lavish, prodigal community.
I offered prayers for Stephen’s life. Again, I cannot tell you the exact words I said, but I know a few of them: witness, love, dignity, integrity, care, thank you. I said my farewell, Wilma and Jan said their farewell’s, and we left so Stephen’s family could have privacy. Lavish, prodigal empathy.
Now here’s an image for you I wish I got a photo of: Wilma sat in a wheelchair, and on her lap were piled her and Jan’s coats and purses. Jan then pushed the chair as they made their way up to see Judy Holloway. I thought of how Jesus sent out the disciples by twos. Lavish, prodigal servanthood.
My phone had been buzzing with text messages for Patrick. “We’re praying for you.” “We are sorry.” “We’re with you in spirit.” As I read these, 4 nurses – I counted! – interrupted me to express their sorrow and their thanks for my being with Patrick. In the next two hours I would have that same conversation almost 2 dozen times. Lavish, prodigal compassion.
Patrick, Stephen’s aunt Kay, and I watched as the medical team disconnected the various forms of life support attached to Stephen. In my heart I heard the song “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” but I couldn’t get the words out. We surround Stephen’s bed, holding his hands. Several nurses surrounded us, holding our hands, touching Stephen. It was obvious that Stephen and Patrick’s love had touched them deeply. Lavish, prodigal affection.
It is no surprise that Patrick wept openly. Everyone in the room had tears. I held Stephen’s hand as he passed. Lavish, prodigal heartbreak.
Stephen’s room was not the only site for these prodigal encounters. I eventually went up to Judy’s room. The place was filled with family: standing room only. Judy was telling jokes. She asked me to pray, but then her son and another firefighter came into the room. The firefighter was dressed in gear that was various shades of pink: cancer awareness. What Judy did not know is that special arrangements had been made to bring the pink firetruck to the hospital, and Judy had special permission to leave her wing so she could see the truck. Lavish, prodigal celebration.
Before I left the hospital, I stopped to sign in to Facebook. I belong to a clergy support group. I had previously shared Stephen’s condition; I posted to them that Stephen had died. Before I could sign off, there were immediate replies. Yes, this is familiar territory for pastors; it never becomes comfortable. Lavish, prodigal collegiality.
As I drove home all of these encounters filled my head. Just over a mile from my exit, the state police pulled me over for speeding. I know: this is the second time in Lent when I have had an interaction with state police about my driving. I think for Lent next year I will give up speeding; my wife suggested I not wait until lent. Even though the officer had me, I was given only a warning. Lavish, prodigal grace.
This is a report of only one day of encounters with grace. The entire week has been filled with lavish, prodigal grace.
That the lost and faithless might return to the church is one way to understand this parable. I hope you are hearing a very different meaning. Go be prodigal with the grace you have received and blatantly lavish it on all the situations of your life so others may unquestionably know they have also received grace. Go be prodigal.