Our estate lawyer explained to us that in her experience, it was uncommon for folks to update their will for positive reasons. What she tended to see was folks updating their will when they wanted to cut someone out.Removing someone from a will is a sign and symbol that the relationship has been severed; whether because someone has died, a marriage has ended, or a family member has become estranged. She said in all of her years of estate planning, she has only had one person revise their will to write someone back into the will. This is both profoundly sad and not exactly surprising.
Family systems are challenging and hard. Even when a family is filled with love, relationships are complicated. Within every family, we each fall into a role, unconsciously adopting scripts and behaviors to help us play our role in the system. When we grow up and begin to build our own family, we may mature and evolve beyond those roles. Yet so often when we return home, we unconsciously fall back into those familiar roles, scripts, and behaviors.
This is how you can come away from a family gathering wondering why you spoke or behaved in a way that seems out of character with who you are now. You might think to yourself - why did I do that? I never act or talk that way with my friends!?
These scripts are carved deep into our neural pathways, and when a family gathers, we may unintentionally fall back into those old behaviors. It’s a bit like a dance. We know the steps so well we can dance with our eyes closed. It takes a lot of work to evolve; it requires that we routinely examine our thoughts and behaviors. Breaking down patterns, as we would when teaching someone how to dance.
In today’s parable of the prodigal son, we get an up close look at how a family system functions, or rather, dysfunctions:
“There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them.”*
A friend recently told me a similar story, of a father with two adult children. The father had a successful business, and while life wasn’t always easy, the kids had a comfortable and loving upbringing. The oldest son started adulthood with bumps and starts, while the younger daughter embraced adulthood as an opportunity to make the world a better place. The son went to his father and said, ‘Dad, give me my share of the inheritance now.’ Except unlike our gospel story, the father said, “Are you kidding me? Absolutely not!”
Let’s be clear - this kind of request is the equivalent of an adult child saying to the parent, that lovingly raised and provided for them - I wish you were dead.** In the parable, there are no details about what the father and son’s relationship had been up until this point, nor do we hear what the older brother makes of this request. What we know is that it was a self-centered request, that in Jesus' culture, would have brought shame to his father’s house.** And as Molly pointed out in a conversation we had about this story - we can question the wisdom of the father’s decision to acquiesce to his son’s request. Was that really responsible parenting?
I had an aunt who had a troubled early adulthood, and for years my grandmother would always meet her requests -- even when they came at great personal sacrifice. Other family members would watch from the sidelines in disgust and frustration - wondering how this possibly helped my aunt to grow up and take responsibility for her actions and behaviors.Instead it seemed to enable or perpetuate her arrested development. Might it have been more loving to have simply said no?
Like many parents, the father in this parable faced an impossible decision. He likely did the best he could, with the coping skills he had, in that moment.
The younger son left home; pockets lined with his inheritance. Off in a distant land, he blew through all of his father’s money. Then came a famine, and he found himself in need of work to survive. The young man went from being the son of a landowner to a hired hand feeding pigs, making him unclean in Jesus’ culture and bringing further shame to his father’s house.** Yet in a swirl of hunger and shame, he soon ‘came to himself’, realizing that if he went and worked as a hired hand for his father, he would at least have a full stomach.* He decides to face his father, to acknowledge his harmful actions, and request to work as his father’s hired hand.
As the young man approached his family home, the father saw his son in the distance and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, put his arms around him and kissed him. His son was alive and he had come home! Nothing else mattered.
The father was so overjoyed; he absentmindedly accepted his son’s apology and was busy reclaiming the young man as his son, dressing him with a fine robe and signet ring. The father instructed a slave to kill the fatted calf, “…for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found! And they began to celebrate.”*
This homecoming was beyond anything one might have anticipated. It was a fountain of love overflowing with grace, forgiveness, and reconciliation.
Except, there was a third member in this family. An older son who has dutifully followed the cultural norms of honoring his father, obeying all the rules. When he returned from the field and learned about the feast being thrown for his brother, he grew angry and refused to join the celebration.
Once again, the father goes to his son, meeting him where he is at that moment, and pleads with him to understand. Instead the older son spat a self-righteousness speech at his father:
Listen! For all these years I have been working tirelessly for you, doing everything you have ever asked and more, yet you’ve never given me even a young goat to celebrate with my friends. But when this ‘son of yours’ comes back after squandering your property you throw him a banquet?*
Then the father said to him, “Son you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was lost and has come to life, he was lost and has been found.”
There is a lot we can relate to in this story. For instance, how often do we make our own distress?
Yet one of the liberating truths of this story is that every family is at least a little bit eccentric, atypical, and/or dysfunctional. The myth of the so-called ‘normal’ or ‘perfect’ family is a tall tale that can leave us coming up short when we measure our family against that false reality. Every family has its stuff, and the more we stand up to the cultural norm of not talking about it, the healthier our culture and each of us will be. A gift we can give one another is non judgemental presence as we try to live out our lives as best we are able.
One of the truths that can be the most meaningful about this parable is that our God really is alarmingly like the parent in today’s story. There is a repeated narrative throughout the Hebrew scriptures: God lovingly gives what the people need; the people turn away; God forgives and the cycle begins all over again.***
And yet - that’s what makes our God atypical. In what other universe would a God give endless second chances? It’s absolutely ludicrous. And yet, that is our God - a loving, liberating, and life-giving God.
The whole reason Jesus is telling this parable to the tax collectors and sinners, as the Pharisees grumbled and listened, was to remind them of our God’s ludicrous love. Jesus did not choose to hang out with the religious establishment. His behavior was the equivalent of going to a party and instead of hanging out with the finely dressed people in the ballroom, heading back to the kitchen and eating simple food and sharing stories with those working the party. The finely dressed people in the ballroom are like the older brother, frustrated with his father; or the Pharisees' indignation that Jesus is not choosing to spend his time in the right way with the right people. And the consequence for that will be social rejection, and ultimately death.
Yet Jesus’ message is clear - God took on human flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth so that those who were lost to the religious establishment might know the ludicrous love of our liberating and life-giving God. God runs to us in the form of Jesus. Just as the father ran to his younger son, and sought out his older son - always meeting the beloved where they are. It doesn’t matter how many times our life goes sideways - God is there running towards us, giving us endless second chances to live our best lives.
When we have been living righteously, or faithfully, it can be easy to forget this. We can easily become judgmental of those who don’t follow the prescribed norms of a life of faith, like the older brother and Pharisees in today’s story. This story is an invitation to remember our God’s ludicrous love.
This week, I would invite you to reflect on this story and imagine the different times in your own life when you have resonated with each of these different characters in today's parable.
* Scripture quote or adaptation from Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
** See commentary by Niveen Sarras at WorkingPreacher.org for further information on this idea: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-in-lent-3/commentary-on-luke-151-3-11b-32-5
*** See commentary by Beth Tanner at WorkingPreacher.org for further information on this idea: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-in-lent-3/commentary-on-psalm-32-12
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