There is this story that tells us about a father.
The story goes like this: one of the father’s two sons asked for his half of the inheritance to cash it out and leave. The father gave him what he asked for, and the son took off. The story tells us that the father was always waiting for his son to return, waiting for him to come home. The father is patient, scanning the horizon, waiting for a glimmer that he may be on our way home. When the father finally sees his son’s speck in the distance, this father throws decorum to the wind, gathers up his tunic, and runs to meet his son as he returns poor and destitute to the very place he turned his back on. The father then lavishes his prodigal son with a party and presents, celebrating in every way that he who was as good as dead has returned to life.
It’s a beautiful parable. Jesus tells us this story as part of a response to religious leaders grumbling and complaining that the sinners were coming to listen to Jesus teach and proclaim the good news of god’s love.
Why is it that the religious leaders who are grumbling that the prostitutes, tax collectors, and other “sinners” are coming to listen to a non-religious leader speak? What was it that threatened them so much?
I think it was about power. It’s my understanding (and I could be completely wrong here) that as a whole group, the religious leaders were also the political leaders of the day. Different sects of the leaders held varying seats of power in political and religious life. But all together, they were a potent mixture of political and religious authority.
The marriage of political influence and religious authority is a dangerous one. It causes oppression and harm to the lowly and creates a spiral that brings down everyone who does not wild power. It is sinister.
And here comes Jesus.
Jesus challenges this power dynamic, empowering all people to come, hear the good news of god’s love and revolutionary kingdom. Here is the Christ, the lamb of god, standing in direct defiance to power structures and status quo.
The religious leaders didn’t like that.
So Jesus tells us a story of a father who is willing to be taken advantage of yet still receives his wayward son back without reservation or hesitation. This is the kind of good news that makes those in power bristle. Where is the tradition, the decorum, the righteousness? What makes you think that this low-life, unholy, sinners can come home without so much as a blink, let alone be celebrated for their return. There is penance to pay. You need to change your ways, fall in line, become like us, and work your ass off to prove that you are worthy of love.
This kind of attitude will always be with us. The powerful, the unjust, and the oppressor will always demand that you prove yourself before you can get help. Or, you need to help yourself. You can’t rely on other people. You can’t depend on the government. You can’t expect help. It’s pulling yourself up by the bootstraps time.
Jesus says, just come home.
But there is a problem here, a problem with the metaphor, a problem with the story. The parable is beautiful, poignant, compelling, and we end up asking the wrong questions about it.
See, the story of the prodigal son — otherwise known as the parable of the outrageous father or the parable of the stingy older brother — makes us ask how. How do we find our way home to a god like this? How do we turn around and begin the journey home? As valid and important as these questions are, they aren’t asking what really needs to be said.
What we need to know is why.
Why did the father wait so long? Why did the father let his son become destitute and trudge home? Why didn’t the father go after the son?
See, my problem with the story about the father and the prodigal son is that the son still has to do something for his father to embrace him. He has to go home.
Some of us can’t go home.
Sometimes we can’t go home because we have no home to go back to. That’s what happens when you’re disowned for your sexuality and/or gender. Sometimes we can’t go home because there is nothing there. We’ve burnt bridges and cut ties with our toxic history in hopes we can build something better. Sometimes we can’t go home because we genuinely can’t. We’re too spun out in the gutter to get ourselves up and start the long march home.
Whatever the reasons — and there are myriads of them — sometimes we simply can’t go home.
I can hear your protests. It’s a spiritual home the story is talking about, a relationship to be restored. Let me tell you that sometimes we’ve been too hurt by the very church that was supposed to be looking for us on the horizon to ever go back. This spiritual home is often thought to be mitigated by the various churches. When the church mortally wounds you, kicks you out, or necessitates you cutting ties because of a toxic culture, you are left spiritually homeless, wandering in a wilderness with no place to safely return.
Some of us can’t simply go home. And even if we could, the question remains, would there be a father worrying, waiting, and wanting us? Grace has been so bastardized that I sometimes wonder if churches even have an inkling of what it would take to welcome us home. More often than not, it doesn’t seem like it.
So, what do we do when we can’t find our way back home? What do we do when there is no home, no father waiting, scanning the horizon, searching for us with open eyes and open arms?
We don’t move. We remain where we are, in our pain, in our hurt, in our suffering. We stay, even in our sin. We remain where we are in the imperfect chaos and mess we are surrounded by because there is nowhere else for us to go; we stay because it is the very place god will find us.
See, the story of the prodigal son doesn’t tell us about how we find salvation. The story tells us what kind of a father we have. And a father who embraces us no matter what will take things a step further and come find us.
Jesus tells two stories before the story of the prodigal son and the gracious father. The stories of the lost sheep and the lost coin tell us what kind of god it is that embraces prostitutes, tax collectors, and the rest of the motley crew of sinners that gathered around Jesus.
God is a god of search and rescue.
There is no faraway land that we can run to that god will not follow. There is no cliff we can throw ourselves off of that god will not come jumping down after us. There is no shadow we can hide in that god will not sweep out, shine perpetual light upon, and find us.
Jesus is the ultimate embodiment of this truth. God becomes human, becomes Immanuel — with us. We know that there is no place we can find ourselves, put our selves, or be chased off to that Jesus won’t come and find us because he already has come to us.
He comes to find us.
When we are found, we are welcomed home into the hands that formed us from the dust of the earth. When we are found, we are celebrated as we are, for who we are. When we are found, we are treated as one who was good as dead and has come alive.
We are found.
This is a profound truth to me. If I don’t have to go home before god embraces me, but rather Jesus comes to me, pours oil on my wounds, bandages my broken places, and speaks tenderly to me, if this is true then the truth is I am free to love god and my neighbor now, even as I still might be a sinner. It’s not about getting home to be celebrated. It’s about coming to the table with the refuse and used up of society, with the dregs and the downtrodden, with the sinners and would-be saints with addictions they can’t shake. Jesus’ table — his body and blood — is for us all. He gives us a place to sit, food to eat, wine to drink, and comradery to lift the heart. Jesus binds us together with his unabashed, never-ending, always searching, always accepting love.
There’s no place where god in Jesus will not find us and stay with us. He doesn’t simply find us and say, “follow me.” He sets up his home next door, with us, where we are. He eats with us, sharing and mixing our food with his own. Jesus truly is with us.
And we are with each other. We are bound together by Jesus’ love. This is what it means to love your neighbor as yourself: love as Christ has loved you. Find your neighbor. Seek them out. Offer them the food you have found, give them your place at the table (because honestly there is space and place for all). Bind their wounds with oil and wine, and take them in as one of your family.
We belong to each other.
That is how we get out of here.
That’s the secret that the religious leaders missed. They thought that as long as they looked out for themselves, took care of their own needs, their own bodies and souls, everything would be fine. After all, if we all take care of ourselves, everyone is taken care of, right?
But what about the addict that can’t put the bottle down with pain too much to bear?
What about those living with mental illness who can’t quite balance work and home, having their lives ripped apart with no supports?
What about those that society deems unclean?
What about you when you can’t make ends meet, keep the lights on, or go another day?
It’s not enough to care for yourself; we need to care for each other and receive care from each other.
No one is asking you to fix the world. You’re not the savior, and it doesn’t rest on your shoulders. But justice is a communal effort, and without your part, your neighbor suffers. Just like without their part, you suffer. We need each other to stand for the oppressed, protect the battered, and love the wounded.
God came for us. Jesus is the prodigal father, leaving home, riches, comfort, and honor to come to the far country and be with us. We can come for each other, come to each other, come be with each other.
May we all become prodigal, willing to lose it all for the sake of love.
Originally published at https://culturalsavage.com on July 10, 2020.