The Parable of the Heartbroken Father
Our gospel passage for today is arguably one of the most famous: it’s the Parable of the Prodigal Son. When I was doing research on this passage, I came across a sort of biblical bibliography. It’s just this very big book that lists references to particular passages of scripture. Whenever there’s a piece of artwork, poetry,or literature that refers to a particular biblical story, this book lists these references. So, if you wanted to find a piece of artwork about the Prodigal Son, you could open this book and find those listings. The entries for the Parable of the Prodigal Son filled nineteen pages of listings, so this is definitely a well-known story. It’s one of those parables, too, that even folks who were not raised in the church probably know it. If you refer to someone as a “prodigal son”, people will know what you’re getting at.
But as I read through a commentary and as I thought about this parable more deeply, I found myself asking: who is this parable actually about? Now, the most obvious answer is, of course, the Prodigal Son. In English, we call it “The Parable of the Prodigal Son”–and that seems to make it pretty clear who this story is supposed to be about. That kind of makes sense, right? It’s a story about this young man who takes his inheritance, he travels to a foreign land, he spends his inheritance very quickly on luxuries and pleasures, finds himself impoverished, and realizes he has to return home. He expects judgement and punishment when he returns to the father he left so abruptly. But instead he’s met with celebration, and forgiveness, and joy. And it makes sense that we frequently focus on the younger of the two brothers in this story, because his is a powerful story about God’s love, and forgiveness, and redemption. Many of us find comfort in this story when we read ourselves into it as the Prodigal Son, knowing that we’ve fallen short, that we’ve messed up; and at least at certain times in our lives we’ve been sinful, we’ve done things we know we shouldn’t have done. To see ourselves as the Prodigal Son can be deeply reassuring.
But what about the Older Brother? The story opens saying, “there was a man who had two sons,” not just one son. Now we don’t hear about the Older Brother until the end of the Parable, but his role is important. It teaches us a valuable lesson because, whereas the Father celebrates the younger son’s return, is overjoyed that the son who was lost to him has come–but the Older Brother isn’t so excited. He’s resentful and, I think, judges his brother. Here he’s gone off and done this stupid thing and wasted all this money and he gets a party? He gets this great celebration? Whereas, the Older Brother, the faithful son who stood by his father through all these years has never had a party in his honor.
And so I found myself asking: what times in my life have I been the Prodigal Son, the who who’s messed up and needed forgiveness–plenty of times!–but at what times am I the Older Brother, the person who has judged someone else, the person who has decided that I’m superior to someone else? And then when they’ve actually redeemed themselves and improved themselves, I mourn, because I’m no longer better than them and I feel like I’ve lost something.
That’s the thing the Older Brother can begin to teach us about judging other people. Because judging other people isn’t just easy–and if you’re like me, it really is easy to constantly feel better than other people. It’s not just easy to judge other people though, it’s fun. It’s enjoyable to look at someone and say, “Well, gosh, I’m better than that person. I may not be doing everything right, but I’m better than that one person over there or this person over here.”
But in this story we hear that this judgment interrupts the elder son’s relationship, not only with his brother, obviously, but also with his father. He’s angry not just at his brother, but at his father. He’s angry at his father for his father’s kindness towards the younger son. And if the Father stands in as the metaphor of the parent as God, then we’re hearing that judgment of other humans interrupts, not only our relationship with other humans, but interrupts our relationship with God.
And what about the Father? You know, we call this the “Parable of the Prodigal Son,” but Jesus opens by saying “there was a man who had two sons.” The way that Jesus introduces it, it’s about the Father, the parent. (And I think it’s worth pointing out that if you just change the word “father” to “mother” the Parable would work just as well.) So, what about this parent? What do we learn about this parent? If this parent stands in for the role of God, what do we hear? We hear that God is loving. Not only does the Father love the son who has left, he even continues to love the Older Brother even as the Older Brother is full of resentment and judgement. Everything this father does seems to be about love, at each moment. And we hear that the Father is forgiving. And we don’t just hear that the Father forgives the Younger Brother when he returns, because as the Son is coming down the road and the Father sees him off in the distance, we don’t hear about a moment when the Father says, “Oh, should I forgive him, uh I don’t know…” It seems that he’s already forgiven him for what he had done. So God is always loving and God is always forgiving. God has always already forgiven us.
And that’s all true. And that’s again the story that we want to hear from this parable. If we’re the Prodigal Son, hearing about a loving and forgiving God, that’s good news! But as I reflected more deeply, and did some research on this, I began to be struck by another dimension of this story, that’s implied rather than stated, but it seems really important.
I imagine this father loving and forgiving his son from day one, but for months and years his son was off in a foreign country, not only wasting an inheritance but maybe getting himself into trouble, exposing himself to danger. And I wondered about that. It really seemed like the Father probably knew how this would end and yet he seemed unable to stop his son. And I say unable, not unwilling, because the love and forgiveness that he had must have made him willing to try and help his son, but he seemed unable. The son seems to have real independence here, real freedom of action, even to do something pretty foolish. If the Prodigal Son stands in for all of humanity and our turning away from God, then we’re hearing that the independence and the freedom that not just humans–but maybe the whole creation–as is real freedom and independence. It’s not the limited freedom that we might give to a small child but the full freedom that an adult has.
This got me thinking more deeply about the roots of Christian thought because this idea that God is somehow unable to stop humanity from turning away from God, not unwilling but unable, has deeper roots. There’s a long-standing Christian doctrine which goes by the Greek name of Kenosis. Kenosis is a Greek word that means “emptied” or “emptying” or “being emptied”. This doctrine originally arose as a way of talking about the Incarnation. Christians started to say Jesus is God incarnate, Jesus is God in the flesh of a human being. They realized that they had to explain: if God is all-powerful and almighty and eternal, how can God be in this very not-mighty, very not powerful, very not immortal, human Jesus? And so this idea of Kenosis, that the Word of God or the Son of God has to empty himself, has to limit himself, has to abdicate power in order to become incarnate becomes essential. Paul mentions this himself in his letters.
But ultimately the doctrine of Kenosis ends up going further than just a reference to Jesus, further than just a reference to the Incarnation. Many Christian theologians began to argue for something even more radical: that in order for God to give birth to the Cosmos, in order for God to give birth to the Creation, God has to empty Godself. God has to make space for something and limit God’s own ability to control or determine what’s going on there. God has to abdicate power in order for Creation to really be Creation. In other words, the independence and freedom of the Cosmos in its relationship to God is an essential piece of what Creation is, not something added in after the fact, and not something only given to humans. It’s an essential part of what Creation is. God gives up the ability to determine what’s going on.
That’s not the image of God that everyone is raised with and philosophers and theologians have debated this ever since the idea came forward, but in this parable I think I’m hearing this kind of limitedness. The Father seems helpless, really, to help his son until his son chooses to return. The agency is all on the Prodigal Son. He has to come back; the Father has to wait. Now the reason that philosophers and theologians have given for this (doctrine of divine emptying) is the idea that God creates in love and through love and for love. That is: the whole point of existence, in this theology, is that God wants the Cosmos not only to love itself, but to love God. And the thing about love is that it has to be a free act. You can make someone pretend to love you–if you threaten them, you can make someone pretend to love you. You might even be able to trick someone into really believing that they love you. But you can’t make someone actually love you. That’s part of the power of love: it’s that it’s a free act, it’s a choice that someone else offers, to choose to make your needs and your desires as important as their own. And if this is God’s goal–if the goal of Creation is that Creation can actually love God–if God limits Godself, God empties God’s self, God abdicates real authority in such a radical way that God has lost some control over what’s going on in the World–that’s a big risk that God has taken with Creation! Again, this isn’t always the image we get of God even from scripture, which frequently talks about God as in control of things.
And yet the whole idea of sin is that things can happen that God doesn’t want, so there’s this sort of sub-terranean story going on in scripture that’s saying something really different. The independence and freedom that the Cosmos has then, if this is right–and obviously not everyone agrees–but if this is right, the independence and freedom is God’s gift. That’s what it means to exist. And it is a huge risk. And if this independence and freedom is essential to existence, then God cannot revoke it without destroying existence. God is committed. God is stuck. God is vulnerable. God is kind of helpless here. God cannot intervene in the World without the World cooperating with God.
And in fact if we focus on scripture, we begin to hear this message coming out. God wants to liberate the Israelites from Egypt, but God doesn’t just manifest as a fifty-story giant smashing through the Nile River. God appears as this lonely little burning bush on the side of a mountain and convinces this fugitive Moses: “Hey, Moses, I have this plan, can you help me out?” And Moses argues, “No, I really don’t want to do this.” And God says, “Okay, we’ll figure it out, we’ll get your brother involved. He can do some stuff. We can negotiate, okay?” And eventually Moses agrees: “I guess..” And God replies, “thank you.” Read Exodus again.
When we read about the prophets, folks like Amos and Jeremiah and Isaiah, we hear the prophets announcing God’s moral claim on the World, but they’re trying to convince humans, “Hey, humans, do this stuff!” We don’t have God forcing people to do it; God’s trying to convince humanity, “Hey, get your act together!” And more often then not, humans respond, “No thanks. I’m good.”
When we hear about how Jesus heals someone (in the Gospels), it always strikes me that, invariably, Jesus says: “Your faith has made you well.” Jesus does not say, “I, Jesus, made you well”. He does not say that God made them well. The healed person has to cooperate. The healed person has agency. The healed person, like the Prodigal Son, has to turn and somehow come back. And that’s mysterious and strange and incredible. We even hear that when the Community doesn’t have faith in Jesus, if you look at some of the Gospel passages, it says Jesus is unable to do any works.
It really does seem that God has given up so much to create the Cosmos that God is always looking for collaborators, for people to cooperate with God. And this idea has entered into contemporary philosophy and theology, in a number of authors but (especially) in a man named John Caputo. Now, I don’t normally stand here and quote contemporary theologians, but if this idea (of Kenosis) kind of intrigues you, or angers you, or confuses you, John Caputo’s work might interest you. Caputo talks about a “weak God”. This is the word he uses, “weak,” a “weak theology.” I have some issues with the word weak, because in my view God has power but has chosen to give it up, give it to Creation. Nonetheless, Caputo makes some important points. He says God has a moral claim, God comes and tells us how things should be–love, compassion, justice, equality–but God lacks the ability to actually make it happen, and therefore God is always trying to convince humans to do that thing. “Please make the Cosmos what I had hoped it could be.” God is vulnerable in this relationship. God is not utterly powerless but also not utterly powerful. God depends on us to realize “God’s dream.” To paraphrase from the works of St. Mark’s own Verna Dozier, God has a dream but we have to cooperate; we have to make it happen.
Now if this is right, if the way I’m reading the Parable the Prodigal Son is right–and I’m sure plenty of people would say, well, you’re not!–but if I am, then I think this parable teaches us something really important about both God and about humanity. It tells us not only about a vulnerable, emptied God who has abdicated real power, who has taken a huge risk–but even more so, it tells us that we have to cooperate. We have to choose to leave the foreign country and return to God and begin to work these acts of justice and mercy and truth that God is calling us to. God is that always loving, always forgiving parent, but God is waiting back on that farm for us to turn and return and do this work of building God’s holy and loving reign.
Now, in fact, I don’t think the Parable of the Prodigal Son is the clearest enunciation of this idea of God’s weakness, or God’s vulnerability, or God’s self emptying. I think the strongest example of this idea comes on the Cross. But we’re not there yet, we’re not at Good Friday, we’re still in Lent and I’m not going to jump forward. We have two-and-a-half weeks until we find ourselves considering the violence, horror, and terror of the Cross. But Lent is a good time for us to meditate on this idea of God’s self-emptying, God’s self-limitation, God’s abdication of power, because if this is right, it changes everything and it calls us to action. It changes what it means to be human. God is waiting for us to turn and hear this moral claim, this call to righteousness and justice–and God is desperately asking us to hear, to respond, and to act. As we approach Good Friday, that, I think, is an important message to hear.