An Interpersonal Parable: based on Matthew 15:11-32 by Joe Ellis, Oct. 4, 2020
This parable starts out with the youngest son coming up to his Father saying. , “I want you dead.” Well he doesn’t quite come out and says it quite that bluntly, but when a son to come up and ask for an inheritance in advance of his father’s death, its pretty much the same thing. What’s odd is the father doesn’t tell his kid to get lost, he doesn’t rebuke the ungrateful little brat. Instead, he splits up his property between his two kids, and hands over to them their inheritance. The youngest son cashes out the inheritance. He sells his part of the estate. With no loyalty to the generations who came before who stewarded the land, or thought the generations to come, he sells his part of the family estate. Now that he’s rolling in money he leaves town. He leaves town, The saying, ‘a fool and his money are soon parted’ applies here. He squanders his money living the high life. He thinks this is great until he runs out of money and famine comes. Food is scarce and jobs are short. He’s lucky to get a job feeding pigs. Not a kosher job. A jewish boy feeding pigs, that’s about as low as you can go. He goes from living high on the hog, to being shoulder to shoulder with the hog — He starts thinking the pig slop doesn’t look so bad to eat. An empty stomach helps him realize his sheer stupidity — helps him realize how much better things in fact could be at home. He prepares a speech that might get him
back home: “Father, I have sinned against heave and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” Before we talk about how the father welcomes his son, let’s talk about the oldest brother in this story. I want to point out a few things. He’s no less estranged from his family than his brother. When the younger brother asked for his inheritance, the father gave the inheritance to both. The oldest son doesn’t protest, but also takes the inheritance in advance. When his son comes back and his father throws a party, the oldest son’s true colours show. He addresses his dad in the most disrespectful way imaginable. He doesn’t consider himself a son, but a slave. He insults the father publicly by not joining the party. He also distances himself from his family, saying ‘when this son of yours came back.’ He doesn’t say, “when my brother came back.” Finally, he’s got a warped concept of joy: He doesn’t care about the recovery of a dead brother, he wants a meal with his friends. This is the story about a particular type of family relationship. Jesus told the story of a family relationship to illustrate the dynamics at play when the Pharisees were offended that Jesus would welcome and hang out with sinners. Applying family dynamics to different groups of people works because those relationships follow the same rules. It doesn’t matter if you scale up or scale down — relationships have the same rules whether your talking about how different groups relate (democrats/republicans) or how individuals in a family relate. Relational dynamics are the same whether you go big or small, We can scale down even further than individual relationships — we can apply
this to our own mental systems. The same family dynamics we hear about in the story of the Prodigal Son can be at play inside each of us. Many of us have a part of ourselves that is more like the ‘younger son’, and a part of ourselves that is more like the ‘older son’. Do you have a younger side? A side that’s a fun- seeker, a risk taker, creative, irresponsible, sometimes really stupid, a flouter of social norms, rebellious, generous, playful, lazy. You’ll notice that I included attributes, both positive and negative. Do you have an older side? — responsible, self-righteous, hard-working, resentful, prudent, diligent, protecting, stingy, stuffy, serious, smart, calculating. Have you ever had a season where you gave full reign to that ‘youngest’ part of you that’s fun-loving, risk taking, creative, irresponsible, stupid, and rebellious? When Christians give testimonies it's usually about what we were like when we let that part of ourselves go wild — its not often we hear the oldest brother parts of ourselves give testimonies. We don’t often hear testimonies from people saying: “I was an insufferable bore. I was responsible to a fault. I always did the right thing. I never, ever took a risk. I was perpetually judgmental.” We seldom hear testimonies like that, because many of us would think, “my, what a good Christian.” It’s when the youngest child in us goes wild that we feel makes an appropriate testimony. And its true — when our younger side takes over we do things that are really, really stupid. We find ourselves in risky situations, incredibly vulnerable, saddled with debt, slaved to addiction, burnt bridges with our family, surprised by a pregnancy, it really could be anything. But the result is the same — there comes a moment when we are suddenly convicted, and by
that I mean we’re overwhelmed by our own stupidity. We have thoughts like: “How could I be so stupid?” “How am I ever going to get out of this one?” “Things will never go back to the way they were.” “I’m in deep, deep trouble.” That’s when we head home for safety. But when you come to your senses, who do you meet? Do you meet the Father in this parable, or do you meet your older side. I’m sure most of us are familiar with what happens when our older side gets to us first. Imagine if the father actually died before the youngest returned home. Imagine the youngest approaching the older brother saying: “Brother, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your brother; treat me like a slave.” After a long silence the brother says, “you’re darn right you sinned against me. You got a lot of nerve to come back here and thinking your little speech can make things better. You squander your inheritance and now you think you can live off mine? Don’t ever let me hear you call me brother again. You can stay here, but you’ll be here as my slave.” And if the younger brother did decide to stay, it would be a thousand times worse than being a slave. He’d be living perpetually under the weight of his brother’s scorn. He’d work like a dog, perpetually trying to earn his way out of a debt he has no hopes of ever repaying. He would be bound by his own stupidity, a prisoner of his responsible side. Most of us are far more likely to respond to our own stupidity like the Oldest Brother, rather than with the grace of the Father. When we come to our senses, our older side shows up and heaps shame upon shame, “How could you
be so stupid?” So our younger side becomes a prisoner, no longer to be trusted. A dangerous criminal to be kept under lock and key. You might have even thought of your older side taking over as your salvation, but really you’re miserable. You become responsible, self-righteous, hard-working, resentful, prudent, diligent, protecting, stingy, stuffy, serious, smart, calculating. You never let yourself forget the debt your younger side accumulated. You beat yourself up, reminding yourself of how stupid, utterly stupid you were. You think you’re now saved from that, but in reality your just as bad off as you were before — you’re perpetually trying to work off your debt by being perfect — a state that’s no better than a slave. Sometimes people can’t bear being a prisoner like that, and they escape. It looks like they’ve thrown their life away, it looks like they’ve thrown responsibility to the wind, but the truth is they just couldn’t stand being a slave to their older side and they went looking for freedom. Jesus offers a different vision of salvation for our “younger side” — our sometimes stupid, irresponsible, risk taking selves: The Father sees you coming from afar. He runs to you in the most undignified manner, His runs with arms wide open. He puts on you the best robe. He puts on your finger the ring of fellowship. He doesn’t tell you to shape up, instead He throws you a party! The remedy isn’t to silence your younger side, he doesn’t beat you up, he doesn’t make you pay — He shows you how to party! He teaches our younger side how to experience life with true joy. He shows us that the junk food of sin tastes good at the time but then leaves you sick. He shows you good food that satisfies. We need to remember this when the younger side of ourselves is
stupid, when we’ve been irresponsible, when we’ve screwed up. Your older side will want to beat you up. In those moments ask the father to protect you. Visualize His arms around our broken, shamed, humiliated self. Hear his words of celebration: “This son of mine was deadened is alive again; he was lost and is found.” This of course means that the older side side of you needs salvation as well — the part of yourself that is perfect, self-righteous, boring, chronically angry, responsible, judgmental, the part that delights in refusing to attend the party. That side of you needs just as much salvation. The father comes out to that part of you and also pleads with you. After hearing your litany of complaints, all the reasons why your younger side should be thoroughly punished, given no freedom, and rejected, the father looks at your ‘older self’ and says, “My son, you are always with me, everything I have is yours. But we have to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” He invites your older self to learn compassion, kindness, gentleness and love. Not only that, He also invites your older self into the party — salvation also involves the older self learning how to party. We don’t know if the story resolves. The Father extends an invitation for the oldest to be reconciled with the youngest. We don’t know if the oldest accepts that invitation. But salvation for both the oldest and youngest is the same — Salvation for both is learning to celebrate with the Father. Salvation is learning to receive forgiveness, and it involves learning to give forgiveness.
Salvation is the various parts of ourselves becoming reconciled to one another — the parts of ourselves that aren’t on speaking terms, the parts of ourselves that we’re ashamed of, the parts that are angry, reproachful and harsh. Salvation is learning to extend and receive grace. There is a Tradition that we are to seek reconciliation with our brother and sisters before coming to the Lord’s Table. What would it be like if prior to taking Communion this Sunday, we looked at the places where we’ve never forgiven ourselves. What would if we forgave ourselves with the compassion of the Father in this parable? What if after doing that we brought all of ourselves to the table and celebrated?