Like a good parable, the prodigal son is chock-full of ambiguity. So, the first preaching task is to peel back the layers of interpretive certainty that have been piled on top of parabolic potential. I can’t begin to count how many sermons I have heard over the years about the repentance of the younger son (are you sure about that?) and the act of forgiveness by the father (exactly where is that in the text?). A familiar parable needs a faithful preacher to recommit to hearing it anew and to resist the life of its own the parable has taken on, often to soothe anxieties about our own lostness and errant activities.
My hope is that this little preamble might generate some space for that detail, that turn of phrase, that feeling you can’t quite describe that for some reason, this time around, pulls you into this parable’s story. Or maybe, just the thought of possible ambiguity opens up a whole new interpretative stance for a parable that could seem a little worn out.
I’ll share my moment—the ending of the parable, or lack thereof? All’s well that ends well for the prodigal and the dad, but what about the older son? What happens to him? We don’t know. Does he end up participating in the celebration? Or, is his last word “no” to joy? And that’s where I got stuck. That’s where I had to sit for a bit. Have you ever noticed just how much celebration there is in this unique chapter to Luke? There’s joy, celebration (can also be translated “cheering”), and rejoicing (or, “gladness”). Multiple words communicating joy, repeated throughout these three parables. In my “stuckness” I didn’t find myself wondering whether the older son joins the party, but what he might be resisting—joy. And I begin to think about all the times I have done the same.
Fifteen years ago just this past February, I had gotten to a place in my life where joy was absent. For all intents and purposes, I should have been celebrating with music, dancing, a fatted calf on the grill, and a glass of chardonnay with one of those festive wine glass charms—because, why not? I had finally finished and defended my dissertation. My two premature boys were healthy and happy, and I had been hired by Luther Seminary—my dream job. The top of the world, right?
But there was no joy. Where did it go? I couldn’t answer that question. I couldn’t figure out how to get it back. And I finally realized that I couldn’t find it on my own. I started seeing a therapist, Brenda, and with the right diagnosis combined with medication, and after eleven years of some really hard work, I got my joy back.
Joy and I have had an interesting relationship since. I got to know it quite well over those eleven years—its sheer happiness, its elusiveness. The ways it would sneak up on me even in the most challenging circumstances of my life and I’d push it away—“not now, joy” I’d say. “It’s not the right time.” The way joy would disrupt my pretexts. I began to understand that joy is not necessarily an either/or existence. That moments of joy do not preclude pain and despondency. That moments of joy are fleeting and often demand fearless acceptance. I began to realize that joy’s equivocation was not always its fault— that sometimes I had to choose it.
And I had to admit—to joy and to myself—my self-sabotaging tendencies that frequently result in my resistance to joy. I’d make excuses—how can I experience joy when others can’t? What gives me the right to know joy when the world hurts? Joy would seek me out, be as obvious as the welcome home party for the prodigal, and yet there I’d be—outside, looking at joy and its glad heartedness through the window. Not allowing myself to go in and join the festivities. I hadn’t earned it. I hadn’t worked hard enough for such a reward. There was still more to do, more to accomplish, more checks to enter alongside the items on my lengthy list before I was worthy of such absolute delight and pleasure. Before I was enough to experience such pure happiness. Before I was adequately laudable to lean into the grace-filled rest that joy grants.
I stood next to the older son for a long time, Dear Working Preachers. I found myself wanting to ask him the same question I asked myself—why is it still so hard, God? To choose joy? To choose your joy?
There is just so much right now—for all of us—personally, professionally, communally, nationally, globally. It doesn’t seem like the right time, the right place, the right circumstances to choose joy. But isn’t this when we need God’s grace the most? Not grace as reward for repentance. Not grace as forgiveness. But grace as no defenses. Grace as letting go of all our reasonings for refusal and resistance. Grace as interrupting our rehearsed speeches. And grace as walking through the door and sitting down at the banquet when it’s the last thing we can imagine doing.