Let’s rename this story. The Prodigal Son? Doesn’t really work for me. Why? I am not that son. I am the older brother, the “Really Ticked-Off Older Brother” I might add, who has had to watch time and time again how her, I mean his, younger sister, I mean brother, gets all of the breaks.
Okay. This may be a bit of an overstatement, just in case my younger sisters might be reading this column. But the point is, perspective matters. Which is why a change of title is a great start to imagining a sermon on this well-worn parable. In fact, lately I have seen many different titles for this story — “The Lost Sons;” “The Welcoming Father;” “The Lost Son and The Welcoming Father;” “The Lost Sons and the Welcoming Father.”
This is always a great exercise in biblical interpretation, especially for preaching — give the story a different title. Why? Titles determine meaning. Titles suggest what to hear. Titles were never original to scripture, so why not have some fun? Rename this story. Why? To invite all to figure out where they are in this story. Why? Because perspective matters.
Take Mark Allan Powell’s interesting study.[i] Powell asks the question of certain contexts — North America, Russia, Africa — why did the Prodigal Son end up where he did? The answer from Russia? Famine. The opinion from Africa? Nobody helped him. And North America? He squandered his living. Perspective matters
Your perspective matters. The problem when it comes to reading the Bible, however, is when people assume or assert that they do not have a perspective; that making sense of the Bible can happen void of context and contexts; that interpreting the Bible can exist in some sort of vacuum. We are all ideological. The question is, whether or not you admit it. We all have a canon within a canon, for example. Play the “what biblical book would you have with you if you were stranded on a desert island” game. What book you choose is your theology in a nutshell. There’s nothing wrong with it — it just is, but at least fess up to the fact that you have one to which you are committed.
This is a particularly important realization when it comes to preaching a known story because we wonder if we can find anything new — why is that? Because we have not sought ways to move out of our comfort zones, our theological assumptions, our denominational commitments.
And, this is particularly important when it comes to any kind of conversation around the Bible. Part of our vocation as preachers is to call out those interpretive moments when theology trumps the biblical witness. The hard part is when this calling out calls out our own.
Lent is a particularly potent and poignant perspectival time, not just for its contemplative mood, but for the sake of admitting our own perspectives on and commitments to the meaning of Jesus’ incarnation and death. At the same time, Lent can become one “perspective” through which to view this story. What difference does it make to hear the tale of the Prodigal Son in Lent instead of Easter, Pentecost, or Epiphany? What does the season make you see that you have not realized before?
If Lent is a season of reflection, contemplation, particularly on our human brokenness and our need for God’s redemption, I think Lent helps us see the “lostness” of all of the characters in this story. Lent helps us see the reasons, the instances, which lead to severed relationships, suspicion, and an unwillingness to admit our own faults. Lent helps us see our desire for extreme autonomy when it could very well cut us off from community. Lent helps us see when and how and where we think only of ourselves. Lent helps us see our true motivations for our actions and our true motivations for apology or repentance. Lent helps us see when we truly are in the depths of despair. Lent helps us see our deep longing for love and yet the only way out seems to untether ourselves from those in whom love might be real. Each and every one of these “Lenten perspectives” on this story is worth a sermon on its own.
In the end, the story of the Prodigal Son might very well point to our own “lostness.” To be lost is to reject relationship, to be absent of relationship, or to be in a relationship where all you feel is “lostness.” And the answer to our “lostness” may very well be the restoration of relationships we initially reject, deem unimportant, or not worth our time.
Perspective matters, invite outside of ourselves moments — essential for interpreting the Bible for sure, but also critical for interpreting ourselves and telling ourselves the truth about ourselves. Not always comfortable, but absolutely necessary. So in part, this is an invitation to you, Working Preachers — to take the time to explore your perspectives, to realize what is important to you theologically in this rather theologically heavy season, to be honest with the where and how of what is at stake for you in preaching an incarnated God.
Take the time. Deliberate. Wonder. Give yourself this gift. Who knows, then, what might be the result on the other side of the cross?
[i] Mark Allan Powel, What Do They Hear? Bridging the Gap Between Pulpit and Pew