This parable: the story of the prodigal. This parable has within it such depth of connection with the human condition, and with the deep grace of the Divine.
The elements of the parable are well-known: two siblings, one parent. Although Dad is still very much alive, the younger son cashes in his inheritance early, goes far away and wastes it all on the high life. Things go sour for him, and he drags himself home, hoping to catch on as a farm servant. Parent receives child with open arms, kills the fatted calf, and all celebrate – except for the elder son, who is angered because he has remained faithful and on-the-job here at home, without such fanfare. All is wrapped up with a statement of the parent’s love for both children, and the special rejoicing that the one who had been “lost” has now been found.
So many words emerging from this parable could be a wonderful starting point for a sermon, beginning with the word prodigal: to be prodigal, says my trusty online dictionary, is to be “wastefully extravagant.” Is it the younger son, with his wasteful lifestyle, who is the prodigal one in this story… or is it the forgiving father, extravagant at the lavish welcome home of this son? The brooding elder son would probably say, “both.” But there’s at least a dozen other words, some positive, some not so positive: wandering, redemption, welcome, forgiveness, renewal, embrace, worry, judgment, enabling, excess, resentment, greed, envy, lost, found.
The word that has presented itself to me for today’s message, is “estrangement.”
Back in September of 2019, Lauren Sproule wrote a powerful article in Broadview magazine, talking about family estrangement and the struggle to find support when you’re in that situation.
“I’ve yet to meet a family” she writes “that hasn’t been touched by estrangement. I have friends who haven’t spoken to their mothers in years; a classmate who didn’t know where her uncle was living; and a confidant who admitted his life would be much easier if the sibling causing his mother such pain would just disappear…. People suffering through [estrangement] often describe feeling judged, stigmatized and misunderstood. As a result, they tend not to talk about their experiences, a reticence that has led to what some experts have called a ‘silent epidemic’ affecting many of today’s families: a wave of strained relationships and estrangements that are going unacknowledged, and thus without any semblance of support”.
I’m not sure that I’d go as far as Lauren in saying I have never met a family that has not experienced estrangement, but many have – even moreso in recent months, with some families, communities and congregations fractured along COVID lines. A number of congregants have spoken to me over the years about their experiences of estrangement, and I have no intention of breaking your confidence just to share a good story. I do, however, have my own firsthand experience, as a rift between me and a sibling’s spouse meant that I was not welcome in their home ever again. I could see my sibling off-site, and did, but not in their home.
Each trip home to Saskatchewan I hoped in vain that an olive branch could be extended, but it was not to be. Finally, after eight years of estrangement, my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary was happening, the two of us pretty much had to be in the same space and I decided to make an approach of reconciliation. The result? If you’ve ever had the experience of someone looking right through you as if you weren’t even there, that was my experience that day. In an odd way, there was release that came with that; I’d been told pretty clearly, that it was not within my power to end the estrangement, and I was free to let go of any power this held over me.
Sometimes, estrangement just sort of happens, as drifting apart turns into a way of being, but there is often an element of choice by one party or both. In the parable of the prodigal, the younger son’s estrangement was of his choosing. For whatever reason, he felt the urge to exit the shared life of his extended family in favour of something livelier or more promising, and he felt the urge so strongly that he cashed in his inheritance to do so. In the rules of that culture at that specific point in history, I’ve not been able to determine whether an estate with two male heirs would have been split 50/50 between them, or if the eldest/elder son would have received a double share of the inheritance as it was in earlier days, but whether the younger son was asking for one-third of the estate or one-half, this was a significant request. And as I think of the agrarian context suggested by the parable, I’m thinking that the only way to get your part of the estate paid early would be to sell off part of the property, and probably livestock and other possessions: to a relative, a neighbour, a rival, or some bigger landowner.
With that in mind, imagine this scene through the eyes of the parent: as one child crests the horizon, the family farm left behind for you and the other son to work is diminished, and someone else is working some of the land that used to be yours. How upsetting. And how worrisome: how would word get back to you about the success or failure of the baby of the family? How would you know if he lived or died, struggled or prospered? The omniscient narrator of the parable tells us that the younger one went and lived it up until the money ran out, but unless a cousin of a neighbour’s friend happened to see him in the city, the younger son’s leaving could have been the last he was seen or heard of.
For those who have experience of family estrangement, whether that was because someone left the family, or was expelled from the family, or tried to return to the family but was not welcomed with open arms, or was overwhelmed by mental illness or addiction, the parable of the prodigal may be hard to hear, especially if the estrangement was never resolved. And let us be aware that the experience of being kicked out of the house is a far too common experience in the lives of LGBTQ persons, who hesitated to “come out” to their family and then paid the price when they did… and yes, this happens everywhere, in villages, in cities, even in our easy-going mountain towns. How important it is, for places in the community like Affirming Congregations to make themselves evident, available, welcoming, and truly safe.
Lauren Sproule acknowledges the breadth of experiences that get held by this collective term, “estrangement” as she writes, “Estrangement is a loss, no matter which way you look at it. But for some, that loss brings much-needed separation from relationships that were abusive, either physically, sexually or emotionally. For others, estrangement just brings pain, and may lead to agonized ruminations over what turned a relationship sour, and how that might have been avoided”. Indeed, there are times when estrangement is a lifesaver, and there are times that it becomes the predominant, lasting thought that keeps being revisited time and again.
I want to at least mention in passing some bigger ways that estrangement works in this world of ours. While the parable portrays it in very personal terms, there are many ways that this model of leaving home for greener pastures can be applied to the entire human experience. Biblically, the motif of estrangement or expulsion is strong in stories like the Garden of Eden, Cain and Abel, the dynamics of Joseph and his brothers, and God’s yearning for reconciliation expressed through the Psalms and the prophets and, yes, the cross. The Truth and Reconciliation processes that have been or are being undertaken in many nations – Chile, South Africa, Rwanda, Chile, El Salvador and Canada, among others – illustrate the hard work that is required to rebuild safe relationships when there has been domination of culture and disrespect of land. So many wars – the one being waged by Russia in Ukraine, the ongoing hostilities between the two halves of the Korean peninsula, the strife in Gaza – are between foes with very close ties, verging on familial, and whatever formal process brings peace will need to be followed by a lot of work at the relationship level. And our relationship with planet earth, I believe, fits all too easily into the wasteful living of the youngest son. What will it mean, environmentally, to come to our senses, and return home again?
After all these tales of woe, we remind ourselves that this is not a story that ends with estrangement. There is a moment when the young one realizes that there is no future in his present path, and turns around. He remembers home, and something in his remembrances of home – and his remembrances of his father, this time as an employer – gives him some glimmer of hope. And more than that, when he does return home, there is welcome, joyous welcome that was beyond his wildest expectations. Whether there was a fuller restoration of the younger one’s position in the family is beyond the scope of the parable; what we know is that he was home, he was safe, he was still deeply loved by his parent.
While we may, at a human level, wonder about the Father’s boundaries in this story – and hey, I admit that the older brother has good reason for his grievance, and that there’s some future work would have to be done with him to make sure that the estrangement didn’t just transfer from one son to the other – we remind ourselves that this isn’t just a human story: it’s a story about all those ways that we create distance between us and God, and God’s desire and ability to reach out and bridge the gap. It’s a story about all those circumstances in life that alienate us from all that we know to be good and true and life-giving, and God’s desire and ability to embrace us if only we find a way to reverse course and step toward love. It’s a story about the hardest times in life, the times we feel most alone or alienated or lost, being held in the assurance of God’s everlasting desire to see things made right. It’s a story of our freedom to make choices, and God’s willingness to reach beyond what is reasonable, to help us find a sustainable, life-giving, justice-based shape for our lives: my life, your life, our lives, the life of humanity on this planet.
That welcome – that parent, running down the path upon news of a child returning – makes a beautiful picture when imagined in its original setting. My prayer is that we can perceive it as something that reaches beyond that place, long ago and far away, into any and every situation where it is needed in the world today: that people in peril will find safety, that nations and cultures will find new, reconciled pathways, that the light of peace will break through the horror and gloom of war. May the words of a story, be experienced as a living expression of God’s love for the world, even here, even now. Amen.
Sproule, Lauren. “Fractured Families”. Broadview magazine, October 2019, pp. 34-39 or https://broadview.org/family-estrangement/
See also Thomas, Debie. https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay
© 2022, Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church, Canmore. Sermon was preached at Rundle Memorial United Church, Banff.