Can you imagine spending a portion of your day with the same story, week after week? Letting it wash over you, reflecting on it, allowing it to enter your daily rhythms? Maren Tirabassi is a pastor in the United Church of Christ, and this Lent, she’s been doing just this, as a discipline. She has been reflecting on the prodigal son, day by day. She recently offered this poem:
“Way leads on to way,” he said,
and coming back
to try another road
is not how the travelers
of life’s lonely woods are made.
But the parable says,
if I read it right
(and I’m reading it rather
more than not,
this Lent of pausing
at the fork of things) …
Two roads diverge,
and then goes on to claim
that the journey back –
repenting a twisted path
of hurt and waste –
is usually the one less traveled,
and, sometimes, going home
makes all the difference.
What is it about those diverging roads, about looking down them, choosing, before we can see around the bends? When do we listen to our hunger enough come to ourselves, and start home?
“Why, why do you eat with these wretched people,” the Pharisees ask Jesus. “Why do you lower yourself to the company of scoundrels and lowlifes, who, by simple association, bring you shame?” Jesus responds with three stories, each ridiculous in its own way.
He begins, “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?”
Well, that’s an interesting question, Jesus. I don’t imagine many of the Pharisees were jumping up and down, “Ooh, I would!” How foolhardy to ditch the whole huge flock to go searching for that one lost sheep. What if they scatter? What if the wolf comes in your absence? It is an extravagant commitment to go after that one lost sheep.
Jesus moves on to one coin. Lost, somewhere in a house. The woman sweeps and searches, burning the wick down as she diligently combs all the possible hiding places. Finally, she finds it. And she throws a party, inviting the neighbors, all for one little found coin!
And then he turns to the story of a father with two sons, a son who stays and a son who leaves. The story of a son who grows so hungry he comes home again. The story of an absurdly lavish party.
These homecomings aren’t reserved for parables.
My mom wasn’t a church person. She was baptized as a young adult, but that didn’t translate into deeper roots. I remember a conversation at dinner one night, when I was a tween, when we were thinking about trying this church thing as a family. My parents tried to recall something you were supposed to say that involved trespassers and daily bread. They debated about how many forever and evers there were at the end. We went to church briefly, but again, the roots didn’t hold.
My mom was also an alcoholic. She had the bingeing variety of the disease. It gathered speed over the years, snowballing, as she wracked up DUIs and mangled cars and legal trouble along the way.
About a month before my wedding, a family friend called me. Things had taken a drastic turn for the worse. I flew to Indiana a few days later.
When I arrived, my mom was a mess. She was beginning to sober up, beginning to come to herself like that younger son. But she was still surrounded by the foreign landscape of a terrible binge, not unlike a pig farm in the midst of a famine.
By Sunday morning, I was fried, and was very much looking forward to catching my breath at Trinity, the little parish I had first called home.
But then, just as I was getting ready to leave, my mom told me that she wanted to come also. I was stunned. She went on, explaining that she had been planning on it, even before I had flown back.
So we went. My mom was cleaned up, but it’s hard to disguise the fact that you’ve just been through the wringer. I imagine the younger son looked similar on that dusty road.
Worshiping alongside someone so very broken was wild, a kind of embodied revelation. Her life and her body were in shambles, and yet here we were, sharing in the Great Thanksgiving.
My mom didn’t say much. She joined in, as she was able. Mostly, she quietly cried. But at the peace, and then as we returned to our pew after receiving communion, and after the service finished, people leapt up to welcome her home. Those who knew us, and those who didn’t, but who could tell she’d just been to hell and back. We were disheveled, and beleaguered. They welcomed us in, welcomed us home, with sincerity and without condition.
The Gospel that particular Sunday was from John. Jesus has returned to Jerusalem for the last time, they’ve feasted and washed feet. And then he teaches, simply, that they are to abide in his love. Abiding, as in, creating an abode. They are to dwell in his love.
Welcome home, indeed.
And that younger son, too, is welcomed home. This son who’s squandered his divisive inheritance on dissolute living. Which is to say, his ways dissolved who he was, they dissolved his relationships, they dissolved any decent manner of sustaining his life.
Famished, he comes to himself. He remembers who he is. The road diverges, and he journeys back, repenting on that twisted path of hurt and waste.
Still in the distance, the celebration begins. His father runs to greet him. He’s so eager to embrace this lost one that the son doesn’t even get to finish his carefully rehearsed speech! The father is already launching the party. Grace, wildly, unabashedly, lavishly offered.
But what happens later on? After the dust has settled on that road, after the revelry reaches its peak and quiets down again in the wee hours, after the dishes have been done and a new normal begins to take shape. What happens then?
Jesus doesn’t tell us.
Does the younger son stay? Does the older son ever join the feast? Does either son change their way? We don’t know. We only hear that in that moment, what had been lost was found, what had been dead was alive. They had to celebrate.
For my mom, what followed that homecoming was a mixed bag. She settled in at Trinity Church. She became a greeter, welcoming others in as she had been welcomed. And it was good.
But she didn’t get sober. She got worse, slowly, and largely hidden. I think she really loved being at church, and it fed her, and she was very sick. About three years later she died by suicide.
The longer I sit with her mixed up story of grace and pain, of homecoming and of succumbing to this disease, the more I am convinced that we get hung up on the wrong thing. We focus so much on outcomes and results and metrics of success. Even when it comes to God. It’s tempting to say, well, it’s wonderful that she was welcomed back in, that there was an outpouring of grace in that moment… too bad that grace didn’t work, in the end.
But it’s not just in the end that we see God. Jesus uses this parable to illustrate how God acts in the world. This father runs to a son who had been lost, as good as dead. He welcomes him home before there are results, before he’s proven that he’s going to live differently.
This father is just overjoyed that, in that present moment, he’s home. For that, they must celebrate that instant.
God shows up in our mess. God pours grace into our brokenness, without prerequisites or conditions or limits. Tradition has named this story as that of the prodigal son. Prodigal, which means “spending freely and recklessly, being wastefully extravagant, giving something on a lavish scale.” And yes, the younger son does this with his inheritance.
But the father does this with his love, his welcome, his cloak and ring and fatted calf. It’s not a wise investment, carefully researched, with certain returns. This is a prodigal God we have. God freely, recklessly, spends this extravagant gift of grace on us. It is over-the-top, and waiting for us whenever we come home.
This story redirects our attention, away from obsession with results and towards the complete welcome God offers us, now. It is a reminder that we will wander, again and again, and that we can choose to come home, again and again. And each time, our cleverly rehearsed speech will be thrown aside, interrupted by the urgent embrace and the welcome home.
Are you hungry? Famished even? Listen to your hunger. Let that deep longing lead you. Let it guide you in coming to yourself. Let it help you set out on that road less traveled.
Know that God will welcome you before you have your shit together, before you’ve changed your ways, before you’ve figured it all out. God runs to meet you, while you’re still far off. God sees no option but to celebrate – you are that loved. No matter the results, the grace of this homecoming makes all the difference. It is good to be found.