Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32: The Story of the Prodigal Son
The video referenced in the sermon can be found on youtube: The Artist is Present
There are a lot of stories in Scripture that are sort of blinding in their familiarity. Certainly, the prodigal son is one of them. You can tick through the stock interpretations pretty fast—we’re all sinners, God loves us anyway. No, we’re the older brother and we’re well-behaved but embittered, and God’s kind of a jerk. No, God is a jerk, but that’s because we’re worse, and it’s supposed to be about how limited and petty we are, which makes God look good by comparison . Everybody’s buttons get pushed somewhere.
Every time this comes around in the lectionary—and this is the third time, since I think we were in “C” the year I started here—every time, Marcia reminds me how much she hates the story and how unfair it is. And of course it seems unfair. It is unfair, if you hear it as being good being its own reward. Hogwash. Being good is fine, but it’s not just fun for the sake of it either.
The thing about a parable, though, is that we’re not supposed to take it at face value like that. A parable isn’t a tidy allegory where all the pieces fit together, where we can assign everybody a part and ask them to read out loud and enunciate clearly. I mean, who would you be? You’d be the younger or older brother at every other moment, left for dead because you’re so bad or practically walking dead because you’re so good. We can to oscillate throughout our hours, nevermind how much we change in a lifetime.
But what if we tried to stop reading the parable just about us?
What if we stopped, just for a minute, gleaning information about ourselves, looking for the judgment or the acquittal? What if the prodigal son isn’t about the son at all, or even the brother? What if it’s all about the parent, running through the field, wondering if his eyes could be deceiving him because the sight is such a wonder?
This week, I watched an astonishing video from a performance piece by Marina Abramovic. Abramovic is a superstar of performance art, the kind your grandmother warned you about, where you pay money to watch someone starve themselves for a month or cut themselves with a knife.
Having done all those things, in 2010, for 2 ½ months she sat in a gallery at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and invited anyone who wanted to to come and sit across from her. For however long they wanted, people could just sit. In silence. And she’d look at them. And they’d look at her, for as long as they’d want to. A lot of people came to see her and sat down and cried. Then, they’d put themselves back together, and then someone else would come.
I don’t know why it came around now, but this week a facebook friend posted on his page a video that came from this endeavor, now three years old, of Abramovic being surprised by her former partner, another artist whom she’d worked with, whom she hadn’t seen for over twenty years. They had been deeply in love and pushed all kinds of artistic boundaries together, but eventually felt called to go their separate ways. Rather than a final cardboard box in the trunk, however, when their relationship was over they walked the Great Wall of China from opposite ends and met in the middle, in order to say goodbye. That was in 1988. It was over, and they agreed they’d never meet again.
22 years later, in 2010, she’s doing her biggest show ever at the Museum of Modern Art. And all kinds of people come—whoever has the patience to wait their turn—ordinary people, famous people, all bringing their own anxiety and their own pain to the meeting, but largely anonymous. But then Ullay comes. He’s in his sixties, but well dressed in fancy jeans and a red shirt. Between visitors, she looks down and collects herself, and as she’s doing this, eyes closed, he sits down, stretches his legs as though to calm himself, and settles down. He’s clearly self-conscious.
And she looks us and smiles a little, and she smiles a little, and he kind of shakes his head, and the camera focuses on her face and she begins to cry, slowly, and it goes to him and he looks, and shakes his head a little, and then she moves forward and extends her hands over the table. And her hands are out, just for a split second, and you hold your breath and you don’t know what he’s going to do.
And he takes her hands. And everyone has been so well-behaved, but they all start to clap—they can’t hold it in. They have witnessed something deeply profound. And they just sit there and hold hands, and then he gets up and she covers her face with her hands, and the next one comes.
That is the moment that this parable is about. Hands extended, she reaches into space, not sure what will happen.
In the story, the son comes home, fearful and ashamed. He comes planning to ask his father to treat him as a hired hand, to give him just enough to live on. I am no longer worthy enough to be called your son, he rehearses.
But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.
That moment that is the prodigal son coming home.
Where there is so much reality, so much emotion just poured into this one moment. And all the crazy stuff, and all the drama, and all the time that Marina Abramovic spent being the premier performance artist of Belgrade and New York, those nights spent setting her fingernail cuttings on fire—all of that stuff just falls away. No longer worthy to be called anything, because the moment doesn’t call for naming or definitions. There is only the truth of a relationship that was so powerful only a landmark visible from space could contain it. And there’s redemption, and forgiveness, and no, they’re not going to go back to how things were—the younger son isn’t going to be put in charge of the farm, after all—everything has changed—but the truth of their connection has not.
So, too, the truth of our connection, God’s desire for us burning hotter than the sun, reaching out God’s arms for us.
This is how Henry Nouwen describes it:
"Here the mystery of my life is unveiled. I am loved so much that I am left free to leave home. The blessing is there from the beginning. I have left it and keep on leaving it. But the Father is always looking for me with outstretched arms to receive me back and whisper again in my ear: 'You are my Beloved, on you my favor rests.' " (quoted from The Prodigal Son, excerpted at Spirituality and Practice)
What does that change for you? Where is your heart moved toward love, away from judgment or self-satisfaction? For whom do you receive the gift of God’s compassion, believing it for yourself, being freed to offer it to others?
'You are my Beloved, on you my favor rests.' " Amen.