“The Prodigal Box”

Homily preached by the Rev. Rhonda J. Rubinson

March 31, 2019   Church of the Intercession, NYC

Text: Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32


In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today’s gospel reading is the very familiar parable of the Prodigal Son. We are accustomed to hearing this story preached from the Prodigal’s point of view, so we learn what he learns, which can be summed up in the following few points:

Don’t be greedy for what’s promised to you before the right time (his father is still alive, so he doesn’t deserve his inheritance yet);

don’t squander your resources no matter how great (anyone can fall into poverty);

loose living may taste sweet at first, but has a bitter aftertaste;

people who are friends with you because you have money will flee from you once the money’s gone;

desperation may very well drive you back into the arms of the family you were trying to escape;

repentance precedes restoration, and

God (the father in the story) is waiting with open arms for you to return to the fold, no matter how far you’ve strayed.

That’s my “Cliff Notes” summary of the Prodigal Son. All of those are all worthy lessons to be considered during Lent, but there is more here. If we consider the older brother, who is furious and jealous of his younger sibling after his return, we see that this brother makes himself into the new Prodigal by cutting himself off from his family – including his loving, merciful father – when he refuses to enter into the joyous celebration to welcome back his brother.

Another good lesson, but I’d like to dig deeper into the older brother’s soul, because he has a problem that every one of us shares to a different degree, a problem that is worth delving into because it can harm us and others very deeply: the older brother has put his younger sibling into a box. He refuses to acknowledge that his younger brother has learned from his mistakes, has grown into another, better person, so he is now no longer the obnoxious brat that ran off with his inheritance and blew it to bits. As far as the older brother is concerned, the Prodigal Son is still and will forever be the Prodigal Son, a life sentence with no chance of parole. And the older brother ruins his own life while trying to keep his brother in the box of his past.

All of us have done this to others: near relations, current and former friends and partners, colleagues, even public figures who we don’t really know but believe we do because we believe both the images that they have carefully cultivated and the dirt that has been dredged up about them. This is a particularly virulent problem today because of the internet and social media: if you make a dumb post as a teenager on Facebook, it can come back to haunt you forever. Decades from now as people can do to you just what the older brother did to his sibling: attempt to define you forever on the basis of who you were at that stage of your life.

Now this may seem like a new phenomenon, but it’s not – people have been locking other people into lifelong boxes forever, and it doesn’t even have to be for bad behavior. Jesus had it happen to him: people who knew him back when he was young refuse to see him as the new Jesus once he is baptized by John. Mark’s gospel tells the story:

On the Sabbath Jesus began to teach in the synagogue, and (the Nazarenes said)  Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him?  What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’ And they took offence at him. 

In other words, they were saying, “Who does he think he is? Where does he get off coming back here and behaving all high and mighty?” The gospel continues:

Then Jesus said to them, ‘Prophets are not without honor, except in their home town, and among their own kin, and in their own house.’ And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief. 

The folks in Nazareth who “amazed” Jesus with their unbelief all knew him as a baby; they knew his family then and now, and they have all of them, including Jesus, locked into their “Nazareth community box.” They persist in thinking that Jesus is just like them, he’s certainly no better than them, so no matter what he does or says, they are not budging one whit in their unalterable judgment of him, forever.

Now this harms them – not Jesus – because they are missing their salvation, which is right in front of them. We similarly can miss the power of God right in front of us if we don’t allow people to evolve and change, taking up their new role in our generation’s world and in our lives.

Consider further: Jesus himself is someone whose self-esteem is undiminished by this sort of judgment – even though it had to have hurt him. The gospel says that he was “amazed at their unbelief,” but that amazement must have been mixed with the pain of rejection. For us, the pain of rejection can have life-long consequences, especially if we come to believe the attempts to diminish us, if we come to believe that we belong in the box into which have been consigned. This is particularly dangerous for children: parents who call their child stupid or worse are causing the equivalent of stab wounds in that child’s soul that often bleed into adulthood.

Every human soul needs freedom to grow. Every child of God is born with infinite potential, the capacity to learn, grow and evolve throughout life. The most serious harm that we can inflict on one another does not necessarily result from physical violence, horrific though that is – and we are seeing an alarming rise in hate crimes where people are assaulted for their ethnicity, religion, race, gender, or sexual identity, all boxes that can be used to define and diminish people – but we tend to focus on the physical violence rather than on the soul abuse, the deep interior wounds caused by such attacks. At the root of all such attacks is the need to dehumanize the other, because the attacker feels threatened by the presence of the “other.”

The harm from dehumanization increases geometrically when we graduate from putting individuals into boxes to putting entire groups into them: this is what is shaping not only attacks but policy decisions designed to target certain groups in an effort to keep them caged, sometimes literally. Anti-immigrant policies, racist attempts to dismantle legal protections and voting rights, cutting off funding to women’s health providers are just a few ways that we try to box in, corral, and control each other on a macro, rather than an individual scale.

Now we may blame our present abusive, dangerous, and hate-filled cultural climate on political leaders here in the U.S. and across the globe, but the current situation grew from roots that we planted much earlier. We can go back deep in the history of our own nation, even to its inception on the foundation of slavery, to explain how we got here. But that’s not the whole story. There is a remarkably prescient book by a British rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, that was written in 2003 in response to the world as it was reshaped by 9/11; in it Sacks fears that we will wind up in a world almost exactly as we find it today, 16 years after this book was published. It is called The Dignity of Difference. Here are just a bit of Rabbi Sacks’ diagnosis of our current condition:

The liberal virtues – tolerance, compromise, reason – remain as valuable as ever, but they cannot be preached to those who are mad with fear of mad with grief, and

It is difficult to talk about the common good when we lose the ability to speak about duty, obligation, and restraint, and find ourselves only with desires, clamoring for satisfaction.

Rabbi Sacks pleads with us to grow our faith in ways that respect, honor, and cherish our personal evolution and our differences, and he is very clear that only religion and not politics can create this world, one that in a different time the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called “the beloved community.” Sacks says, “Difference is where politics lives, but it is what religion transcends,” by which I think he means that politics either accentuates differences to promote hatred and extremism, or papers over our differences to the harm of our individual identities while promoting the homogenization of humankind. Both are deeply harmful.

There is a third way, but we must stop putting our trust in any world system or world leader to provide the answer. That solution requires that we look not to cast blame on others for the state of our world, not even to look at the mistakes of history to explain the current situation. Instead, we must look into ourselves, to identify and root out the idolatry of our own desire to be judge and jury on everything and everyone, and pray to God to heal that self-righteous sickness in all of our souls. This is what caused the older brother to become the new Prodigal, and when we do it to ourselves and to each other, we destroy ourselves and destroy the world. It is how we too become prodigals, cut off from our sources of sustenance, life, and joy: each other, and God.

Our faith is the most powerful thing we have – power does not reside in armies or weapons, in material wealth, in kingdoms, countries, political parties or rulers – it resides in our faithfulness to God. Lent calls us to reconnect with that power: the loving Creator who made us, redeemed us, and sanctified us, the God who gave us his Son Jesus to show us the way to health, hope, and healing. I plead with you, my sisters and brothers, for own lives and for the life of the world, to heed Rabbi Sacks’ call during this Lenten season. He closes his book by saying:

Only when we realize the danger of wishing that everyone should be the same . . . will we prevent the clash of civilizations, born of the sense of threat and fear. We will learn to live with diversity once we understand the God-given, world enhancing, dignity of difference.

Church, it’s time to allow others – and ourselves – to come out of the box. It is only when we free to differ from one another in sacred diversity that we and our world can begin to heal and grow into God’s beloved community.