As I read these two texts in the Lectionary this week I wondered why they had juxtaposed the Parable of The Prodigal Son and the End of Exodus ? It didn’t seem like there was much of a connection. After I’d had some time to live with them I thought maybe it was because they’re both redemption stories? And then again, I thought, maybe it’s just that they both have happy endings? There aren’t so many of those in The Bible. Like Life, Scripture is filled with tragedy and irony. What makes life worth living - and The Bible worth reading - is the sheer wonder of it all. Who among us would rather not have been invited to the dance?
In Luke’s Prodigal Son we have the archetypal story of God’s Redeeming Grace. Grace that is granted freely. Grace that has nothing to do with worthiness. With Joshua what we have is a moment of truth for an entire people. A people who at that moment became finally and for the first time self-reliant. They would no longer supplement their crops with manna from a loving parent...and could no longer count on Moses or Joshua to channel God’s Voice directly. They would be making their own way.
Surely the journey these accounts are describing is the same journey we are on - as individuals, as a community of faith and as a species. Who among us doubts that we are at a crossroad? A moment of truth, when our choices will dictate whether or not the human race will continue to exist. I don’t think any generation has faced such a terrible moment before. There have been a lot of hard times and uncertain times over the course of our recorded history. Wars, epidemics, catastrophes, crusades, the blight of colonization and the stench of slavery and genocide. But none of them threatened the entire human race in quite the same way.
Today we are witness to a perfect storm of negatives . Faced with the imminent threat of a runaway Greenhouse Effect that we can only hope to stave off by working together as a global community - right away - most of us cannot stop fighting - or look away from our own reflections in the mirror - long enough to acknowledge the unimaginable gravity of the day that we have made.
Thought: Before you can save the world you have to allow yourself to be saved. How do you do that? God can only enter a broken heart. What does that mean and how is that accomplished? I think our two excerpts give us some significant clues and insights to that.
In the OT text from Joshua we find the Israelites about to partake of the fruits of their first harvest in Palestine. It was certainly a moment to celebrate! Imagine that you’re part of the company of people who were there that day. Think for a moment what you’ve been through. It was twenty years that The People were traveling through Sinai. And it’s likely that a lot of the people who made that journey are present at the harvest. It’s also likely that many if not most of them had lived as slaves in Egypt - as had their parents, grandparents and great grandparents. That represents generations of suffering. It has frequently been said that slavery in the ancient world was different from slavery in the modern era - somehow more humane - and perhaps in some times and places that was true - but I don’t really believe it. I tend to think that being enslaved is bad period. Let us not forget that Exodus opens with Pharaoh ordering midwives to murder Hebrew babies in order to control the Hebrew population because it scared the Egyptians to think that they could become outnumbered by the race they’d conquered. If Ancient World slavery was benign why were the Egyptians so afraid of their slaves?
At the same time we should realize that the freedom which Moses brought was not graciously granted by the Egyptians. It was hard-won. The Bible talks about the struggle between Moses and Pharaoh - which was bad enough. But in reality I think it was a struggle between two peoples who had lived side by side in a state of tension for a long time. I think that the uprising which Moses led wasn’t the only uprising. I think there must have been other leaders at other times who did not succeed, but who fought for their right to be free.
You might think that with God helping, the outcome of Moses’ intervention was a foregone conclusion and that most of the time the people should have been confident and relaxed about the future - but I tend to doubt that they were. I suspect it felt extremely uncertain when you were all lined up out on the road - men, women and children - whole extended families - waiting for the order to march - but Pharaoh was still giving Moses the run-around.
I think The Habiru were an entire broken hearted People and that is why they were prepared to let God in from the moment Moses showed up!
The Parable of The Prodigal Son is a story that seems to resonate for almost everyone. It’s a great example of a Jesus teaching moment that used a story about family dynamics to tell us a multi-layered tale of spiritual transformation.
Once upon a time there was a man who had two sons. The family was well-to-do and had a large estate. One day the younger son went to his father and said, I know as the eldest son my brother will inherit all this, because that’s the way things are. But what I’d like would be for you to give me my share of the estate in cash, so I can go out into the world and make my own way. His father agreed and off he went. He didn’t do so well. He started throwing money around the local bars, gambling and hanging out with fallen women until all the money was gone. Broken and defeated, he took to sleeping in the street and eating the slop that local merchants put out for the pigs that roamed the town. Then he had a revelation. He thought, Why, even the lowliest worker on my father’s farm is treated better than this! I should go back and try to get a job there as a common laborer. Which is exactly what he did. Now even though he was going home, he had no intention of letting his family know that he was around. He planned to hire on to one of the semi-autonomous crews that worked in that place.
It didn’t play out like he planned though. Because as soon as he got close to the house he was recognized. And before he could retreat his father came rushing up and threw his arms around the boy! He said, My son, my son! You’ve come back to us! Come and let’s get caught up. Take your time.. Put on something sharp, because we’re throwing a big party tonight in honor of your homecoming!
Everyone was happy that day - except for the older brother. He was feeling bitter. He said to his father, Why are we doing this for him? He’s a ne’er do well and a wastrel. He’s spent a small fortune and now that he’s broke he’s come here to get more. You’ve never had a party like this for me. Why? And his father said, Son, son, don’t be angry. Don’t you see? Your brother was lost to us and now is found. Our family has been restored. It is a miracle of God! I love you just as much! But you have not been lost. You have been here all along. Don’t you know I rely on you! Let’s go and welcome your brother and let us also pray that he stays, for that would mean he has been saved.
Do we see that both of these accounts are about a redemptive homecoming? And also that in both cases home is actually a place of the imagination and the spirit? For the Israelites this is explicit. They had never seen The Promised Land when they set out. It was a vision that had come to them from God via Moses and Aaron. For The Prodigal it was a little more complicated. He went back home but the home he set out for was not his real home, but rather a place of memory. It’s sort of funny to realize that in these two cases the goals reached were both the same and opposite simultaneously. The Israelites were home, but a new home and were celebrating becoming independent of God for the first time. The Prodigal also was home but instead of celebrating self-sufficiency was celebrating a return to interdependence.
I tend to think that we all try to follow our innermost desires, whatever those happen to be. We just don’t all get there. More commonly we lose track of what we really want and need. The Israelites had lost no opportunity to complain to Moses on the way to The Promised Land. Again and again they got in trouble with God because of it. They’d get discouraged and downcast and only when it was nearly too late would they finally remember to be grateful. The Prodigal thought what he wanted was freedom and fast times, but in reality it was a different kind of freedom that he craved. A freedom of the spirit.
TWe’re not all the same but all of us - every last one - has a place in God’s Plan. But living by that conviction is not easy. It takes courage, honesty and faith. And - more than anything else - humility and true gratitude.
These are stories about going Home. And I put it to you that Home is not so much a location as it is a feeling, a memory, a hope, a wish, a dream. A place where you are at ease. A place where you are known and accepted. A place without violence, fear or hatred. And I believe that when we live as we are taught by our faith we are changing the world for the better a little bit at a time until that hope that dream that wish comes true and we will know what it is like to go Home.
Once upon a time there was a man who had two sons...
And all God’s People did say...Amen!