March 27, 2022
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32; Psalm 32

This story is so true, has such resonance, that it keeps being told and retold in song (The Rolling Stones and Ry Cooder,) in art and in movies. Then there is Alison Jack who researched and wrote a book called The Prodigal Son in English and American Literature: Five Hundred Years of Literary Homecomings. There’s a project!

Today I risk being so bold as to retell this story one more time, not from a literary or musical perspective but in a way that Michelle reminded me is called “queering the text.” I want to read this beloved text through a lens that remembers that the bible isn’t only for and about straight, cisgender, men. I want to look at this familiar story through a queer lens. What we can learn when we wonder how queer people might read this story, how queer people might appear in this story?

So let’s open our hearts and open ourselves to this beautiful “lost and found” story in a new way. Let’s take it seriously when we say that the bible is a living text. Let’s see how we might experience the ways that the bible can be understood in new and life giving ways across generations, across cultures, across identities. As we hear the story from Luke, we will also hear verses from Psalm 32, from Jesus’ own holy scriptures.

Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven,

whose sin is covered.

Happy are those to whom God imputes no iniquity,

and in whose spirit there is no deceit.

We start by remembering who Jesus is with when he tells this story.

All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

This isn’t the first time in Luke’s gospel that Jesus hangs out with the “tax collectors and sinners.” Jesus seems to gravitate toward the people that are not welcome in the religious spaces, where the “legitimate” teaching goes on. But – what Jesus has to say is intriguing enough, and sometimes scandalous enough, that the religious power brokers are interested. They are here too.

And just like today, some of the religious powerhouses are afraid of not having the last word, of not being the last word. They worry about losing their prominence, they worry about losing their power. It is not because they are Jewish that the Scribes and Pharisees disdain Jesus’ teachings. It is because they are human. They fear that there may not be a place for them if they are not the first and most powerful.

So Jesus tells this group of outcasts – and power holders – this parable.

There was a father who had two sons. Things were going just fine on the family farm until one day, the younger son came to his father and insisted that he must have his share of the inheritance.

While I kept silence,

my body wasted away

through my groaning all day long.

For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;

my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.

The father was puzzled by this strange request but the young man was adamant that he needed the money. He seemed almost desperate to receive his inheritance. So the father gave his younger son his share of the inheritance. And the younger son got himself together and traveled far away, to the city. The father thought, “I wonder why this beloved son of mine couldn’t just assert his independence nearby. There is some beautiful acreage available just a few farms over. He could buy that to set up a farm and follow in my footsteps.”

But the younger did not buy acreage with the inheritance. He went far, far away, to where life was very different from what he was used to. He went to the city where he thought he would not be recognized and could start over. There the younger began to become their true self. They bought new clothes that they loved, clothes that were comfortable and comforting, clothes that reflected their true identity. They tied up their hair. They changed their name.

Then I acknowledged myself to you,

and I did not hide; I said,

“I will confess to God that I have been hiding,”

and you forgave me.

The younger walked with new poise and new confidence. She sought out and found a community that understood her in ways that her biological family never had.

It was expensive, setting up a new life, in a new place, as a new person – it took all she had and then it was hard to find work. So the younger turned to the work that many in her newfound community resorted to: sex work. She could make a little money – but she was treated badly. She was mocked and abused. It felt like being one of the farm animals from home. No, it felt worse, like living amongst unclean animals, eating from trash cans and picking through rubbish. But what could she do? She had made a choice to be herself and while it was good to no longer be hiding from herself or from God, there was also this humiliation.

Then I acknowledged myself to you,

and I did not hide;

I said, “I will confess to God that I have been hiding,”

and you forgave me.

The younger loved her authentic self. Really loved her whole self for the first time. And she began to wonder if perhaps it would be possible to go home. Would there, could there, be a place for her at home, with her family, as her true self? She didn’t want to get her hopes up too high. She might have to sleep with the servants, might have to be a servant. But this life was getting unbearable – and dangerous – for her true self.

While I kept silence,

my body wasted away through my groaning all day long.

After much deliberation the younger made the difficult, and brave, choice to return to her childhood home. She didn’t care if she had to be a servant, she had to survive. She wanted to live.

I acknowledge myself to you,

and I will not hide;

I will confess to God

that I have been hiding,

and you will forgive me.

The younger started the long journey back to the farm. She tempered her expectations but she did find comfort in a psalm she repeated to herself, believing that God knew and accepted her. Was her own father’s love strong enough to see her for who she truly was? Was her father’s love expansive enough to accept her?

Meanwhile at home, the father was still trying to figure out why his son left, why he insisted that he must go so far away, why it was so urgent that he remove himself from the family. He didn’t understand but he knew he loved his son; he loved both his sons.

He had begun a practice of going to the end of the road to look for his younger son, in hopes that he would come home. Every day he went to the end of the long farm road and looked into the distance and every day -there was no one on the road. Until one day, he looked out and someone was walking toward him. Someone he didn’t quite recognize but that seemed almost familiar. He began running to welcome this visitor, hoping beyond hope that it was his own son.

As the father got closer, he realized that it was not his son. As the father got even closer he realized that it was someone he recognized. Suddenly it began to make sense why his son had to go so far away, why he needed so much money, why he was so determined to leave. As father and child got closer to each other the father was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around his child and kissed them.

Then his new found daughter said, “Father, I hid my true self from you. I was afraid to be who I truly was. Now here I am. Is there room here for me to be called your child, your daughter?”

Then I acknowledged myself to you, and I did not hide;

I said, “I will confess to God that I have been hiding,”

and you forgave me.

The Father embraced his daughter, walked arm in arm with her toward the house as he called out to the workers, “Quick, get a new dress and robe for my child, the most beautiful dress we have. Put it on her and give her her grandmother’s ring and jewels. And she needs shoes, fabulous shoes. But that’s not enough, let’s have a party. Pull out the most sumptuous recipes. We must celebrate, for my son is dead but my daughter is alive, very much alive. She was lost and now she is found.” The preparations began and the celebration commenced.

Therefore let all who are faithful offer prayer to you;

at a time of distress,

the rush of mighty waters shall not reach them.

You are a hiding place for me;

you preserve me from trouble;

you surround me with glad cries of deliverance.

What a joyful ending to what has the potential to be a devastating story.

But we know this is not the end of the story. This next part of the story that Jesus tells, I really would rather not tell it. It is just too painful – and it continues to be true.

There was at least one important person who didn’t come to the party, wouldn’t come to the party. You remember there were two sons. The younger had an older brother who worked hard, especially hard while the younger was away. He had given up his own pleasure to keep his father happy and to keep the farm afloat. This older brother was none too gracious about his father putting on such a to-do for the wayward younger one. And now he was expected to say “she” and “her” as if “she” was suddenly a woman? “She” got all this attention when he had done all the work. “She” would be worthless on the farm. What use did he have for a sister? He was not going to attend this most absurd celebration.

He went as close as he could without going in, hoping for a chance to register his protest with his father. And then there he was, his father, coming at him with open arms, welcoming him. But the older put up his hand to stop his father. “No, I will not participate in this farce of a party. I have worked hard, too hard, done everything you have ever asked of me and you have not once given me so much as a birthday celebration with my friends. And now this “daughter” of yours, who is no “sister” to me, comes back after defiling her life as a sex worker and trashing our family reputation and you throw this party of a lifetime and give her the treasured family jewels?”

The father looked at the older with compassion. How could he make his son understand that there is enough love to go around? How could he show him that there was room in the family for both older and younger, that there was love enough for brother and sister? “My darling son, you are here. We are together, we will always have each other. But for your younger, there was so much unhappiness and despair. It was as if he was walking through life as a dead man. Now she has come to life, she is alive. She was lost and now she is found.”

Happy are those to whom God imputes no iniquity,

and in whose spirit there is no deceit.

Then I acknowledged myself to you,

and I did not hide; I said,

“I will confess to God that I have been hiding,” and you forgave me.