The story of the prodigal son is a very familiar parable – but it’s not one you tend to hear very often at funerals.
But as LuEtta and I were sitting down to go through the service for today, she was telling me a little bit about [her daughter] Pam’s life and her experiences. And when we got to talking about possible scripture readings, this story immediately leapt to mind.
From what I can tell, there’s some resonance between Pam’s story and the story of the prodigal son. Like the prodigal son, Pam set off on her own at a fairly young age to make a life for herself. I see in her a similar spirit of independence, a determination to do things on her own terms. She worked as a flag person for road construction for about 15 years. She also spent time working with animals at a business that specialized in pet training and grooming. Beyond these things, there’s a lot that’s just… unknown. There are the years in there when, like the prodigal son, Pam was simply off on her own, out of touch with the folks back home.
And from what I can gather, it sounds like some of those years were pretty rough for Pam. Like the prodigal son, Pam likewise encountered times of hardship. I doubt any of her jobs included working on a pig farm in a foreign country (haha). But she was away for a long time; away from the support of the familiar faces and places that she’d grown up with, the people that she knew. And it was a long time before the ones she left behind knew what had become of her.
There’s a lot of brokenness in the relationships in this story that is all too familiar. We have a tendency when we read this story to focus on journey of the prodigal son, but spare a thought also for the emotional ride that his father has been on – an emotional rollercoaster I imagine LuEtta might be finding pretty relatable. This son goes to his father and asks for his inheritance, which is basically a thinly veiled way of saying he’s too impatient to wait for his father to die to receive what’s coming to him. He cashes in and then peaces out. He leaves the family who loved and raised him completely behind.
In the meanwhile, this father has no idea what’s happening with this lost son for the time – who knows how long (one imagines years) – that he is away. It’s easy to imagine him feeling hurt by his son leaving, perhaps angry, perhaps resentful – it’s a relatable set of feelings and a relatable situation; we’re often best at hurting the ones we love the most. No doubt this parent worries about what will become of this child who has wandered so far away from the ways in which he was raised, from the community who raised him.
We as humans are no strangers to broken relationships; we’re no strangers to the complexity of distance in relationships where we expect closeness. We know all too well the complexity of loving one another both up close and from afar.
But this story isn’t just a story of distance or of broken relationships. What’s really extraordinary and beautiful about this story is that, if this father does feel any hurt or anger or resentment toward his son, we never see any of it – because when his son comes walking up, whatever else this father might have been feeling is completely eclipsed by his sheer joy and relief that this child he feared was dead has finally come home. He can’t even wait for this child to reach his front door – he sees him coming from far off and he drops everything to literally run down the road, to wrap his arms around his beloved son, and to get the party started to joyfully welcome his wayward child home.
We call this story the parable of the prodigal son, but in truth, this is isn’t the son’s story. This is a story about a loving father, a father whose love for his children knows no bounds. And this isn’t a story about just any loving father; this is a story about God, our loving Father.
While we can easily read this as a story about relationships between people, and we can see our own families reflected in this story, Jesus is really telling this story as a way of telling us about God’s relationship with us, about God’s love for us. God is a loving father whose love cannot be shaken, no matter what we do or where we go or how long we are away.
Even when we feel lost – even when we worry that the ones we love might be lost – the truth is that it’s impossible to ever truly be lost with God our Heavenly Father. That’s why I love the words of Psalm 139 and why I wanted to read it alongside this story today. “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? In the heights of the heavens, you are there; in the depths of the grave, you are there.” There is nowhere we can go that God is not. There is nowhere we can go that is somehow beyond God’s reach. There is nowhere we could wander far enough away that God will not be waiting to welcome us home with open and joyful arms.
Even when we wander over the threshold of this life – when our pathway through the land of the living comes to an end – even in death, God still holds us fast. And we cling to God’s promise that our stories don’t end here with estrangement and pain, with broken relationships, with lives cut much too short. This isn’t how the story ends
Instead, we hold onto this hope that, one day, God will welcome us all home – running down the road to meet us even when we are still far off. We hold onto the hope that we too will join together in celebration with all those who have gone before us – in celebration that all who have died will be alive again – in celebration that all the dear ones whom we have loved and lost will be found again in Christ.