I had the huge privilege of giving the sermon at my church this week. I got to pick which Sunday I preached, so I took the low-hanging fruit and chose the Prodigal Son. Here’s my sermon:
In the Evangelical Christian movement that I once participated in, this story of the Prodigal Son is almost always taught as a parable about conversion and salvation. If you were recently “saved,” than you are the younger son, and God is throwing you a party! Then, about 2 years after your conversion, you become the older son, listening bitterly to the testimonies given every Sunday by the new rounds of enthusiastic converts.
As a present day wanna-be Episcopalian and a Feminist, I’ve changed my perspective on this story a little bit.
Feminist theologians teach us to approach Scripture with what they call a hermeneutic of suspicion. This means that the most important question to ask of any scripture is:
What’s missing here?
I won’t spend too long on this, but it’s worth noting that, as is so often the case, The Prodigal Son is devoid of any feminine perspective. It’s a story about three men. It’s a story told by a man, Jesus, probably to an all-male audience. It was recorded by (or at least attributed to) a man, Luke.
Then we have two thousand years of this story being studied by men, taught by men to men, written about by men, preached by men. Any woman’s perspective on this story has arrived on the scene very recently, like a disheveled princess coming to the party after her chores are done, and it’s well after midnight, when everyone’s already bored and drunk. “Um, can I have everyone’s attention please? I have something to say!”
I get pretty riled up when I think about how unwelcome women’s voices have been in the history of the church. Which brings me to the next thing that I find missing in the Prodigal Son story: Anger.
Okay, we do have some anger from the older son. “I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends!”
In my evangelical background, it was assumed that the father’s response “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours” soothes the older son’s rage. It took me many years to admit that I find the father’s response lacking. It makes me want to retort, No, DAD, sit down, shut up, and listen! Thank God for that older son’s anger. It seems quite justified to me.
But the younger son. What did he say on his way out the door? Was it, “You’ve never really known me, Dad.” Was it, “I’ve never had your love, so I may as well take your money and go?” Was it the F-word? Repeatedly? Did he yell it? Did he break things? Was he mad? We assume that the father was righteous, a good father, but that might not be the case. The younger son may have had good reason to escape his household as a young adult, as many of us do.
Being angry is tough, for humanity in general, and I think for Christians in particular. As a therapist, I often meet people who have tried everything in the world to not admit to their anger. They unconsciously hate themselves rather than acting angry, they pretend their anger is actually something else (like sadness), they redirect rage into anxiety and then take a bunch of pills to manage it. (That’s what I do). Sometimes, confusingly, people will rage and storm and yell to distract themselves and others from actually admitting to the confusion of their own feelings.
It’s hard to be angry. It’s not comfortable. Women especially are socialized to not express or even feel anger. So, it seems to me that those missing angry words of the younger son could have been a template for us confused, angry human beings. I hate the prodigal son story for leaving out those details.
You might say, I’m mad at Jesus, or Luke, or maybe God the Father, for leaving so much good stuff out of this text. Hermeneutic of suspicion indeed.
At the point in my own life, fairly recently, when I began to express years upon years of backlogged anger, my former pastor told me, “Christine, God can handle your anger.” And I was so lucky to be given that message… Many of us make it half a lifetime going to church before hearing any acknowledgement that anger is ok.
But here’s the problem… A pastor’s promise that God will survive our rage, That God can “handle” our attempts to destroy him (like the younger son tried to devastate his father by leaving), actually makes it’s hard to live into our present anger. Because words , promises, are intellectual events, and anger— including anger at God, is a felt experience, an embodied experience, not a theoretical one. Anger is never soothed by intellect, as anyone ELSE who ALSO is married to an engineer can attest.
So, actually, I kinda like that the prodigal son text has some holes in it. We don’t really know if the Father was able to hear his sons out, to hold all of their rage towards him, and still whole-heartedly throw the party. He does, you’ll notice, run down the lane to meet his returning son, suggesting that the father, too, has done some repenting (or else, he might have stood his ground in the house). But the text stops just short of promising that “God can handle your anger.” Our anger is something we have to experience with a lot of uncertainty. It’s like the text invites us to take the risk of speaking our truth, but does not make any empty promises about what will happen when we do.
We’re about halfway through Lent. In my mind Lent is primarily about courage in the face of discomfort. We spend these 40 days pondering our sin, giving up things we like or rely on, and reflecting on our own mortality—all of which are terribly hard, and terribly brave, things to do.
So, while you’re standing bravely in your discomfort this Lenten season, I invite you to wonder— what about my rage? Is there anything about my family life, about this church, about my relationships, about God, that I’m not well with? Conversely, is anyone angry at you? Are you kids mad? Has your partner been trying to tell you something? Are you acknowledging the right of others to speak their truth?
Because while anger can be used to distract from what is true (that’s a different sermon for a different day), I think that more often it points us towards our deepest truths. These boys, the older and the younger, they take the risk of speaking their truth to their Dad. And the story suggests—- it doesn’t guarantee, but it does suggest— that true love and reconciliation are only possible when we share what is most deeply true for us. That God does maybe throw a party for our angry, suffering, rageful human selves.