I wonder…

We don’t always give ourselves the freedom to ask questions about the Bible. We think that we should already know the answers and don’t want to look stupid. Or we think that we’re not supposed to have questions about the Bible in the first place. For a sermon on the Prodigal Son, I decided to offer more questions than answers. What do you wonder about this parable?

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

There is a Montessori-based Christian Education program called “Godly Play” that tells the stories of scripture and liturgical actions using simple wooden or felt props. A key component of this program is “wondering” language. Rather than focusing on correct or incorrect answers to questions, the leader invites the gathered group to wonder together about the story – what it might mean, where you might see yourself, and what it might tell us about what God is like.

In Godly Play, the parables are very special things. Listen to how this lesson intro talks about parables, whose materials are stored in boxes: “Look! It is the color gold. Something inside must be precious like gold. Perhaps there is a parable inside. Parables are even more valuable than gold, so maybe there is one inside.

The box is also closed. There is a lid. Maybe there is a parable inside. Sometimes, even if we are ready, we can’t enter a parable. Parables are like that. Sometimes they stay closed. The box looks like a present. Parables were given to us long ago as presents. Even if you don’t know what a parable is, the parable is yours already. You don’t have to take them, or buy them, or get them in any way. They already belong to you. You need to be ready to find out if there is a parable inside. It is easy to break parables. What is hard to do is go inside the parable.”

Parables are fixtures of Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels. There are 42 parables in all, found in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Some are repeated, and some show up only once. These stories that Jesus tells use everyday, accessible images and themes to help further illustrate a point. Sometimes, parables seem only to muddy the waters as we try to figure out what Jesus wants us to understand and take away.

I like how the Godly Play lesson says that it’s easy to break parables. One way we break parables is by forcing the characters to represent things they weren’t meant to represent, or by stretching a metaphor further than it was meant to go. Sometimes we assume we already know what the parable is trying to tell us, or we think that there is only one meaning to be found. Though it is uncomfortable, or may leave us feeling unsatisfied, it can be a useful practice to explore our wondering, knowing there is no final say or correct answer.

I spent a lot of this past week wondering about this parable Jesus tells. Will you enter this parable with me, and wonder with me? A man has two sons. The younger son decides that he is ready to leave home and asks for his portion of the inheritance. When his father gives it to him, he goes off and loses all the money in dissolute living. Eventually, things get so bad that he winds up sharing a sty with pigs and eating the pigs’ food to survive.

He realizes that even his father’s servants eat better than this, and he decides to go home. But before he can get all the way there, his father comes running to him, cuts off his apology and treats him like royalty. Before he can even say anything, his father is embracing him. There’s no questions, no demands, just joy. “There’s going to be a party,” the father declares, “because my son was lost and now is found. He was dead but is now alive!”

It seems the story is almost over, but we’ve forgotten about a character. The older brother comes back from his work to find everyone celebrating without him. No one has bothered even to tell him what’s going on. When he hears all this party is for his younger brother, he refuses to go inside. Why should his brother receive a celebration for doing terrible things, when he, who has never done anything wrong, has never been granted a party?

The father comes out and implores his child to come in, to join the celebration. And there the parable ends. We don’t know what happens next. I wonder. I wonder why the younger son wanted to leave home in the first place. Was he unhappy, bored, restless? I wonder if the younger son really meant his apology, or if it was just a way to get back in his father’s good graces?

I wonder about the father. I wonder why he gave up half his land to the younger son. He didn’t have to. I wonder if he stood watching the road every day since his son left. It says he saw him while he was still far off. Had he waited there, watching, hoping, that today might be the day his son would return?

I wonder about the older son. Did he realize that by hoarding and withholding, he too had squandered what he had? Did he ever join the party? Did he ever reconcile with his brother, or with his father? Or did his resentment continue to fester?

I wonder how we are like these characters. I wonder how God is like them. I wonder what this story can teach us about ourselves and about God. I wonder how you are like the younger brother. Have you ever felt tired of the way things are, wanted something new, needed to prove yourself? Have you ever felt like you’ve ruined a chance you’ve been given? Have you ever felt like there’s no way you could make things right again?

I wonder how you are like the older brother. Have you ever felt overlooked, taken-for-granted? Have you ever tried hard to prove your worth, only to get no recognition? Have you ever felt resentful of others, who seem to get all the attention even though they did little to deserve it?

But mostly, I wonder about the father. I wonder if we shouldn’t give this parable a new name. We know it so well as the prodigal son. But what if we called it the Parable of the Waiting Father? The Parable of the Forgiving Father? The Parable of the Father and His Lost Sons?

Because both sons are lost. Neither truly understands his father’s love. They both think that love is something to be earned, either by proper contrition or by working hard. They both think that there is a limited supply to go around. And at the end of the story, it’s the older brother that the father is waiting for. Waiting for him to come home, to come inside, to join the celebration.

I wonder, how God is like this father. Throwing love and forgiveness around with abandon. Watching, pacing, hoping for the return of the lost one. Not keeping scores. Not building resentments. Overflowing with joy. Desiring reconciliation. Throwing a royal celebration when one he loves returns.

Parables are even more valuable than gold, if we’re able to go inside them. I wonder, if we might continue to walk around in this one awhile. To see where it takes us. To see how it challenges us. To see if we might find ourselves in it. To see how we might be guided by it. I wonder if we might see hope and possibilities where we thought all was lost. I wonder if we might be able to let go of resentment and score-keeping. I wonder if we might join the celebration. I wonder.