Today’s parable does not come to a tidy conclusion. Joy mingles with heartbreak as this family responds to the homecoming of the younger brother. At the end of the story, we are left standing out in the field with Dad and his elder son. It’s a mess of big feelings and hard, unanswered questions. It’s a moment that is both tender and bitter. So much has happened in this family—so much water under the bridge, as they say. With party music pulsing in the background, the father pleads with his son to come and join the party.
Tradition pushes us toward an allegorical interpretation of this parable in which the father represents God. But what if the father was just an ordinary dad—loving and flawed? There could be a lot of truth to the critique of the elder son. It could be that father continually spoiled and indulged his younger son. A son asking for an inheritance before his father’s death was not unheard of. And yet, it was still the dad’s responsibility to decide whether or not it was wise to comply. I would think the father knew his son well enough to guess how he might behave—running off without saying goodbye, squandering the savings of a lifetime in a few months. When the father bent to the younger son’s demand for money (giving half his estate, or as the Greek puts it, half his “life”) this extreme generosity enabled the son’s bad behavior. Perhaps setting limits instead would have benefited everyone in the family.
In response to his father’s pleading out in the field, the elder son voices his long-held and deeply felt hurt. There’s jealousy and a profound sense of rejection. His father, he believes, always valued and loved his brother more. Dr. Amy-Jill Levine, author of Short Stories by Jesus, asks some probing questions of this moment:
What would we do, were we the older son? Do we attend the party? What will happen to this family when the father dies and the elder son obtains his inheritance? . . .What do we do if we identify with the father and find our own children are lost? Is repeated pleading sufficient? What would be? What does a parent do to show a love that the child never felt? (p. 74)
With the scent of fatted calf drawing them toward the house, the father recognizes that his family is not whole. He sees how his children have grown estranged from him and from each other.
It feels important to stay with this story’s lack of resolution. We know what it is like to stand in that field full of pain and alienation, don’t we? We know the frustration and futility of getting stuck in our brokenness even as we’re longing to move toward wholeness. Lately, I’ve found myself wondering, and having conversations with others, about how we are doing in the aftermath of the conflict we experienced as a church this fall. I suspect there are a variety of different feelings and perspectives. Some of us may need more time to process and grieve. Others might be ready to move on. So, how are you? How do you think others are? What sort of healing do you think is needed at this time and what would that look like, in your view? Does it happen through one-to-one conversations? Would some kind of collective ritual be helpful? What should be part of a covenant between the Board and the congregation going forward? What do members need from the Board? And what sorts of commitments ought members make to support their leaders, in turn? These are not rhetorical questions. I am really asking. Will you please talk to me about these issues in the coming weeks?
Reconciliation is a tricky concept. It sounds really good, as the Irish poet and theologian, Pádraig Ó Tuama defines it, to “connect again.” But what makes reconciliation possible, and what makes it a good thing? We’ve come to realize, for instance, that white folks have called for racial reconciliation as a way of side-stepping our responsibility to participate in a reparations process. Reconciliation should not be a mechanism to stifle healthy conflict. It should not be a demand to let go of hurt or anger on someone else’s timeline. And it should not be a way of excusing destructive or abusive behavior.
Ó Tuama suggests that reconciliation is nothing more, and nothing less, than good honest storytelling. He writes:
It would seem that it is always wise to consider how another would tell the story of you in relation to the story of them, and then to practice the complicated art of telling each other stories, and telling each other’s stories, in the presence of one another. This is one way to discover the possibility of conciliation, reconciliation, understanding, insight or knowledge. It is not fast. It hurts. It causes pain for those who are already in pain.
So reconciliation means learning to hear, to tell, and to integrate, multiple and conflicting stories into the story of who we are. I experienced this sort of revelatory storytelling a few weeks ago when I participated in the Dakota sacred sites tour offered by the MN Council of Churches and Rev. Jim Bear Jacobs. I learned that the Dakota are the only people indigenous to this land. That’s because their origin story is here; that is true of no other people. In the dominant culture, Rev. Jacobs pointed out, stories exist in time. Stories that happened long ago are less important and less relevant. We can separate ourselves from the painful stories of our past. We can evade responsibility for the wrongdoing of our ancestors, because we weren’t there.
In the native way of experiencing the world; however, stories are not bound by time. They are alive in place. Multiple layers of story exist together in one place. The place where the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers come together, called b’dote, is the place where the Dakota people hear the voice of the Creator. It is the place Dakota women would spend days walking to reach in the last weeks of their pregnancies in order to give birth there. It is also the site of the fort that establishes colonial supremacy and the ground on which hundreds of Dakota people were imprisoned and tortured and murdered. This story is alive in all of us who live here in this place. We are part of it. We are summoned by the beauty of its song and we are bound by its unreconciled trauma.
On this birthday of First Church (we turned 168 years old yesterday) I’ve also been pondering the story Rev. Jacobs told about how Minnesota became a state. Gaining statehood required controlling a large amount land and having a certain number of white men occupying that land. I do not think it is a coincidence that it was in 1851, the same year our church was founded, that the Dakota signed the treaty of Traverse de Sioux, ceding about two-thirds of the land in Minnesota. Rev. Jacobs told the long, detailed, infuriating tale of the corruption and deception that characterized this agreement. In the end, the Dakota people were literally left with nothing. In the drought years of the early 1860s, they were totally dependent for food on white agents who saw them as less than human and who withheld food that was sitting and rotting in storehouses because they did not care if the Dakota people died of starvation. This situation led to war, to the largest mass hanging in our nation’s history, and to the concentration camp at b’dote. In 1864, the US government permanently exiled the Dakota from Minnesota. Our government thought they had erased the people from the land that was their life. They intended to terminate the relationship between the land and its people. But the story, thank God, does not have such a neat and tidy ending. The story is still being told, here in this place, here among us.
Dr. Levine offers a beautiful summary of the messages contained in Jesus’ parable of the lost son. The parable, in her view, does call us to seek reconciliation. At the same time, it frees us to connect again in such a way that makes space for untidy endings, for unresolved conflict, and for lingering pain. Levine argues that through the parable, Jesus urges us:
Don’t wait until you receive an apology; you may never get one. Don’t wait until you can muster the ability to forgive; you may never find it. Don’t stew in your sense of being ignored, for there is nothing that can be done to retrieve the past. Instead, go have lunch. Go celebrate, and invite others to join you. If the repenting and the forgiving come later, so much the better. And if not, you still will have done what is necessary. You will have begun a process that might lead to reconciliation. You will have opened a second chance for wholeness. Take advantage of resurrection – it is unlikely to happen twice. (p. 75)
Last week, I was totally struck with curiosity and amazement when I realized that the lilac bush in our back yard develops buds in the fall. The photo on the bulletin cover shows one of the bushes’ budding branches. As I stand in all my own fields full of unreconciled hopes and fears—from those that are deeply personal to those that are global in scope—these buds are speaking to me. I am in awe that such a tiny fragile promise of new life can persist and even grow through all the harsh and hazardous days of winter. And I know that is how God works. And I am confident that the stories of reconciliation being told in us and through us are not yet finished.