Best Supporting Character: Part One
April 15th, 2018
As a jumping off point for this series of three sermons on some of the best supporting characters in the Bible, I turn to one of the best known parables of Jesus ... historically dubbed the parable of the prodigal son. You know the story, of course, and you had your memories refreshed a moment ago in our scripture reading. But, let’s capsulize it nevertheless, and move on. There was this father who had two sons. The younger one asked for his share of the inheritance. The father agreed and the young man went to some distant country and let it all slip through his fingers. So, in order to survive he became a pig keeper. After a time he realized what a fool he had been and decided to return home and beg forgiveness for his stupidity, which he did straightway. Well, his father welcomed him with open arms, forgave him, and restored him to full sonship, so to speak. Now, when the older brother, heard of this, he was furious and refused to join in the homecoming celebration, despite his father’s pleading. So, the story ends with exquisite words of the Father: It is only right that we celebrate. This your brother was lost and is found, was dead and is alive.
The central figure is the head-strong young man who blew it, but who came to his senses and ended up smelling like a rose. We love to identify ourselves with him because, well, I suppose because we hope that his would be our fate should we ever go astray as he did. A secondary figure in the story is the elder brother. He’s a kind of stodgy, rigid, goody two-shoes, who never did anything bad, but who probably never did anything nice or good either, as we can detect from the amount of rage built up inside him. He, of course, is troublesome and he does attract our attention. Then, there is the third figure in the story, the father, the waiting father, the forgiving father, and the forgotten father. Why do I say that?
Well, judge for yourself. When I read the story just a while ago, who did you identify with? The prodigal, the elder brother, or the father? I would guess that only a handful, if that many, of you saw yourself in the father. I don’t recall how many sermons I have preached on this parable, but I do remember that not once have I had the father take a bow. The father has been the forgotten figure, the supporting character in this drama, and he has all but been forgotten, and this should not have happened. He’s too much like us to deserve such a fate. So, let’s dim the houselights and turn the spotlight on the father.
Picture first the scene when the son makes his request. I wonder if his father’s thoughts might have been something like this: Well, it’s not what I had hoped, certainly not a wise decision, but everyone has to have the chance to do what he feels he needs to do within reason, and I don’t want to stand in his way. Oh, how I hate to see him go, but, if that’s what he wants, then so be it. And what would he have said at the door? Son, I wish you the best. Have fun but be careful. Keep in touch because we want to know how you’re getting along. And, if things don’t work out, there’s always a place for you here. And as the figure of his son headed toward the horizon, you have no difficulty seeing the lump in the father’s throat or the tear in the corner of his eye. Ah, yes, the pain of letting go.
Months passed and no word from the wanderer. I wonder if the father’s thoughts might not have been something like this: Why doesn’t he write? Why haven’t we heard from him? Maybe he’s ill. God forbid, maybe he’s dead. Maybe I ought to send somebody out to find him, but it’s been so long. Maybe I’m just letting my imagination run away with me. Everything’s probably just fine. He’s a bright boy, independent, able to take care of himself. He’s probably busy making money and hasn’t had a chance to let us know. Still, I miss him and worry about him. And then I imagine there were other thoughts, too, like: Maybe I shouldn’t have let him have the money, maybe I was wrong to let him go. He would have gotten over it. At least, if I had kept him here, he might still be alive. And if something has happened to him I don’t think I’ll ever be able to forgive myself. If we’d just hear something, anything ...
Then, one day it happened. The story-teller says that the father saw a figure appear on the road coming over the distant hill. Now, how did it happen that the father saw him so soon. Well, you know, don’t you? There hadn’t been a day gone by but what the father hadn’t stood and stared out in the direction he saw his son go, hoping against hope that he would return. How did he know that the figure in the distance was his son? You know that, too. When you love someone even tired old eyes can see well enough. So the story-teller says that the father immediately started running down the road to meet him. You can see him hurrying as fast as his aged feet and legs could take him, tripping and stumbling in the dusty road, picking himself up and not bothering to brush himself off. You can imagine the young man running, too, then the both, stopping an arm’s length from each other, just staring in unbelief. Then came the arms around each other and the tears and the how are you and the glad you’re home. And the young man saying O, I’m sorry, what a fool I’ve been. And the father responding, We’ll have time to talk about it later, but now’s not the time. It’s first things first. Welcome home, son. We’ve missed you so much.
Imagine the pandemonium that broke loose when at last they arrived home. What else but a party with the sky’s the limit, and everyone invited. Imagine the joy, the absolute, unbounded joy. Let’s sing and dance and eat and drink. My son who was lost has been found. My son, whom I thought to be dead, is alive! Ah, yes, that doesn’t take much imagination at all. But, every silver lining has a cloud. In the midst of the party the father realized that someone was missing. It was the elder son. Go get him right now so he can rejoice with us.
But, the servant returned from the field with the news. He already knew it, but he says he’s not coming. So the father went out to the field and is there greeted with the harsh words of rebuke and his passionate appeal to be reasonable is denied by the older son. You can imagine him trudging slowly back to the house and the party which has now lost some of its luster. What is he thinking? My God, what have I done? Evidently, I’ve taken him for granted, I’ve ignored the one son who stood by me and carried the responsibility of keeping things going. How could I have done that? How can I possibly make that up to him? But why? Why doesn’t he feel love and compassion for his own brother, regardless of what he did? Surely I’ve failed somehow to instill in him the things that mean so much to me ... home, and love, and family and forgiveness. I guess I can’t really blame him for feeling that way, but I can blame myself. It’s my fault. O God, forgive me if you can.
Perhaps you’re beginning to see now why I began by saying that has been a gross miscarriage of justice to permit this character, the father, to be forgotten, just a best supporting role. Is he like we are? I leave that up to you to answer. Is he like we would like to be? I also leave that up to you to answer. Are you able to see yourself in this story? Did you see yourself when the son made his request to leave? How many times have we given the freedom to be ... to our children, our spouse, our friend? Now, it’s something we wouldn’t choose to do, something we might not even think is wise to do, but we gave it anyway, perhaps for no other reason than person ought to have the right and freedom to be who she or he wants to be.
And didn’t you see yourself in the thoughts of the father during those long times of waiting in the son’s absence? How we kick ourselves, chastise ourselves, when those to whom we have given that freedom make a mess of things. Did I do wrong? Should I have put my foot down? Was I weak when I should have been strong? If freedom is risky, then giving that freedom is risky, too.
And, how about that reunion scene, could you see yourself there, too? Yes, I’m sure we all could. That’s one of those marvelous moments when all worry and doubt and pain is forgotten. Oh, we know that there will be talking and struggling and evaluating in order to really make things right again, but that’s for later on. Now there is only time for joy, absolute joy and nothing else.
And, then there is that final scene with the elder brother. Those are the awful moments of O God, I never thought of that. We concentrate so hard on the squeaking wheel that we neglect the other, and we find it hard to forgive ourselves. Yes, because so often we concentrate on making a living, keeping the household operating, being an elder or scout leader or what have you, and neglect the more important things like love and family and forgiveness. Oh, yes, we know about that, too.
Yes, the father, the best supporting character, the forgotten character in the parable is us. He’s really the central character in this story, so much so, that maybe we ought to call this the parable of the forgiving father. What do you think?
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