Not long ago, I read a story online about a man who, after one too many nights of one too many drinks, finally got banned from a local bar in his hometown.
It was somewhere in North Dakota, I think.
“Get out of here, Kenny, and don’t come back,” said the bartender.
Apparently, maybe a little surprisingly, Kenny listened.
In fact, shortly after that, he left town for good.
He stayed away for more than thirty years. Grew up. Got his act together.
Finally, after all that time, Kenny was back in town for a visit and was checking out some of his old haunts.
He walks back into the bar all these years later.
And as soon as he comes in, someone says, “Kenny, for the last time, I told you not to come back here.”
People who grew up in small towns will tell you that, in those communities, memories can be long.
This may well have been true of the community that the Prodigal Son called home.
We know the story of his warm reception.
The father who sees him at the edge of town and runs to greet him….who instacarts a whole party from his cell phone as they’re walking back to the house, arm in arm.
Running like that was considered somewhat undignified for a man at that time.
We tend to interpret as a heart-warming signal of love’s little indignities, directed here toward the son who has been given up for dead, only to turn back up, alive after all.
There is also another possibility.
As we said, in small towns, memories can be long.
And there is some indication that, at the time of Jesus, the Prodigal Son might have received a very different kind of reception.
Known as a gesasah, in this ceremony (if we can call it that), local townspeople would encounter a returning ne’er do well, particularly one who had married an immoral woman or lost money to gentiles and run off.
They would stop him at the edge of town, then break clay jars with burned corn or nuts (I don’t get why it would have been those, specifically), and excommunicate him from the village once and for all.
I couldn’t find very much about gesasah, so it’s hard to say how widespread the practice would have been, or how it really went.
But I know that memories can be long.
That makes me wonder if part of the reason that the father starts running the moment he sees the Prodigal Son return, then whips together a party for the whole town, is that he’s trying to head off this angry, threatening ritual of permanent excommunication.
That kind of gesture would have come at little cost to the people of the town, who would have morphed from neighbors and extended kin into mob at that point—and felt all the closer to one another for it.
But it would have left the Prodigal and his family unable to move toward actual reconciliation among themselves.
The gates of the village might as well have been the Berlin Wall for them at that point.
I say that because we often read this parable as an account of the endless forgiveness and patience of God.
This is problematic for us because it seems to be saying that God simply and unilaterally forgives, no matter what, which doesn’t fully square with our commitment to fairness.
How can the world hope to get better if learning from our mistakes is not a value that matters?
And so we often find ourselves quite sympathetic to the older brother in the parable, who nobody has apparently even thought to alert about the younger brother’s return.
It all happens so fast that the first the older brother learns about it is when he’s coiling up the hoses out in the fields with a work crew, and he hears the bass thumping from back in the house, playing—ominously—his brother’s favorite song.
As if his father, who likes Puccini, is suddenly going to crank it in the living room for “I Like To Move It.”
In that moment, out of nowhere, the older brother knows.
He just knows.
Most of us would, too.
We understand the anger that he feels.
And so when he sits outside on the fence, disgusted, arms folded, not sure if he’s more mad at his father the doormat or at his neighbors for just falling for a fatted calf and a vaguely humbled brother, we get it.
Yet again, this younger brother and his travails, his challenges, his tiniest little signs of accepting accountability have taken over the day. The month. The year.
What’s getting in the Christmas letter? This. Articulated in the most diplomatic of ways, so as not to offend the sensibilities of the Prodigal Son, on the offhand chance he should read it, which he never does.
The story almost seems to suggest that, for the umpteenth time, the only story that matters in this family is the Prodigal’s.
Say what you want about this parable, it’s not pretending as if forgiveness is easy to offer or even deserved.
When the Prodigal is first heading home, rehearsing the speech he will offer his father when he gets there, it’s not clear that he has actually changed.
There is a world of difference between the anguished, “What can I tell my parents?” and the calculating, “What can I tell my parents?”
The story leaves it up to us to decide which one it is.
It puts us in the father’s position.
In light of that, although we call this story the “Parable of the Prodigal Son,” as if the growth is only his, I’m not sure that’s really the best name for it.
It might be more true to say that the story is the Parable of the Hopeful Father—the father who must decide so many things, almost at once.
He must decide what to do even before he hears what the Prodigal has to say for himself.
He must decide what make of these words—this carefully rehearsed speech.
Perhaps most of all, he must decide what will happen tomorrow…what will happen when the dawn brings another day in fields that need tending, among neighbors who need greeting, for a future that needs building.
In that sense, I wonder if, most of all, it’s a story about the father…and if maybe it’s about how challenging it is to persevere in love.
Because the risk isn’t deciding to go home and face the music.
If the son was facing gesasah, certain rejection, he’d probably just stay there in the mud with the pigs.
The risk is the father’s.
The risk is in deciding not to cut off this child who, up to this point, has done everything to cut him off—and who has pretty much deserved everything he’s brought upon himself.
It would have been so easy to let the neighbors handle the formalities of excommunication, to hide behind the ways of the village.
He doesn’t do that.
Instead, he decides to love this prodigal boy, even with everything that he’s done.
With that in mind, what the story leaves powerfully ambiguous is what happens next.
Because what happens next is the moment when truth intervenes…or doesn’t.
It’s the moment when what love requires will ask something new of them all, or when they’ll all just settle back into their customary chairs and wait for the inevitable moment when Prodigal nonchalantly asks if he can borrow the car.
Faith doesn’t call us to persevere in our commitment to sentimentality or our preferred narratives of what our lives should be.
It understands love to be much deeper—and frankly, much more active—because we need each other far more than we may care to admit.
Figuring out how to balance those needs isn’t a one-and-done proposition.
It’s the work of our lives.
And it’s hard work.
Which is why we can only hope to do it with God’s help.
When Jesus looks down from the cross and says, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” he says it so that we might learn to see ourselves more clearly—so that we might be different than those people.
He calls us to be people who can offer forgiveness in the light of truth, because it is only in the light of truth that forgiveness has the power of redemption.
The prayer of our life together is that we will find in one another and in God the strength to life truthfully, and so, redemptively, not just once, but “through all the chances and changes of this life.”
Like the father in the parable, we must learn to persevere.
When the father throws that party for the Prodigal Son, much of the truth remains unspoken.
Forgiveness and redemption remain poised to happen, but they have not happened yet.
It is for us to decide what happens next—I think because, so often, it is for us to decide what happens next, and Jesus wants us to handle that with care.
Loving one another can be hard work.
As so many of us know, memories can be awfully long.
Yet in God there is always the promise of a new day, and the terror and bewilderment of being lost recede before the grace and peace of being found.
May we always be on the lookout for the ones appearing on the horizon, and always humbled by the wisdom of learning to love them well. AMEN.