I find it really difficult to preach well known stories, like the Prodigal Son, which is our Gospel lesson for Sunday. Like most of the stresses in my life, I do this to myself. I want to say something profound about a story that preachers have been tackling for ever (Or, at least since 1928). I want to offer the congregation a fresh insight. I want to have something clever to say about a subject that we think we all know. I know it is all about me and my ego, but still, if you ask the membership of your average parish what is most important in a priest, preaching will be right at the top of the list.
So, on weeks when the topic is particularly daunting or well known, I often find myself standing in front of my bookshelf thinking,
“Which book will wow the congregation this week?”
This week, I pulled off the shelf my three go-to books on the Parables of Jesus from Dr. Yieh’s class by the same name. Schottroff’s The Parables of Jesus, Longenecker’s The Challenge of Jesus’ Parables, and Donahue’s The Gospel in Parable. I found myself drawn to Donahue’s take on the Prodigal Son story because he put his finger on my problem this week, how do you preach this story, in Lent, with an infant baptism at 10:45?
Donahue wraps this whole story up in the difference between relationship and slavery. Both sons see their relationship with their father as one of servant and master. The youngest son, as he returns to his disgraced home, wants to be treated as a misthios, a day laborer. The elder son, as he laments against his Father’s prodigality (another made up word, I suppose) says he’s been his Father’s dulous, servant or slave (n. 62, p. 157). The Father, however, isn’t interested in either. What he desires isn’t slavish rule following, but instead relationship. The younger boy he calls his huios, son. The older son, his teknon, child. Donahue goes on to place this in the context of early baptismal rites found in Scripture (which you’ll have to come Sunday to hear more about), but in the context of baptism or not, as we slog through the middle of Lent, I’m profoundly grateful to hear that God doesn’t desire slaves, but instead hopes that we will live fully into our identity as his beloved children.