Where Does Longing Lead Us?
A sermon on Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
[An audio recording of this sermon is available here.]
In her commentary on the parable of the man with two sons, Lutheran professor Amanda Brobst-Renaud, names a really important truth about today’s parable. She writes:
“one of the main struggles in reading this parable is that once we hear the words ‘A man had two sons,’ we quit listening…. The challenge of this parable is to keep listening, to listen to it again, and to be open to the possibility that it may say something new to us. Stepping into a parable – even a much-beloved parable – is like stepping into a river; you cannot step into the same river twice.”
I believe that one of the reasons that Jesus so often taught in parables is because of the capacity that stories have to teach us something new each time we hear them. But we have to be open to hearing the new thing – we have to step into the river again, not assuming we already know it’s currents.
In the case of a parable like the one we just read, the frame of “repentance and forgiveness” is so deeply linked to the traditional interpretation of this parable, that it can be hard to hear anything else. But, I want to try to open our ears to a new thing by asking a new question – of the parable AND of you.
You first. Here’s the question: what are you longing for?
We all have something – life this side of eternity is never perfect. Your longing could relate to your faith, or to your life in general. Take out a piece of paper and let your heart speak. Looking at your life, what are the things that you yearn for? Write down your longings, then fold your paper and hold onto it to give as an offering later in the service.
[If you are reading this sermon at home, I encourage to still participate in this discipline. Pause to think, pray, and name your own longings.]
OK. Now that we’ve all paused to connect with the longings in our own lives, let’s ask a parallel question of this parable. What does this parable have to teach us, if we read it as a story about longing? Let’s try to put ourselves into the perspectives of the characters, to step into their shoes, one after the other, and then step into the river of this parable, to see where the current takes us.
First, imagine that you are the younger sibling.
The story starts with your demand. A demand to be given now the property that will belong to you in the future. There’s an impatience in you to hurry up and get on with your life. To get to that future moment when you will finally have what you want. And, apparently, what you want is to get away. Or maybe its to get to a distant place. A place that’s all about enjoyment. About reveling in the moment, with no thought for the future or the consequences.
No wonder you didn’t want to wait for your inheritance. Delayed gratification is not your style. You long for NOW. For the satisfaction of every desire here, in this moment.
And that works for a while, maybe… or maybe not. Once you start scratching that itch you don’t seem to be able to stop. There’s a compulsive aspect to your revelry that isn’t necessarily about satisfaction. Maybe it’s more about distraction? Or just about more, more, more. An appetite that can’t be satisfied. A longing that never seems to be fulfilled.
And anyhow, it doesn’t last. The money runs out. And so does the food. And you are confronted with a different kind of longing…a longing for something to fill your cramping stomach, even if it’s just pig slop. In a life full of longing, you’ve never known what it is like to truly need, until now.
And hunger is a powerful motivator. It can motivate you to work where before you looked to consume, and it can motivate you to return where before you sought to get away. Maybe you have learned your lesson, maybe not! Maybe you are truly penitent or maybe you are scheming – still looking for the thing that will somehow fill that longing pit inside you.
Does it really matter? Whatever the reason, your feet turn back home. Your longing draws you back… and when you get there, you are met with welcome. It is an unmerited grace. And it leaves the question – can this welcome meet your longing?
That’s one current in this story. But what if you put on the shoes of the older sibling. Where does the question of longing take you now?
Well, the first half of the story pretty much ignores you. You’re mentioned as one of two, but you certainly aren’t consulted about the decision to split the property. The impact on you isn’t even considered. You’re just there for differentiation – someone to be left behind and ignored.
Is it any wonder that you long for a little attention? For a little acknowledgement of your faithfulness, your dedication and hard work? While your sibling has been off partying you have been slaving away, working hard every day. And NOT because that’s actually what you want to do, you know. You’d like the chance for a bit more fun in your life too. A chance to get away, to cut loose a little with your friends. You’re not a machine.
But you know your duty. You are always obedient. And whatever else you long for, your driving motivation is for approval. You do the right thing. The responsible thing. You postpone pleasure and frivolity in order to earn the acknowledgement of your good decisions, and your hard work. And if that makes you a little entitled… a little self-righteous… a little resentful… well, you have good reason.
And then, when the party finally comes, you aren’t the one being celebrated. The “prodigal” is the one who gets the party. Heck, you don’t even get any advance notice. You hear the noise as you are coming home from a long day of work. You have to ask what’s going on… in your own house. The place that you are supposed to belong.
All you have ever wanted is a little acknowledgement! You’ve worked for the right to be celebrated. And instead you’re told… well, you’re invited to join the party. But not as the honored guest, just as one of the celebrants.
You have wanted to belong, to be part of the celebrating… but can you give up your longing to earn a place of honor in order to join? Or is your longing more precious to you than the celebration?
One more set of shoes to try on – the shoes of the parent.
And, of course, to be a parent is to know longing. You long for your children’s health and joy and growth. And then, when they are grown, you long for them to be… not quite so grown. Not quite so independent and separate. Heading off to distant lands, and who knows when you’ll see them again.
Maybe you secretly long for the famine... for the circumstances that will bring your child home. You don’t want them to suffer, of course, but it’s hard to be so completely unneeded, after all the time, and care, and love you have invested. It doesn’t feel very good to just be thrown away.
But there’s nothing you can do about it. Other than, maybe brood a little. You stand and stare at the horizon, longing for the thing you don’t know if you will ever see. Your child, your legacy come home again. Still needing you. Still affirming that you have something to give.
And then, it happens! The small, fuzzy form in the distance that no one else would recognize, but you have been longing for that sight since the day they left.
And you run, and embrace, and call for a celebration. You are so overwhelmed with happiness that your longing has finally been satisfied. Your joy is deep and true, but also, maybe a little unrealistic?
Because there are still broken relationships in your family. And what happens after the party? After the food is gone, and the dancing stops? Will either of your children actually change? And is still needing you really what is best for them?
Or will tomorrow bring another longing?
To be alive is to experience longing. St. Augustine famously wrote: “You made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in you.” Longing is not something that we can ever escape in this life because it’s a reflection of our spiritual reality – the reality that we were made to find our ultimate fulfillment in union with God, and that’s something we can only get glimpses of this side of eternity.
But longing doesn’t have to bring us to despair. Longing can lead us down either good or bad paths.
Our longings can drive us away from the places we belong, or they can lead us home.
They can create resentments and broken relationships, or they can call us into reconciliation.
They can leave us feeling helpless, or they can get us moving – to offer welcome and to host the celebration.
We’ll never eliminate our longings, but that isn’t the end of the story. This story is a parable, and that means that we are the ones who have to provide the resolution.
To decide whether we will be driven by our longings, or led by them to find what we really need.
To decide whether we will value our own needs or rights above the restoration of others.
To decide whether we will long for the thing we can’t control and be paralyzed by that longing.
Or, perhaps most important of all, to decide whether we can open our arms in a welcome that is not conditional on whether our own longings are met.
The final scene of the story is a party. And we are invited inside… longings and all. To be welcomed by our God and to share in the celebration for all of the lost being found.
Thanks be to God.