Leaning on the Everlasting Arms: A Parable of Fathers and Faith and Prodigals
Hope Unitarian Church, Tulsa, June 20, 2004 (updated here and there)
Rev. Ron Robinson
When it comes to media portrayals of fathers, we've come a long way from Ozzie Nelson. The other day on the TVLand Top 10 Dads of All Time, there was a tie for the same spot between two famous television Ozzie's, Ozzie Nelson and heavy metal Dad Ozzie Osborne. And I hesitate to say this, but…it is true that the truest biblical models of fathers of real faithfulness are more like the Ozzie of the Osbornes. Or maybe even more like Maura who was Mort, a character played by Jeffrey Tambor on the show Transparent.
Think of Abraham. His story in Genesis really begins history in the Bible. It is no coincidence that right before the Abraham story, there is the Tower of Babel story where people have tried to show off their strength and unity and become God-like, only to be dispersed. Then comes Abraham, whose heroic blessing is precisely that he is as far away from a typical God-like character as you can get. Very radical approach in its day, and still in our Empire days today, when "Greatness" and "Power" and "Winning" is claiming more and more of the narrative of our country and our country's would-be leaders.
The story was put together by different writers over a span of perhaps 600 years during times of triumph, of exile and slavery, and new beginnings. In the overall story, Abraham is old and childless when we first meet him and he leaves his father and his homeland--an outrageous act, a very prodigal act-when he is 75, then restlessly moves, getting caught up in a world war, changing his name, arguing and negotiating with God, exiling his first son, attempting to kill his second son, passing off his wife as his sister twice, and after his first wife dies marrying another and fathering another family, and dying at 175-a mere lad when you compare it to the length of life of the men who come before him in the Primeval History stories.
The Abraham story is important because it really stresses the everlasting importance of relationships and covenants above all else (this is something I wish the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam could remember about the Middle East). God's blessing and covenant and promises to Abraham come when he has no offspring, no land, and he has left the protection of his extended family. They come to Abraham when he has only his relationship with his family traveling with him and an uncertain call about his life's destination.
Even more striking, they come because of his relationship with strangers, his hospitality shown to those he does not know, because he was once a resident alien himself, a stranger in a strange land. In a final part of the story that seems little known, when Abraham dies, both the exiled older son Ishmael and the almost sacrificed son Isaac come back together to bury and pay respect to their father, a sign of reconciliation, a possibility we are still trying, some of us, to live into.
It would help the world today for those who at least trace their religious ancestry back to Abraham, and especially fathers and those who perpetuate the myths of the Great Father, not to lose sight of the essential message of the story of Abraham---of weakness and vulnerability and trust as true characteristics of what it means to be human and to grow relationships, and of what God's spirit truly blesses.
It is interesting how contemporary scholars have interpreted the story of Abraham's binding of Isaac (or of Ishmael if you follow Islam's version) to be as much or more a test of God's character and God's faithfulness than of Abraham's. Over and over the Hebrew word for see or sight or vision is used in this part of the story, and in Hebrew the name of the place where the action takes place is "Yahweh Sees," as if Abraham is going---See? Is this what you really want? See? Is this who you really are? See? Is this the kind of person, the kind of father you want me to be? No, so the story goes, no. Your arms are made for other things. But, of course, in history, the answer has often been yes, yes, that is the kind of Father-God we follow. That's idolatry in both directions.
Jesus' use of Abba or Daddy instead of Father evokes something much different, more in line with the Abraham model (which, as Jewish New Testament professor Amy Jill-Levine teaches us shows how rooted in his own preceding tradition and community that Jesus was, how he so often was not breaking away from the Judaisms of his time but shaping them and emphasizing them in new contexts). When I asked one of my seminary professors why most likely did Jesus begin his kind of public life and ministry and mission, he related it back to the probable absence of a father in his life, in a time and place particularly that to be fatherless was to be virtually abandoned and outcast. In such a situation, one could respond in a variety of ways such as trying to overcompensate for powerlessness and lack of honor by amassing as much power and honor as possible with which to show off and shield one's self. Jesus, instead, felt power and honor from being within a relationship with a more intimate God.
This kind of connection or something found and gained from the experience of something lost in a father is also part of a contemporary story told by the writer and seminary professor Tex Sample. He tells of how, in his attempt at sophistication, he used to make fun of the gospel hymn, In The Garden, with its lines about He walks with me and He talks with me. Then one day on a panel, after joking about the song's literalism and sentimentalism, a woman came up to him and told him the story of how, growing up, she had been abused by her father every day. And how she would then go outside and walk around and around in her yard singing that familiar song to herself-He walks with me and He talks with me and He tells me I am his own. She said it was that very hymn, and the relationship it helped create and preserve of a kind of Father on a scale that was much more powerful and permanent than the kind of father she had in her life at the time, that kept her from killing herself.
That different image of the divine and of fatherly depiction, one of healing and freedom and not abuse and oppression, comes fully to fruition in the parable of the Prodigal-again like Abraham, a story of a father and two sons. Let's hear it something like the original hearer would.
In the ancient world (and too often still in the postmodern world), fathers were rulers, embedded in a direct line of sorts of authority from God or Gods to Emperor, Governor, Priest, Village Chief. No humanity allowed. Their allegiance was to the one above them in the great chain of Being and their responsibility was to keep those below them in line with the divine status quo order of that great chain. One's very sense of themselves was connected (no connected is too light a word, was engrained in) to the history and the future of the family and the family land. The way they kept the order was through Honor and Shame and a heavy hand.
So one day a younger son comes to his father---the listeners already know there's trouble afoot because younger sons in stories are always trouble. And he says, in essence, Father, give me what I'm entitled to and Drop Dead. A sense of entitlement by children goes a long way back. Boy, goodbye---he's going to get it now, they think. But the father says nothing. He simply divides his bios, the Greeks says, truly his life. What a stupid father, they would think, no matter what happens next.
Sure enough, The son goes away, is on his own, a terrible thing in their eyes, and predictably enough, loses all. He sinks to the point where he would gladly eat what pigs eat, and pigs were considered shameful and unholy, but no one would offer him even what pigs eat. He was treated lower than pigs, had apparently lost his family, his land, his honor and his shame, and for all intents and purposes had lost his humanity. All he has is a hope of a relationship with his father, and not even as he'd had before, which must not have been too good, but as a hired hand, one who would slave for his father without any promise of any inheritance. Still, when you've been down so long that bottom looks like up….
Meanwhile, part two shifts to the father. He catches sight of his returning younger son from a long way off. As if he has been looking for him, pining and longing for him, amazing again. It says he was moved to compassion, to pity. In Greek it is that he was moved in the bowels, the pit of his stomach, what then was considered the seat of the soul itself. A very earthy and internal and bodily image, more fitting they'd think for a mother than a father. And as if to reinforce that image, the father runs out to the son. He doesn't wait for him to come to him, sitting on the throne in his house full of honor, but he runs to him.
The listeners are shocked. And this is a story about God's spirit? To run, the father would have to lift the hem of his robe. Another maternal image. And there he throws his arms around his neck and kissed him. That's it, they'd think. No wonder the younger son did what he did---look at what kind of a father we have here. No shame, no honor, and soon to be no fault. The son goes into his rehearsed plea, but the father cuts him off. It's party time. What has been lost is found, what was dead is alive again. Nuff said. The past that I have been living in, that has been living me, is now really past. The future is always what it always is, the future. Let's party.
What has been lost and dead? The relationship. It's like the phrase I used to repeat over and over to people in hospice---death ends a life, but not a relationship, especially not if the relationship has been the focus all along.Here is where the popular understanding and teaching of this parable often ends, in repentance and acceptance.
But there is part three, the real ending, the twist in the story. Remember the Elder Brother. He is out in the field, working, sweating away, fulfilling his duties. If anything he is living in the future, held by his faith in fairness that he will eventually, when his father dies, get what is coming to him. The listeners now find their sympathetic character, the one they can identify with. And, in Jesus' parables, that's exactly when the tables turn. If only he knew that isn't the way his father works, that, as many a parent has said to many a child, life's not fair, not about getting what you deserve, not about keeping score, and usually thankfully so. He hears the music, the party. Notice no one has invited him yet; he has to get his information from a servant who tells him "your brother" has returned. His father has not only scandalized the place by welcoming him, but has killed the fat calf.
The world's been turned upside down in more ways than one. Here the elder brother has been the one closest to the power and honor and now he literally finds himself the outsider-and the outsider inside. What does he do? He chooses, in anger, to stay outside. What does the father then do? Of course, to his new prodigal son, he goes out to him. He pleads with him, no honor, no shame, no fault. Just everlasting arms.
The elder brother rebukes the father. All of a sudden this son is full of the past, what he's kept inside. He says you do all this for this "son of yours,"---not you do all this for "my brother"---he has cast him out of his life just as his younger brother cut himself off before. And you never did this for me and look what I did for you. What kind of a father are you? The tension builds. Has the father now seen the error of his ways and will not let this rebellion go on, by either son? No, the father, who remained silent the first time around with the younger son, says to the older son, a grown man still, My child, my baby, you are always with me and I'm always with you.
In other words, we have had a relationship, have been in each other's presence and that's what counts, what's more important than all the calves. Have you not known this? He goes on to say, all that I have is yours. Don't worry about the future. Trust it; you will have enough, enough of me and our relationship, of what counts. Life is to be lived in the here and now, in the finding.
So the parable ends an image of a steadfast, loving, caring, always reaching out father, but a truly scandalous father, one risking his own image to his family and to his community, risking even his own understanding of his immortality. It also ends with questions of faith and trust---not with answers.
Will the elder brother stay outside the party all alone by himself and only revel in his feeling of what's just and right? Or will he too repent and turn again and follow his father's model of everlasting love in the here and now? What will happen to the younger son? The father has just said all that is his own is still going to the elder brother. There's no new material goods and inheritance for the younger son, at least not from his father. What happens after the party? What happens after the father dies and the elder brother comes into power? What kind of power will it be? One built on honor and shame and a limited amount of power so that you have to hold on tight to what you have and who you are? Or one built on relationships renewed and strengthened again and again and again because there is always enough love to be found? What kind of spiritual inheritance will be received?
Our Universalist ancestors loved and used this parable, and Abraham's story, for they believed in a God too loving, with arms so wide and everlasting, to turn any away, and eventually all would come in for the party, however it might be understood and realized. Like them, may we spread this truly biblical, truly traditional, nurturing image of radical fatherhood, parenthood, to a world that often still wants to box up and define and legalize the image and the role of fathers, mothers, of families, and of God.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=anhPfU3WGXk Iris Dement singing Leaning on the Everlasting Arms