Shaped By Second Chances
To a large degree, to call the passage before us today The Parable of the Prodigal Son, as we so often do, is to miss the fact that this is the tale of not one but of three people who are struggling to find their way. Without question, it is most clearly the tale of a son, the younger of two boys, who has disrespected his father, made one bad decision after another and squandered a large amount of money in the process. In fact, even as he comes home, one must wonder if his motives are pure? Did he return because he was ashamed and repentant? Or, did he return only because it was an act of last resort? The truth is that we’ll never know.
Having said that, this is also the story of an older brother who is extremely angry and to a certain degree justifiable so. His brother keeps doing all of the wrong things while continuing to garner the bulk of their father’s love and resources. And, evidently it isn’t bad enough that the younger son has squandered his entire share of the family fortune. But, now, by returning home and receiving the father’s care, he now will begin the process of burning through more of the family’s finances. In spite of how justifiable the older brother’s anger may be, however, we must admit that it is anger that is consuming him. In his quest to destroy his younger brother this elder sibling is destroying himself. He too has lost his way.
Further, we also have to say that their father is in a similar albeit different boat. What he discovers is that neither son has responded in the appropriate way or in the way he had hoped which calls into question what they had been taught or what sort of foundation he had laid for them. One acts out of reckless abandon and the father appears ready to bail him out every time. The other acts out of moral superiority and the father struggles to help him see a better way of treating his brother. In both relationships, the father is apparently struggling too.
For the entire world – not one of them, but rather all three of them appear in need of the chance to begin again. In turn, I think that their stories are offered to us in such bold and clear detail in hopes that as we stumble into their world we might find our own stories alive and well within theirs.
Just this past week, I listened to a fascinating interview with Julian Fellowes. If you are a fan of the show Downton Abbey then you will recognize his name. Fellowes is the creator of the show and he has written every episode of the series that is beloved by watchers all over the world.
Downton Abbey comes to an end in the United States tonight after six seasons with a final episode and that interview with Fellowes was centered on looking back over the long run of the show. What caught my attention in the interview was Fellowes’ observation in terms of something that he learned after some of the most griping moments in the show.
When one of the primary characters died while in childbirth and her parents and siblings had to deal with her loss in one of the episodes, Fellowes unexpectedly received countless letters from folks who had lost children or siblings of their own in awful or tragic ways.
In a different episode, when another character is raped, again letters poured into Fellowes from people all around the world who had lived through a horrific and similar experience in their lives.
In a way that Fellowes was not prepared for, all types of people from various walks of life began to see themselves in these fictional characters and relived their own lives through these same figures. They wanted Fellowes to know how these powerful and meaningful moments in the show had helped them to come to terms with their own existence and life experiences. (As heard in a interview on the Podcast “Masterpiece Studio” from Sunday, February 28, 2016)
I have a strong sense that the story of the three prodigals, if you will, can and often does have the same effect on our own lives. Without question, it can aid us in putting our lives into perspective and it helps us to come to terms with who and where we are in life’s journey too.
On the one hand it does this by helping us to see ourselves as one of these three characters right now and at this very moment as people just like them who are equally in need of a fresh start, second chance or the opportunity to begin again.
Do you remember being a child and playing a sport, board game or engaging in some other competitive activity with your parents? When you didn’t win, the childhood response was almost always the same – “let’s play one more time” we would often say. Our naive, childhood perspective was that this time, we would be more prepared, more precise and more aware of what to do differently – this time we would win.
Unfortunately in life, there is not such thing as “let’s play again”. No, we either get it right or we don’t. I hate to be blunt, but we either win or we lose or at least that is how we often feel or often how we are made to feel. But the wondrous side of God is that this childhood opportunity to “play again” truly is granted to us. We call it grace, forgiveness, a second chance and through Christ this isn’t a fantasy or a fiction.
In this parable, what we see offered from the father to the younger son is also available to the older brother and in way to the father himself though they simply may not know it fully yet in the story. They all need to have the opportunity to try again, to start over, to have a second chance.
After all, let us not forget how this parable emerges to begin with. Chapter 15 of Luke starts with the Pharisees asking Jesus why he spends time with sinners. This story and the other two parables in Luke 15 like it are Jesus’ response. They are all about forgiveness, but this one goes to the very depths of the subject. It is Jesus’ way of saying, “listen, the reason I want to spend time with such notorious folks is because they deserve a chance to try again at this life that they have failed so miserable in the first time. And, whether the Pharisees knew it or not, they would need the same at some point too.
I know it sounds crazy – but, God offers the same to each of us. You don’t have to understand fully or to comprehend the depths of God’s love. You simply have to embrace it and accept the opportunity.
On the other hand, seeing ourselves in these same characters helps us to see ourselves as those who need to offer second chances to others. It is really very simple – the more we are able to see ourselves as similar to one another not different, the more we begin to get to know one another/not regard one another as strangers, the more we realize the human struggle and our struggle are one and the same, the more we are willing to extend grace to one another.
For some reason, we like to see ourselves as worthy of God’s grace and others as unworthy. Sort of like the older brother in the story – we are completely unable to recognize that we all have the same issues that simply manifest themselves in different ways – some of us doing wild things and others of us become arrogant and hateful toward others because we didn’t do wild things. Either way, we are all the same. In turn, if we need the love of God and the second chances of God – and we all know that we do – then others need it to. That is why I think it is so good that there are three people who have a need for a new beginning in this parable and it is also good that their need for fresh starts are all different and are a result of different three different issues. For the presence of different people and different issues means that there is wideness in this story that gives us the latitude to find ourselves and others here too.
This past week, I heard a story that I found very informative and true to life. It was a story from 2014 about a baseball player by the name of Robinson Cano. At the time, Cano had played for several years with the New York Yankees and had been very successful. One day, he was offered a trade to the Seattle Mariners and he took it. In the end, the fans in New York felt betrayed and that Cano had left simply for no other reason than that Seattle was offering more money.
That summer of 2014, when Seattle came to play in New York and when Cano came back to Yankee Stadium for the first time, late night comedian and New Yorker Jimmy Fallon convinced him to participate in a little stunt. Fallon sat up cardboard cutout of Cano in Manhattan. As fans came by, Fallon invited them to stop and boo at the image of Cano. They could yell at his image and let him know what they thought. As they did, though, the real Robinson Cano emerged each time from behind the cardboard cutout to greet his accuser in person.
Interestingly, in almost every instance, when they came face to face with the real person, when they were in his presence, they stopped booing. Instead, they thanked him for his years in New York, shook his hand and some even gave him a hug. His being a part of their life changed everything. (The Tonight Show, April 28, 2014)
We all deserve a second chance. Others do too. May we see ourselves in this story and as we do, may we also recognize the powerful gift that we can offer each other for we are all the same if we would only see it. Amen.