Sede Vacante and the Parable of the Prodigal Son

Homily for the 4th Sunday of Lent (Cycle C) – March 9/10, 2013)

For the communities of Dignity/NoVA at Emmanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Arlington, VA and Dignity/Washington at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church, Washington, DC.


Sede Vacante

Sede Vacante

I feel privileged today.  By now we all probably know what the phrase sede vacante means. The chair of St. Peter – representing the special place of the Bishop of Rome within the community of Jesus’ followers – remains vacant and empty for the second Sunday in a row.  These days between the pontificate of one pope and his successor are rare and brief, and so it’s a unique time in the life of the Universal church. And, while our attention is drawn by media coverage to the Conclave of Cardinals scheduled to begin Tuesday in Rome, to the actions of a particular Cardinal who has opted not to participate, and to the views of potential future-popes and what they have said in the past about LGBT people, the role of women, and other church issues … we are still invited on this Fourth Sunday of our Lenten Journey to listen not to the media coverage of bloggers and bookies, but rather, to listen to and reflect on one of the most beautiful and powerful parables in all of Scripture – the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

And so, as we ask the question that we must always ask – namely, what do these Scriptures mean for me and for us today – the richness of this parable is so great that it’s almost hard to know where to begin. In fact, a friend of mine told me that one of the reasons this is not a favorite of his is because there seems to be so much going on. To get a handle on all that we can do what commentators often invite us to do, namely put ourselves in the story as either an observer or participant, and thereby come to some insight of our own.

  • We can put ourselves in the shoes of the younger son who feels that natural though somewhat exaggerated pull to seek his own life, doing so basically by telling his father he wishes he were dead, demanding now the inheritance that would only come to him on his father’s death. In doing this he turns his back on family and friends and home; and acts in a way that shows he fails to appreciate not only those truer gifts that he has been so lucky to have, but also fails to appreciate the gift of his financial inheritance, squandering his money (as this translation says) “on a life of dissipation.” And so, after failing miserably “in a distant country” and suffering the humiliation a Jew would suffer by feeding a herd of swine owned by a Gentile, the scripture tells us that he comes to his senses – literally comes to himself. Still burdened with guilt and shame, however, he decides to return to his father’s house not as his son, but as a hired hand, a servant.
  • We can reflect also on what it means to be the older, dutiful son; the one who has always done what was expected of him, always followed the rules and played by the book. On learning that his brother has returned home, however, this big brother isn’t happy and filled with joy, but rather is so caught up in his own world that he becomes angry and resentful not at his brother, but at his father’s generosity – so angry and resentful in fact that he refuses to enter the family home, refuses to join in the celebration at table.
  • Finally, and perhaps with the greatest difficulty, we can try to put ourselves in the shoes of the father – a figure who represents the deepest and truest expression of unconditional love – the love of a father or mother who doesn’t get lost in what his or her children have or haven’t done, who doesn’t get lost in the mixed bag of goodness and brokenness that these two sons show themselves to be … but who simply offers a welcoming and open embrace, saying “I love you… you are with me always.”
Rembrandt's Return of the Prodigal Son

Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son

Perhaps you are familiar with the famous reflections from the late Henri Nouwen in his two books, “The Return of the Prodigal Son” and “Home Tonight: Further Reflections on the Parable of the Prodigal Son.” His reflections were prompted by the painting of this parable by his fellow Dutchman, Rembrandt, which hangs in The Hermitage museum in St Petersburg, Russia. If you’re not familiar either with Nouwen’s reflections or with Henri Nouwen himself – I encourage you to become familiar with him. Nouwen reminds us that this is fundamentally a story of how God so loves humanity that nothing – absolutely nothing – can get in the way of that love. Despite the obstacles and walls that we ourselves put between us and God – God is always ready to welcome us, to embrace us, and to lead us home with joy and celebration.

As an exercise in personal prayer, meditation and spiritual growth during this Lenten season, nothing could be more appropriate than for us to do what Fr. Nouwen suggests in taking time in quiet and solitude to think about this story, reflect on the ways we can identify with one character or another, and learn what it has to teach us about how we recognize our own failings, yet even more fully receive and share God’s unconditional love for each of us.

There’s also the question, of course, of what this story might mean for us as gay and lesbian people – a people who so often feel disaffected from our Church and its leaders. Today the Chair of Peter sits empty. That chair, however, is not the only seat at the Table of the Lord.  For too long that Chair of Peter has been seen more as a regal throne than as the chair of a loving parent who gathers his or her children around a family table – much as I imagine the father in today’s gospel gathered all his household around a table of celebration when his younger son – who was dead but has come to life again – is welcomed home. Also and for too long our experience at the hands of Church leaders has sadly been unlike that of either sons in today’s Gospel. Instead of being welcomed and invited to come to the Table just as we are, we have been turned away precisely because we have tried – imperfectly perhaps, but with honesty nonetheless – to embrace our own inheritance as beloved children of God. By this time next week, I suspect that the Vacant Chair of Peter will once again have an occupant, a new Bishop of Rome, a new Pope who is called to be the Servant of the Servants of God. Let us pray that he, whoever he is, will have the faith and the courage to model his ministry on that of the father in today’s Gospel story, preaching the good news that God’s love for humanity knows no bounds, that there’s room enough for all at the Table of the Lord, and that those who’ve experienced rejection or abandonment will discover a table where bread is broken, where lives are shared, where burdens are diminished and joys are multiplied – and that at this Table there is indeed a seat for everyone.

(c) Copyright 2013 – Timothy J MacGeorge

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s