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March 17, 2004
I know I said the sermon preparation eMo would arrive on Mondays, but I am a creature of habit, and this past Monday I just forgot. So today is Wednesday, and this is a meditation on the gospel text for this Sunday, which is the parable of the Prodigal Son. As with all the eMos, preachers and teachers are welcome to borrow, with the usual attribution.

I will arise, and go to my father....
Luke 15:18

When the Parable of the Prodigal Son comes up, preachers often end up talking about the older brother. He is the one with whom good churchgoing folk can identify, the one who has tried to live a good life and has done so. He is the one whose life looks most like theirs. He is the one whose sin they can confess in their hearts: sometimes I, too, begrudge the good fortune of others if I think it is undeserved. Sometimes I am jealous, too. What touches God's heart sometimes does not open mine: sometimes I hang onto my legalistic rightness, even after God has forgiven. The elder brother is the Everyman of the prosperous and good.

Preach it in a poor neighborhood sometime. Preach it in a place where people are half an inch from disaster, a paycheck away from homelessness. Preach it where people are homeless already. Preach it to a bunch of addicts. Preach it to people whose need is more naked than that of those of us who can afford to cover it up. Then you will find yourself preaching about the prodigal himself, about the guts it takes to stand up and say you've reached the end of your rope. No one in town is surprised when a mistake in judgment ends up costing everything; it happens all the time. And everyone knows that sometimes you lose everything even when you didn't make a mistake. That happens all the time, too. Sudden disaster that sweeps everything away, or failure that costs you everything. Those who have been down and out hear of the welcoming, forgiving father and his feast of restoration, and know that they need him. His embrace is the sweetest of dreams.

I'm gettin' a credit card, the young man tells me into the phone. Oh, no, I say silently. What sadistic bank is sending this boy a credit card? They don't know that most of the choices he makes are disastrous choices, that he cannot control his impulses. Don't know or don't care. He will fill the card with cool clothes and CD players and be thousands of dollars in debt in a matter of days. I tell him about what happens with the interest on a credit card if you don't pay it off each month, and I can tell that he really doesn't understand what I'm saying. He's just gotten on his feet again, and now someone is handing him something guaranteed to knock him back down. The card looks like freedom to him. The bank makes sure it looks that way. He can't tell it's bondage.

It is easy to slide into misery if you start out near there. If you start out needing almost everything, with no clear way to get any of it. If you don't know the things the prosperous know, the things other prosperous people who cared about them made sure they learned. The prodigal son had a father who tried to teach him things, and he wouldn't listen. He was prodigal. Some people don't have anyone to tell them how the world works, and they are fair game.
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