In the beautiful fifteenth chapter of St. Luke's Gospel we hear Jesus telling parables about God. In imagery that is common to his day and yet somehow startling, Jesus tells three stories which show us that God is intensely interested in finding lost souls. Two of these occur immediately before the story which we have just heard. In the first, God is portrayed as an impetuous shepherd who seeks a lost sheep even though that means leaving 99 other sheep behind in the dangerous wilderness. The old maxim, "a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush," seems not to apply to God, at least where lost souls are concerned. In the second story, God is portrayed as a woman who frantically searches the house for a lost coin. Each of us has, at one time or another, pulled the couch away from the wall in search of a lost coin, pen, or cat toy. Yet this is definitely not an activity which we would normally think to use as a metaphor for God's work in the world.
All of which brings us to today's Gospel reading, the third in this progression of stories. Traditionally, this story is known as the "Parable of the Prodigal Son." Christians have cherished it for centuries as a story of our ability to repent and God's willingness to forgive.
Of course parables, by their very nature, tell us more than we first realize. For example, what kind of father divides and distributes his property before he dies? Further, in a succession of stories through which God is proclaimed as One who is intensely interested in finding lost souls, why in this story does the god figure engage in an activity which will facilitate one soul's wandering? Clearly this story raises as many questions as it answers.
I believe that this parable tells us about more than God's willingness to forgive. I believe it tells us that God has two responses to two fundamental types of human spirituality. It's not just that God is willing to forgive, rather it is that God has something specific and important to say to both brothers, each of whom represents a spiritual predilection which we may well find in ourselves and our community. When it comes to the life of the spirit, some go on a journey and some tend the garden.
Yes, some go on a journey and some tend the garden.
In our parable today, the first brother we encounter is definitely a journeyer. Journeyers tend to look before they leap and rush out into the world to slay dragons. What they often end up slaying, however, is their own false notions of themselves. That's the up side of being a journeyer; slaying your own false notions of yourself. The down side is that journeyers tend to do important spiritual work in the most brutal or dangerous ways. It is possible to go on the hero's journey and return with something good for the entire community. It is also possible to go on a journey that is merely self-absorbed and self-destructive. Even so, journeyers seem to need to go on their journeys and perhaps this is why the father in our parable so willingly facilitates his son's ill-fated adventure.
The second brother we encounter is definitely a gardener. Gardeners like cycles and repetition. Those who tend gardens give themselves over to the meditative quality of repetitive work. Gardeners prefer the tried and true, plumbing the depths of a familiar principle, practice, prayer, or Bible verse. That's the up side of being a gardener; patiently nurturing the growth of an insight or value. The down side of being a gardener is the tendency to be judgmental or resentful. It is possible for gardeners to grow spiritual food for the entire community. Yet it is also possible for gardeners to become prudish and irritable. Even so, gardeners seem to be close to the God of creation who made the very fields which they tend.
Historically, we have tended to force men into the role of the journeyer and women into the role of the gardener. That is now changing and women who feel the need to go on the journey are beginning to have more opportunities to do so. Similarly, men who long to tend the garden are beginning to find that role more accessible. Furthermore, it is possible to be a journeyer during one phase of your life and a gardener during another phase. Are you a journeyer or a gardener right now? Have you always been so? These are fruitful Lenten meditations.
Now let us return to God, the One who is intensely interested in finding lost souls. In this parable we see that God has something specific and important to say to both journeyers and gardeners. To the journeyers God communicates a willingness to welcome you home, to kill the fatted calf, to robe you in glory, to eat and to celebrate your return. To the gardeners God says, "You are always with me and all that is mine is yours."
No matter where you are, on the road or in the field, God has great love to offer you.
Journeyers, has your journey become self-absorbed and self-destructive? You can turn around during this Lenten season and join us in the Paschal Feast. We can learn from your adventures and mishaps. We will celebrate with you and rejoice in your return.
Gardeners, have your meditations become prudish and irritable? Know that you are always with God and all that God has is yours. We can learn from your reflections. Come, celebrate and rejoice with us.
At the Paschal Feast, at that holy table, there is room for everyone, journeyers and gardeners alike.