In Li-Young Lee’s poem, “Story,” (our contemporary reading for the day), a son asks his father for a story, a new story, and the father cannot think of one, try as he might. He does not wish to disappoint his child, but he knows that he has, in the way that all parents know that they will never quite measure up to their kids’ expectations. And this father, while struggling to come up with a new story for his 5 year old child, on this particular day, fast-forwards in his thoughts to the future. He pictures his son already reaching for his keys, no time to sit for any story, not an old favorite about an alligator or a spider or any new one, even if he could think of one to tell. And then fast-forward again, and Li-Young Lee now imagines that primal fear that is not restricted only to parents but endemic to the human race, the fear of no longer being needed or even wanted as one grows older; the fear of outlasting one’s usefulness and one’s connection to others.
This fear can come at odd times—when we are muddling about our day, going from task to task, but not getting very much accomplished, or when we are buzzing about wondering why we are doing “X” when we really should be doing “y.”
And somewhere in the back of our minds we might hear that old song from the seventies—“The Cat’s in the Cradle”— which was a poem originally by Sandy Chapin, and recorded by her husband, Harry Chapin, once he became a father.
If you’ve never heard the song, the lyrics talk about a boy growing up to be like his dad—both in good ways and the more difficult ways. But the song is also a powerful warning about making the most of the time that we have been granted with each other—and the haunting feeling of wishing we could turn back the clock when the future becomes the past.
I’ve long since retired, my son’s moved away.
I called him up just the other day.
“I’d like to see you, if you don’t mind.”
He said, “I’d love to, Dad, if I could find the time.
You see my new job’s a hassle and the kids have the flu,
But it’s sure nice talkin’ to you, Dad.
It’s been sure nice talkin’ to you.”
And as I hung up the phone it occurred to me,
He’d grown up just like me.
My boy was just like me.
And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon
Little boy blue and the man in the moon
“When you coming home, son?” “I don’t know when”
But we’ll get together then, dad
We’re gonna have a good time then…
The words become even more poignant when we realize that the singer, Harry Chapin, dies from a car accident at age 38 with a daughter and a young son named Josh, and three step-children by marriage.
In today’s scripture, we could spend a lot of time trying to figure out whether the story is about the younger, spendthrift son who squanders his father’s inheritance—an inheritance which the son has the audacity to ask his father for while the father is still very much alive. Or we could debate whether the older son was justified in his spite—sitting outside the party because he just couldn’t stomach his father’s generosity after so many years of grief and grievance because of his brother. For many of us, we “get” the older son’s grudge because we have known what it is like to feel we must “deserve” or “earn” someone’s love, for whatever reason. When the father reaches out for the younger son without so much as a conditional clause between them, it can smart and strike us as unfair because we’ve been the hardworking older son and felt our own efforts unacknowledged.
But the story really isn’t about the younger or the older son, or the absent mother(!) who is both written out of the story and likely stewing her own arguments of regret. Instead, it is about God’s compassionate nature, a nature that outpaces our regrets and that we human beings struggle to emulate. The father sees the son “from far off” and, even then, makes his way towards him, still knowing all that he knows and quite a lot that the younger son doesn’t acknowledge. The younger son’s backstory hasn’t even come spilling out from his lips before the father has run to meet him, enveloped him in a bear hug, and kissed him. The younger son hasn’t even confessed a single “I am so sorry,” before the father is already planning a party with the son as distinguished guest.
And in this week where we have been reminded of fathers and sons, fathers and daughters, mothers and babies being separated at our borders, we might ponder how the compassion of the father moves him to act with compassion towards his son, without a care for what is proper, seemly, or legally advisable. This is not the picture of a God who will points to the law in order to enforce his will, or a God who insists that all authority is to be respected without question or enforced without love, but a God who looks with compassion on all God’s children, regardless of who or when, and urges us, and our leadership, to do the very same.
And the passage has some interesting commentary on what it is like to be a foreigner in a strange land, a persona non-grata, or someone who has left his or her homeland or family of origin. The time in which the younger son spends in this foreign land is spent among the pigs, doing the work of a migrant, work that is deeply shunned by others—feeding the pigs. This employ involved animals considered unclean and detestable by the Jews of that time, as well as any work involving them. It would be similar to cleaning toilets, picking crops, or performing dangerous or back breaking labor. (sharing of personal story here)
The scripture tells us about the younger son, “So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything.” (Luke 15:15-16). While the description is meant to show just how far the younger son has fallen from a more privileged life, it also shows just how far the citizens of that country have fallen away from basic hospitality (a value prized in Mid-Eastern culture). It is that “no one gave him anything” that strikes a chord today, along with the shared commonality that immigrants often still do the jobs that established citizens detest.
One might observe that the citizens of that long ago land and time have much in common with many of the citizens of our time and country, for it seems that the stranger with the pigs wouldn’t fare much better here with prolonged detention, separation, misappropriated scripture from politicians and pundits, and bureaucratic nightmares.
And yet, this is a story about compassion and how it can totally change the way in which we live, play, and work when it is practiced. Because of compassion, a family is reunited and a village celebrates the generosity and abundance that is already contained within them. Because of compassion, work is redistributed and more evenly shared, as the two brothers work again side-by-side with their father. Because of compassion, the father is not only closer to his estranged youngest but also knows his elder son’s needs and desires better. Because of compassion, life is more of a party and less of a burden.
The actor, Richard Gere, once said, “What we all have in common is an appreciation of kindness and compassion; all the religions have this. We all lean towards love.” Leaning towards love is a father, who despite his doubts, still leans out the window looking for his lost son and meets him on the road. Leaning towards love is a Christianity that does not cast out the already cast out, or break an already bruised reed, or impoverish those who are already poor and seeking a better life. Leaning towards love is a humane policy and compassionate practices that enhance human dignity and relieve human suffering, rather than working hard to do the opposite, intentionally or not. Leaning towards love is Jesus picking grain on the Sabbath to feed people, or healing a man in need when laws or policies prohibit it, or dining with the unwelcome, despite every cultural construct or seeming religious dictate or Roman oppression.
I am not one to believe that this biblical family of father and sons live happily ever after, for we know all too well that family dynamics don’t simply disappear just because of reunion or reconciliation. However, that old, tired story of the dutiful son and the runaway prodigal becomes a new story in Jesus’ telling—which is more illustrative of the kin-dom of which Jesus preached and for which died. And I like to think that the old man and his sons all felt a different kind of need for each other—one that was less co-dependent and less self-aggrandizing, and one that was more mutually sustainable and more humane towards each other.
We who hear this parable on Father’s Day might also have the audacity, like the younger son, to also boldly ask for our Christian inheritance: one that is not measured in dollars but in Divine sense, one that we most surely and thankfully will squander on the “wrong” things and the “wrong” people and at the “wrong” times, but from a God who doesn’t care a whit about whether we have papers or not, whether or not we deserve dignity or merit compassion, but which will extend mercy and love to us, nonetheless. Because that is the God we worship and say that we believe and trust.
And perhaps together we can pause today to consider how this God, who is known for such compassionate outreach, and who sees all of our human folly not only from far off but from deep within, as well as up close and personal all those bars and boundaries, laws, and legitimizing, reasoning and condemnation that we inflict on each other…that this God who sees all and hears all will also find a way to urgently call to us and to our conscience that we might compassionately turn our hearts to each other and for each other before it is too late to turn anew because our souls will have become too warped for the turning.
And we who climb up on God’s lap asking for a new story may well contemplate God’s need for us—we who are already reaching for our car keys, counting the minutes until coffee hour, reckoning whether church and religion have anything positive to say in the midst of so much judgement and terror—perhaps this God is still waiting at the window for us to return home, to work on this family farm, to sow seeds of hope and help and sustenance, that this world might be fed on something better than pig slop.
May it will be so.
 Songwriters: Sandy Chapin / Harry F. Chapin
Cat’s in the Cradle lyrics © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc