Melissa: Welcome to For People with Bishop Rob Wright. I’m your host, Melissa Rao, and this is a conversation inspired Bishop Wright’s For Faith Weekly Devotion sent out every Friday. You can find a link to this week’s For Faith and a link to subscribe in the episode’s description.
During Lent, Bishop Wright is doing a video series called Growing in the Wilderness. You can check that out at EpiscopalAtlanta.org.
Hey, Bishop, you called this week’s Lent and Devotion, Appreciation.
You name the two real dynamic of family drama. You highlight the joy of the father being reunited with the son who returned, which is juxtaposed by the enmity and bitterness that turns inside the brother who never went astray.
Melissa: So, I’m wondering if you can share your overall thoughts about the truths hidden within this gem of a story.
Rob: All right. So, let’s back up a minute. So, what we’re talking about today really is the story of the prodigal son, which is an oldie but a goody, one of Jesus’ best. Some people know it as the story of the– the parable of the loving father, right? And you know, even secular society has some son of what the prodigal son story is all about. It’s a kid who goes out and squanders the money and ends up in a brothel and famine comes and blows the doors off of his life and he ends up being a hired hand and even eating with pigs, which was a terrible thing for a young Jewish boy.
And so, what I wanted to do in this story was just take a deeper drive. Because what people do is they get caught up, you know, in picking sides in the story. That is the trap of the story. There’s the younger son who is foolish, but there is the older son who is trapped in his cynicism, right? So, one, you know, he gets his epiphany because of lack of want of trouble. And then the oldest son never quite gets his epiphany because his eyes are blinded by privilege and bitterness.
So, you know, it’s just a great story to think with Jesus. You know, Jesus throws the story out. And he wants us– I mean, the point of Jesus’ story is that he wants us to know the mind and the heart of God. What is the mind and the heart of God? That you and I find our way home. That you and I find our way back. And if we ever take one step in that direction, God comes running down a dusty road towards us despite our misdeeds, misdoings, our bad decisions, our stupidity. You know, there’s this loving God running towards, not running away, not castigating, shaming us. And so, that’s the big deal. And so, I would just want to give people another lens to look at this story. The story through the lens of appreciation. So, what does it mean to appreciate in this story? And I make the case about that.
Melissa: Well, it’s lent, and so to me, it’s easy to put ourselves in the shoes of the prodigal son. Or, you know, to return to the father. Or even be in the shoes of the father to forgive someone who has wronged us.
Melissa: And yet, I’m maybe infatuated a little bit by the other son, you know, the brother. I’m sure many of us can easily identify with him, in his own unique way, who is also living in a sort of wilderness.
Rob: Yeah, sure. Sure, he is, yeah, right.
Melissa: And so, do you have any advice for those who identify with the other son?
Rob: No, I have no advice. I just tell you that the story is just absolutely delicious and so, you know, I have– You know, I think if we’re honest and we’ve lived just a little while, you know, we’ve been the younger brother. Like we’ve been foolish, right? We’ve ignored wise counsel. We thought we knew better than everybody else and then we ended up trapped in a prison, a wilderness of our own bad decisions, and need some help. So, that’s the one brother.
And then, some of us, and I have been as well, I have been the faithful, rule keeping, keeping it between the lanes older brother. Who gets up early and goes to bed late. I have been that dude who also wonders why in the hell other people can’t get their stuff together and if they were a little bit more like me, “Aw, wouldn’t the world be better.” And so, I know I’m not the only one who has had those thoughts, in the family, in the marriage, at the office. The older brother speaks in terms of them and those.
And even in this story, the older brother says to his father, about his younger brother, “Your son.” Which is an interesting move, isn’t it? Because he is disassociating himself with his brother. And it’s really interesting that the father doesn’t let him get away with that. And so, when the older brother, in his bitterness realizes that a party is going to be thrown for the younger brother and that he gets jewelry and a new pair of shoes, you know, and a barbecue in his honor, right, lavish party. This just throws the older son, you know, just sort of out into the stratosphere. And he says, you know, “Your son,” “Your son lived in desolate living.” “Your son,” you know, mixed it up with prostitutes. “Your son,” did all of that.
Of course, the father says to him, “Your brother was lost and now is found.” And so, you know, number one, part of the genius of the father in the story is that he’s trying to help the older brother appreciate the bond of being a sibling, right? The irreducible bond of being sibling. And so, that is true for us in our own lives with our own siblings. But it is also true in terms of the human family and that we’re all actually siblings and any distancing that we want to do for any good reason that we can come up with are really at odds in the mind of God.
And so, while we have a real good reason to say this or that or you know they’ve hurt me, they’ve disappointed me, and all of that is legitimate. The older brother’s pain is bitterness, understandable, and legitimate, but it gets stuff there. You know, the younger foolish brother at least finds his way back from the pig trough. And he gets an epiphany, he’s open to– He’s made to be open. And the limit of the parable is that we don’t know what happens after the banquet. We don’t know what happens to the older son’s heart after the father helps the older brother understand that, “Hey, man, this guy’s made terrible choices.”
Melissa: I don’t know, Bishop. I kind of feel like I don’t. This is a maybe a little bit meta. So, maybe the banquets heaven.
Rob: It could be.
Melissa: And maybe the bitter son, who can’t let go of his bitterness, is choosing hell over heaven.
Rob: I like how you’re working on it. I like how you are working on it. And isn’t that what we say about heaven, right? I mean, I’ve preached enough funerals to be able to say, we do say that. We do say that there is this wonderful banquet that is prepared for us, right? We will be reunited with those we love, and we will be in near and dear presence of God, in the welcoming arms of God. And what if that kind of graciousness and openness and welcome we can’t give our hearts to? What if we end up getting stuck in, you know, not a fiery pit in some sort of meta universe but maybe the fiery pit of our own sort of pride and judgmental nature.
Rob: I think a lot about heaven and hell. And you know one of the things that I think I know now is that hell then can’t be any worse than hell now of our own isolation, our own brokenness, enmity. I’ve seen family strife close up. You know, the corrosion of families and marriages. I’ve seen contempt. I’ve seen how resentment can get as wide as river. I mean, hell can’t be any worse than that.
Melissa: Welcome back to For People. Bishop, I have banned phrase in my household. Like my children are not allowed to utter the words, “That’s not fair.” Because I feel like I’ve tried to teach that fair is often subjective, and it’s rooted in comparing. Which might very well be the catalyst for coveting.
And so, I’m wondering if you have any insights about ways people might recognize when they are falling into the trap of playing the comparison game.
Rob: We can work out whatever you feel like you want to do. Well, you know, it’s interesting. I think that’s part of the trap that consumes the older brother, right? That’s also where you see the elegance and the beauty of the father in the story. The father is able to try to meet each one where he is, right? He says to the older brother, “Hey, I see you. You’ve been here with me along and everything I have is yours, really.” And at the same time, he sees the lostness of the younger brother and runs down the road to say, “Hey, I see you.” But he doesn’t even use words. It’s just these wonderful welcoming gestures.
So, he does, I think, models for us something that is very difficult, which is not to try to succumb to this cookie cutter, boilerplate thing that we do with people, right? And try to find a way to meet people where they are and realize that my struggles may be easy for you, right? And your struggles may be easy for me. But I shouldn’t castigate you. You know, we shouldn’t castigate one another back and forth. So, he does that. So, at the same time, what the father does in this notion of the two sons is that he makes us know that there is something more at stake then to be right. And I think that is sometimes where the problem gets to for us. We put the ultimate bar on if we are right, right? And there are many marriages that have ended. And there is a lot of enmity in families when the bar, the gold standard is rightness.
What Jesus comes to tell us and model for us is there is another bar for us that is above being right. It’s not that we have any problem being right, it’s just not the top of the mountain. Why do we know that? Well, we know that because the Bible tells us when we were ye tin our sins, Jesus came to us. So, if it would have been about rightness, there is no such thing as Grace, right? There is no such thing as unconditional love. When Jesus has a conversation with the thief on the cross is that about rightness? Or no, he’s inviting a thief and a criminal who is justly being punished, according to scripture, into paradise with him.
So, all along Jesus keeps telling us these stories which sort of break the hard ground of our sort of default way to understand ourselves and the world. And it’s off-putting. Sometimes if we’re honest, we don’t like Jesus for some of these stories. You know, there’s a story that sort of in the spirit of this about some workers went out to work and they had been working long and hard. And then some workers came right at the end of the day and picked up the shovels and put on their hard hats before the whistle blew. And Jesus says they get the same pay as the guys and the girls who were there early and did the work. And we don’t like that. And perhaps we don’t like that especially as Americans, right? But what we have to ask ourselves is that, you know, is God an American? No, God is not an American. So, we are trying to figure out as Christians, right, above our national sort of loyalties and ethics, what is the mind and the heart of God? And this story releases that so much. If it was just about right and wrong, it’s a slam dunk. The story has no power. The older brother was right. The younger brother was wrong. And therefore, the father doesn’t have to run to him and give him any welcoming gesture. He can just bring him back, if he’s merciful, as a farmhand and he can live with the farmhand’s way down at the end of the property. And that’s the end of the story because that’s right and logical.
But there’s this other thing about love which is there’s something more at stake than being right.
Melissa: So, Bishop, you will often remind us of the importance of prayer. And you have a recommendation in this Devotion for praying for those who have heard us for 40-days, which you suggest may give us a new appreciation for those we love.
Melissa: And maybe even those we struggle to love.
Melissa: I’m wondering if you have a personal story you might share about maybe how practicing this transformed your own relationship or maybe a story of someone else you might know?
Rob: Well, I mean, that’s the thing about living with scripture, right? These stories come to your remembrance. You see yourself as you even have struggle and strife with people. You see yourself through the lens of these stories. So, there are times when I have been upset and I have been the older brother. And there have been times that I was pleading for mercy, and I have been the younger brother in my life, perhaps too numerous to list on the podcast.
I can tell you one of my favorite stories about the power of this story. Because I think that is probably one of the other great gifts here. We have these stories, and they live with us. Like water on a stone, they work on us. We live with them over many decades. We shift around in the story. We are one character one year and the other character another year and so on. I have been everything in this story but the fatted calf, you know, that ultimately becomes the barbecue.
But we’ve got to also minister the power of these stories. Because when sometimes we find in a relationship people are struggling it’s the gift of these stories that can sort of give them a great gift of grace and perspective. And maybe even healing. My favorite story about this is that I remember a very long time ago, I had dear friends– My wife and I had dear friends. They’re just sort of a mega power couple. They were on their way, gotten engaged, and all the fancy people were notified that we were going to have this big, wonderful wedding. Every side of it was delicious except there was an infidelity that came to light, even when they were engaged by the person’s confession, something stupid, something out of line with his sort of regular way to be in the world. But nevertheless, it came to light. And then the relationship spiraled out of control. The gentleman ended up on my couch. We tried to comfort, care, and listen to the confession and all of that. And you know, not to a lot of avail, I mean, he thought he lost the very best thing in the whole world, and it was by his own doing, his own foolishness. So, he was trapped in a terrible prison of his own making, that he had lost his wonderful woman.
Because we were friends, the woman called me, maybe days, weeks later, to chat with me. She’s a high-powered lawyer. And I was trying to tell her some stuff and give her some comforting pastoral advice, maybe platitudes, I don’t know. And she was batting them away like Serena Williams bats away tennis balls. She was handing my lunch to me. She could out logic me and out argue me. It was pitiful. In the middle of all of that exchange, I realize that I was losing real fast. And I prayed, even as we were on the phone, and I said, “Lord, I’m having my behind handed to me here. I’m trying to do something good here. You got to help me.” And the only thing that came to mind, for all my learning and training and all of my fancy education, the only thing that came to mind was this story of the prodigal son. Now what was interesting was the woman was not raised in Church. She had never really had this story on her playlist, if you will. So, I told her the story. It was amazing to hear someone hear the story, you know, fresh. All I can say is that at the end of that phone call, I felt like I had just lost the big game. It was a valiant effort. But lost the big game. And here I was, this poor little pastor, trying to give this 2000-year old story to a thoroughly modern woman who is as bright as the sun. I just lost the big game. So, we said goodbye and didn’t hear much about it.
Fast forward, we danced at their wedding. You know, their son is now best friends with my son. They are in college together.
The point being, somehow in the power of the story, both of them found a way back. And when logic wouldn’t do it, dry reasoning wouldn’t do it, and certainly being right wouldn’t do it, somehow in this dramatic story that Jesus tells about somebody who got it all wrong, and somebody whose heart was big enough to accept you even when you are wrong, made a difference in their real life. And so, I tell that story when I get around to talking about this story of Jesus because in the real world these stories still matter. These stories are still generative. They are still healing. They are still aspirational for us sometimes. Sometimes they produce conflict in our souls. But the Holy Spirit is still at work in these stories. And that’s why we have to know them. And be ready to not only live with them ourselves, but offer them to others.
Melissa: Bishop, thanks for that great reminder. And thank you for listening to For People. You can follow us on Instagram and Facebook @BishopRobWright. Please subscribe, leave a review, and we’ll be back with you next week.