"He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything." (Luke 15:16 NRSV)
In the 1970s and early 1980s, my father was an award-winning hog farmer, breeding Chester Whites. He was even featured in a farm magazine and, in 1980, we were the Missouri Farm Family of the Year. We went to the state fare that summer to receive the award, and I remember snippets of that trip clearly despite the 38 years that have passed.
Dad also raised Black Angus cattle and grew crops, including corn, soybeans, and winter wheat. That became important in later years when I was a teenager and hog confinement operations became commonplace. If you're unfamiliar, this is what is described as a 'factory farm.' Hogs are bred, raised in confined spaces with large quantities of feed, slaughtered, packed, and shipped right to the supermarkets. It's a harsh business, and a far cry from the open spaces, fresh mud, and sun on my father's farm. Large operations like that are also notoriously bad for the local environment.
The protagonist in the story in the Gospel reading for today certainly wasn't on a factory farm, but his situation was unenviable nonetheless. Well known as the 'Parable of the Prodigal Son,' I'm sure I preached on this passage a number of times in the past. Today I just want to settle into the Parable and do a little looking around.
Before continuing, you should give it a read.
In this text, Jesus was speaking of the Jewish people of his time. He, like numerous prophets in the Hebrew tradition before him, accused the people of turning their backs on the way and will of the god of Israel, and equated their status then as subjects of the Roman Empire with that of a young man tending pigs and wishing he could eat their slop. If so, this would be a direct attack on the Hellenizers, who had made great efforts to adopt the style and mode of living of the foreigners in order to integrate. He's blaming that mindset for the oppression they ended up experiencing. They have up their inheritance as the people of YHWH and went chasing after the ways of other nations. In this interpretation, the jealous older brother would be the Jews who had never attempted to integrate into Greco-Roman culture. Jesus wants a warm welcome for the Hellenizers when they turn back to their heritage and their god.
This parable has been reinterpreted through the later lens of Christian belief to be a model of any person returning to God. That doesn't make a great deal of sense coming from the mouth of an apocalyptic preacher in Palestine before ever there was a thing called 'church,' and it also assumes that the person had a relationship to the deity before, something that original sin precludes. Most Western Christian traditions affirm that everyone was born stained by the consequences of sin and separated from their god, though there are variants, such as the Stone-Campbell and Latter-day Saint movements, that reject this doctrine. In any case, the parable gets regular use by Christians of all stripes when talking about 'welcoming home the sinner.'
There's an awful lot of conformity and judgment here, isn't there? First century Jews who embraced the fashion and customs of the wider world were thought to be betraying the laws and history of their people. Contemporary people who don't live in accordance with the way some Christians understand their faith are considered in darkness and needing salvation. The welcome back is the embrace of social acceptability within a certain group. Proselytism fails in cosmopolitan places because people in these environments can always find a more welcoming group. People who truly convert to a sect in urban areas, having never been affiliated with that group before, are often looking to belong somewhere. Accepting a little judgment and humiliation at the door is the price of admission.
Human beings are social creatures. That's part of what what makes us successful, along with our brains and our tool-making abilities (I'm categorizing 'language' as a subset of 'sociability' in this example, though it could be listed separately). We think about problems, we coordinate our efforts, and we make things to help us solve those problems or reach certain goals. Holding this all together is trust, built within the framework of shared understandings about ourselves and the world. Thus ancient tribes could raid villages; killing, raping, and stealing from their targets without a twinge of moral confusion because these people are not like us. In the age of the nation-state, this age-old trait that helped our ancestors could end up tearing us apart.
Within Unitarian Universalism there isn't a lot of room for guilt. We do think it's natural and right for someone to feel guilty when they hurt someone, through deeds of commission or omission. We don't think it's good to carry guilt for that which is beyond our control or which doesn't harm anyone. Thus our progressive sexual education curriculum, created in cooperation with the United Church of Christ, helps young people understand their bodies and sexuality in a transparent, safe, and affirming way. That's one example of many that could be given of how non-judgmental we are, and yet it isn't the whole story.
As I've written before, Unitarian Universalism welcomes all who welcome all. A MAGA-hat wearing anti-semite won't find a UU congregation to be a comfortable place at all. That's an extreme example. The truth is that most of the time the people in our gatherings who don't feel quite right being there won't be outright bigots or misogynists. They'll be people who are on board with human rights and marriage equality, for example, but wouldn't want their daughter to marry a black man or their son to 'turn out to be gay.' Oh, they have black and gay friends...they just don't want that 'hardship' for their children's lives.
If reading that made you angry, I get it. Those aren't my views, but they are what some people have in their minds and never say, especially not during coffee hour after services. It is what lurks behind our eyes and in our hearts, and it takes time to work its way out. People who attend UU gatherings are generally either there out of a sense of obligation to family or friends or — and hopefully more likely — because they want to be better versions of themselves and work with others for a better world. People who go back to church after they have kids do so because they want a moral and ethical foundation for them. That makes all kinds of sense. So, if they are there, and listening, there's hope for change.
I've been wrong a lot in my life. In my late teens I became evangelical, and in my early 20s I also became a libertarian. Now I'm a Humanist who holds to social market capitalism as the better approach to applied socio-economics. I didn't get to this point by drifting around, but through long hard thought, study, discussion, trial, and error. I wish I'd gotten here sooner...but who said I've arrived?
When I first started attending UU congregations I had a lot of purity culture ideas left to shed. Intellectually I knew they were wrong, but they were so embedded in my way of thinking that it took months stretching into years to weed them out. I'm not certain they're all gone yet, and the only way I'll know is through careful observation and a willingness to learn.
Being a Unitarian Universalist is my choice, and it's something I want because it calls me to be better. Religiously, the only conformity required is to not take any of it so seriously that you exclude others. Politically, we do try to be on the same page, though that doesn't happen uniformly. Ethically, we strive to live in covenantal relationships of mutual respect and personally integrity. There's no patriarchal figure welcoming us into the family home, and yet many UUs describe it as having been a homecoming when they found this liberal religious tradition.
Seeing someone as prodigal isn't a habit of Unitarian Universalists, and yet such people exist. Those searching souls seeking meaning in places that stink with bigotry and sexism, hungry for truth and wishing to fill themselves with the empty husks of fundamentalism and nationalism. For UUs, when we're at our best, people don't need to come either with answers or mea culpas. We can just come together, sit a while, listen, and consider.
Let's be patient with each other. The wayward soul might be your own.