(by Rev Paul Graham)
Read Luke 15:11-32
West Side Story is well known to be a retelling of Romeo and Juliet, transporting the story from 16th Century Verona to 1950s New York, with songs and flick knives replacing the iambic pentameter and swords of the original. Equally, Greek mythology has given us the template for many stories, and not just of swords and sandals. Pygmalion, from whom George Bernard Shaw’s famous play derives its name, was a sculptor from ancient Crete whose story of creating the perfect statue is mirrored not only in the lives of Henry Higgins and Eliza Dolittle, but also Geppetto and Pinocchio and, slightly more obscurely, the superhero Wonder Woman.
There are recurring themes of frontier rebels battling against evil hordes in every story of the Wild West and beyond: Star Wars was once dubbed “Cowboys in Space” in deference to its frontier origins. Even the ever-popular film The Magnificent Seven is nothing more than a Wild West retelling of the classic Japanese film The Seven Samurai, just as Battle Beyond The Stars took the same story into space to a more muted reception from the cinema-going public.
And these “reimaginings” help to bring these stories to new audiences. Fans of 1980s cinema may not have realised that the Steve Martin film Roxanne was nothing more than Cyrano de Bergerac with fire engines. Likewise, the “rags to riches” story of Pretty Woman owes a debt to both the afore-mentioned Pygmalion and also Cinderella, which is in itself a retelling of a much older Greek tale, later popularised by the Brothers Grimm in the 19th Century and now to be seen in countless pantomime performances when audiences are allowed back in theatres.
There is a danger in this as we can run the risk of seeing parallels where they don’t exist, or the parallels are too broad to be of use. For example, most stories feature some form of antagonist and hero pitted against one another, so it would be too much of a stretch to say that Harry Potter’s battles against Voldemort are nothing more than a rehash of Hercule Poirot’s unmasking of any number of murderers, poisoners and ne’er-do-wells. However, we can see parallels between J.K. Rowling’s stories and those of earlier boarding school-bound books such as Tom Brown’s Schooldays, and Agatha Christie herself acknowledged that her Belgian detective was cast from the same mould as Sherlock Holmes – the outcast private detective working in begrudging partnership with the slightly hapless official face of law and order.
We see further parallels between novels, films, and plays where characters, plots and themes are mirrored, adapted and even stolen wholesale. Some might almost say that “there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9).
Likewise, we see a strong parallel between the parable that Jesus tells in today’s Bible reading and 2 Chronicles 7:14, the verse that has been the lens through which we have been looking at Scripture during these past few weeks. This is the second visit we’re making to this famous parable, having previously paid a visit earlier this year (see Too Close For Comfort? 14th February 2021), but today we’re looking at it in the context of the much earlier promise of God to Solomon immediately following the consecration of the Temple in Jerusalem.
So, what is this parallel? Well, we can view the parable of the Prodigal (Lost) Son as quite simply the enactment of the transactional promise of God to Solomon. Try this for size:
The Prodigal Son leaves the family home to seek out a life of greed, selfishness and avarice. He is profligate and promiscuous; so-called friends come and go as quickly as his wealth, and he is brought to the lowest of the lows by having to work with the unclean animals. He is about as besmirched and filthy as possible: physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. He had gone his own wicked way all the way to rock bottom.
But then he has a moment of realisation; if he were to humble himself before his Father, claiming not his birthright but the status of a lowly slave, maybe, just maybe, he would be allowed back onto the family farm. Turning away from the place of wickedness, he rehearses his confession as he travels home to seek his long-lost family and familiar surroundings.
His well-rehearsed plea for reconciliation is heard not with approbation for wasting his money, life and soul, but rather with forgiveness and grace. Overwhelming grace, in fact; so much so that his brother reacts jealously in the face of such generosity from the Father. The rift is healed, his whole being is restored, and the party can now begin…
But that’s not the only thing to bear in mind. The verse in 2 Chronicles 7:14 starts with the phrase “…if my people, who are called by my name”. At no point in the parable does the son lose his place within the family. Jesus calls him “the son” as he leaves the home; he may be waving goodbye to his former life, but he will always retain his identity as part of the family. Even at his lowest point when wallowing in the muck with the pigs, the son still refers to his father as such. Though many miles and much pain separated them, the son was still his father’s child, called by his name (though probably not in both first name and surname, as 1st Century Jewish conventions would have conveyed that honour to the firstborn son).
God’s promise to Solomon includes the clause that no matter how far away people go in pursuit of the wicked ways, or in proudly refusing to humble themselves, or in seeking everyone else’s face but his, or not acknowledging him in prayer, they are still his people, called by his name. This is their identity and their family; no matter what choices they make will this ever change.
So, as we finish this stage of the journey through 2 Chronicles 7:14 and commence the next stage of the process, we go with an encouragement. No matter what we do, we are still part of God’s family. No matter where we go, we are still part of God’s family. No matter who we spend our time with, we are still part of God’s family. That’s not to say that we are to be complacent because God promises that we can get so much more if we follow him, acknowledge him in prayer, seek him for forgiveness, and live life humbly in accordance with his love and grace. But it’s good to know that we’re related to all those who don’t yet understand that bit as well.