Too Close For Comfort?
(by Rev Paul Graham)
Read Luke 15:11-32
Today we encounter Jesus telling what is probably one of the most famous stories from his time on Earth in the first century. The story of The Prodigal Son is the last of the trilogy that could be grouped under the heading “Lost and Found”, used to illustrate the sort of welcome there is for those in the Kingdom of Heaven.
We start with a touch of context; not a lot, but enough to help us set the scene.
Jesus is yet again at loggerheads with the religious leaders, who were unhappy that he was spending time with (shock, horror) sinners. Maybe they were just jealous; after all, a Tax Collectors’ party would certainly be more interesting and entertaining than a Pharisee one and it’s unlikely that they would have ever extended mutual invitations to each other. But, for those of us who have read around the story so far, we also know that the Pharisees had made no secret of their opposition to Jesus and would have been looking for any way to strike at him, or undermine his teaching, or prove that their canapes were more desirable, or whatever. As we saw from last week’s reading, this might have been as much about hostile hospitality as anything theological; Jesus as guest at both gatherings gets treated very differently by his hosts (c.f. Luke 14:1-24).
Be that as it may, Jesus takes the opportunity to tell these three stories to challenge the Pharisees’ prejudice and hypocrisy; they had forgotten that they too were sinners as much in need of God’s grace as those sitting around Jesus, hanging on his every word. We’ll quickly gloss over the first two stories by summarising them thus: Something is lost. Someone searches and finds that something. There’s a party.
The third story is different; the one who is lost has to put in the effort to be found. In the first two stories, the one who is seeking makes the effort. I can’t imagine how the lost coin could have been found any other way, without a fairy tale anthropomorphising into a living coin – c.f. the Gingerbread Man and countless Disney films – andsheep are just plain stupid. However, in The Prodigal Son, it’s the one who was “lost” that comes back to be “found.” There are no search parties, no appeals in the local press and certainly no effort made by the family to leave their farm.
And who would blame them? The younger son (at this point I wish Jesus had had the courtesy to give him a name) in requesting his inheritance is treating his father as if he was already dead. “Give me now what I will be due when you die,” is what he’s saying, and the meaning is clear: “You’re dead to me.”
So, in one way, there’s no reason why the father should look for his absent offspring – indeed, why should the rest of the family care about someone who has turned his back on them all and gone off to make his fortune without a thought for the future of the estate or those who rely on it for their livelihoods or future? Certainly, the younger son has done a good job of not just burning his bridges, but also damming the river and ripping up the roads, if you excuse the extended simile.
We find the welcome that he receives on his return to the home a lovely moment, one suffused with forgiveness and given the full soft-focus treatment that we long to see when our own prodigals return. However, to the original audience, they would have been appalled at this response by the family. We read of the younger son’s rehearsed speech on his weary way back up the well-remembered track, with his offer to take the role of servant (or slave) and probably think that would be a fair deal.
For the Pharisees and Tax Collectors, this is deeply shocking. There’s no way that the younger son should countenance any such offer; there should be, justifiably, nothing to stop his older sibling (and the hired hands) turning on him with pitchforks and worse and not just running him out of town, but running him through like a scene from a Dumas novel. “All of none, and none for all!” would be their rewritten oath (with apologies to that late great author) as they give him his just desserts.
At the heart of the story is the seeming injustice of restoring the younger son in the family. To embrace his errant offspring, rather than set about him with sticks, isn’t just about forgiving the slur that had overshadowed the family since that fateful day of his departure; this is to restore his position as a member of that same family.
Jesus’ first century audience would have known as much about the presence of DNA as the moons of Saturn; however, it is that very same DNA that gives the younger son his identity. He is his father’s son, just as much as he is his brother’s sibling (I must take this moment to apologise to all mums out there who don’t get a mention; sisters are allowed to look smug as brothers don’t come out of this story that well).
For us in our more (less) enlightened age, we understand more about family ties at a time when families are struggling in so many ways. There have been conflicting reports on the impact on the pandemic on marriages, family life, and young people; home-schooling and working from home have created new battle zones as well as nurtured relationships. People are struggling as well as thriving as they juggle the pressures of working, not working, schooling, not schooling, being too distant from family, having family too close for comfort – take your pick or add your own struggles. We have never been better connected, nor further apart, than these last 12 months and families have suffered as a consequence.
We could be very glib and say that Jesus is talking about much more than an earthly family; these three parables are after all about the Kingdom of Heaven. And, in many ways, that’s absolutely right. After all, it’s the Father’s DNA, the divine fingerprint that means that all are created in the image of God (yes, even the ugly ones) that unites us all and means that everyone is guaranteed an embrace from the Father on arrival.
But let’s not forget that at the heart of this story is the complexity of the family relationships. The older son isn’t at all happy that his squirt of a brother has wheedled his way back into his dad’s affections. His dad can’t see what’s wrong as he’s just keen to see the family back together again. And the younger son is just glad to still be alive.
And the story ends unresolved in that way. We don’t hear the older brother’s response to the invitation to join in the celebration. Does he go into the party, or does he stay outside, resentful and mardy? And what about the poor fatted calf, who didn’t expect the end to have come quite so soon? What does the future hold for the family? What will happen on the next day, when the workers are in the fields? Will the younger son join them, just as his older brother has had to do since his father gave half of the property away?
So many questions and so few answers…
But that’s the nature of family, whether the family of God or the biological families that we are part of. There is still more to go, an unfolding story that each day asks as many questions as it answers.
The story of the Prodigal Son is a complete tale, in that it shows that no matter how far we go away from God, even to the point of trying to deny our very existence within his family, we always have a way back through his grace and mercy. But it is also incomplete, leaving us to imagine the next day and the next and so on, never quite sure whether the younger brother will get itchy feet again (I can’t see him yearning for the pigs), or whether his older brother will take his turn away from the home, knowing that there is always the safety net of a welcome back if it goes wrong (and woe betide if his brother dares to complain!).
So there’s a messiness to the parable that very much reflects us and the messiness of our lives. It would be good to say that at the heart of it is love, which there certainly is in the father. But there’s also selfishness, greed, jealousy, anger and so many other marks of humanity.
It’s a parable for all time, with a resonance now for us about our own families. For those of us who haven’t seen family members for months (and longer), what will the scene of the reunion be like? For those who have been hurt, are we ready to let go and embrace those who have hurt us? For those who we have hurt, are we ready to make those stumbling steps towards forgiveness and reconciliation? For those of us who have suffered from too much family, are we going to turn our backs on the party or join in?
What is God asking of us as we write the next page of our lives, even as we leave our fictional family today?