Luke 15: 1-3, 11b-end
The parable of the prodigal son is deeply loved by Christians everywhere. The father who loves unconditionally, who runs to meet his wayward son “while he is still far off” is for many of us a picture of God’s unconditional love for us.
So I tread carefully this morning as I explore this parable. My aim is to put it in its context as part of Jesus’s teaching method, whilst not I hope disturbing its devotional importance today.
Jesus’s parables sometimes do not function as straightforward pictures of what God is like. Some parables present a picture which contains a twist or poses a problem. Once the story had been told, those present would then discuss its inner conflict, what light it might shed on the human condition. I wonder what discussion took place after Jesus told this parable?
Following that line of thinking, this parable, which is a story of love, can perhaps be understood in contrast to its alter ego, a parable which comes a few verses later, the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. To remind you of that story, Lazarus is a poor beggar who lies at the rich man’s gate. He dies and goes to be with Abraham. The rich man then dies and goes to Hades, where he is in agony. The rich man begs for relief, first for himself and then for his brothers who are still living – but neither Abraham nor Lazarus are able to help him.
Abraham as the heavenly figure would be associated for the hearers with the Torah, or Jewish law and it is the law which dominates in this parable. Neither Abraham, nor Lazarus, nor the rich man, have any power. There is love – that of the rich man for his brothers at the very least, but it is thwarted, by a great unbridgeable gulf.
So this is a story about a world where law, the pre-determined arrangement of things, is all-powerful, and love can do nothing in the face of it, there are no exceptions, no second chances. We can imagine Jesus telling this story and then turning to the disciples gathered around him and asking, “what would it be like to live in that world?”
By contrast, the parable of the prodigal son asks the opposite question, what would a world be like, where only feelings are followed? Where law and custom can be freely ignored, the rules broken with no punishment?
Much about the presentation of the father in this story would have offended the image of a head of the household in the minds of a contemporary audience. The disrespect shown to him by a son demanding his inheritance while his father is still alive, which he agrees to anyway. The indignity of running to meet him on his return.
Luke gives the sense of outrage a voice in the elder son, who would have spoken not just for his own sense of unfairness but for most of those listening. But for the father, the return of his son is the only thing which matters.
And where, since today is Mothering Sunday, was the mother? Perhaps we can say that the Father figure in the story, encompasses both mother and father?
But the story ends, in the middle of the party, full of questions unresolved. What will happen the next day? Will the younger son be asked to explain himself properly? Will those wayward tendencies which have gone unpunished resurface at some point? Will the brothers be reconciled?
For me the questions boil down to this. Yes, love is supreme. But can the destructive effects of human sin be waived away with a hasty half-apology, a hug and a party? Are there to be no consequences, either temporal or spiritual? This then is perhaps the discussion which followed between Jesus and his disciples. What do you think?
It’s a question which we as the church have struggled with down the ages, often identifying more with the older brother than the younger. Do we really believe in God’s complete and unconditional acceptance? Our behaviour sometimes suggests otherwise, we are so careful to obey the rules, to behave well. Is there an anxiety hidden within us about God’s judgment?
How many Christians would be comfortable with the idea, for example, of Vladimir Putin, on his deathbed, making the kind of mumbled speech of the prodigal son to his father, to then be accepted into heaven? It seems there is deeply engrained in our human nature the idea of being weighed in the balance, of merit and it’s opposite, condemnation. We are unsettled by the notion of a free pass.
My own view is that unconditional love does stand supreme, that God forgives our sins, we are made new, as though they had never been. The problem of sin is not solved through law and judgment, but through the mystery of the cross, solved not by us, but by God for us.
In the words of the prophet Isaiah: “All we like sheep have gone astray. We have turned every one to their own way. And the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
Richard Young (Rector)