Sunday 27 March 2022: Lent 4
New Light on a Familiar Story
Joshua 5:9-12; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
Context: a mixed, all-age congregation in a parish in North London
Aim: to encourage the congregation to see the relevance of the story of the Prodigal Son for their own lives
Today’s gospel gives us one of the most familiar stories in the New Testament. After 2,000 years, the parable retains its capacity to provoke fresh interpretations and new insights, but to really appreciate its depth we must be familiar with the culture in which it is set. Fathers were discouraged in Jesus’ time from distributing their wealth while they were still alive. But if they did so, they were still entitled to be supported from their resources. The younger son therefore behaves disgracefully in asking for his share of the inheritance while his father is still alive and then going off with it to a far country, denying his father the means of support that was rightfully his. He treats his father as if he were dead.
REACHING ROCK-BOTTOM AND TURNING FOR HOME
Having reached his ‘distant country’, the younger son squanders his money on his ‘life of debauchery.’ But just as the money runs out a famine strikes and he is reduced to herding pigs, not an occupation suitable for a well-bred Jewish young man. And even the pigs are better fed than he.
At last, he comes to his senses. He knows his father’s servants are in a better state than he is but also recognises that he has sinned against his father and treated him disgracefully. The decision to return home is not an easy one. He does not know what reception he will receive, and he has plenty of grounds for being afraid of what will be done to him, not so much by his father as by the other inhabitants of the village in view of his shameful behaviour.
A WELCOME AND AN INVITATION
However, when he sees his son approaching, the father acts completely outside the norms of his culture. He runs to greet the young man – not the kind of action thought appropriate for an elder. But his action prevents others from hurling abuse at his son. He kisses the young man and very publicly forgives him. By putting his best robe on his son, he guarantees his acceptance by the rest of the community. Giving him a signet ring, the father shows his trust. Sandals are a sign that the son is a free man, not a servant. By placing sandals on the son’s feet, the servants show their acceptance of him. Killing the fatted calf means there will be a feast to which the whole community will be invited. Everyone is being encouraged to accept the son and show him forgiveness. The father wants his son to recover his place in society.
The elder son cannot deal with this. Instead of honouring his father by accepting his rightful place at the feast, he insults him and speaks disrespectfully to him, addressing him without using a title. He refuses to acknowledge his brother or forgive him and speaks of himself as a ‘slave’, accuses his father of favouritism, and paints a lurid picture of his brother’s lifestyle in the far-off country. Again, the father shows love. He does not rebuke his elder son but assures him that his inheritance remains intact and invites him to join the feast.
AN OPEN ENDING
There the story ends. We are not told what reply the elder brother made. It is left to our imagination. In a very post-modern way, this is a story without a conclusion. Jesus wanted his audience to decide what the conclusion was going to be. Would the pious, law-abiding Jews welcome the prodigals and sinners when they returned or reject them and condemn them? The same question faces us Christians. But whether we recognise ourselves more easily in the wayward younger son or his censorious and judgemental elder brother, the story is asking us to realise the depth of God’s love for each and every one of us, his desire for us to turn from ways that are evil and self-destructive and his readiness to forgive us when we come to our senses and repent.
In a sense, the parable doesn’t tell the whole story of divine love. The Father of the Prodigal simply waits for his return, whereas our heavenly Father actively sends his Son abroad to call us to repentance. Yet the figure of the waiting parent is a powerful image of God. In the end, like the younger son in the far-off country, we have to see the error of our ways for ourselves, come to our senses, and change the direction we are travelling. Jesus’ parable assures us of the welcome which then awaits us. Lent is a good time to ask ourselves whether in certain areas of our lives we are dwelling in a distant country; a good time for remembering again the Father’s house; a good time for heading home.
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