God's Radical Forgiveness.
As a child,given a sunday school stamp of Jesus's parable of the Prodigal Son,I thought it told me;''However disobedient you are ,God will welcome you back if you say sorry''. The parable however,does not stop at verse 24 with the celebratory feast. The elder brother's part in the story makes it all far less straighforward. .While training for ordination,I took a course in which we studied,learned,and performed passages from the Bible This was one of them,and people's varied interpretations brought our nuances in the text. It is a masterpiece of story-telling,begging to be read aloud,so that the motives and tones of voice of the strong characters can be explored. So much is hinted at in so few words.
It begins and ends with conversations about property,possessions,and gifts. There are themes of famine and feasting. Two quite long journeys are summarised in one sentence each.The son's time in the distant country is told as narrative,unlike the direct speech at home. The power of the story lies in the fact that it is a situation that anyone can imagine,because it is about tensions in family life-sibling rivalry and inheritance. There is a younger son,who wheedles or demands,who truly repents,or does a convincing performance to get round his father and get his own way;a soft-hearted father,who slightly dotty and at the mercy of manipulation,or,knowing his son's need to rebel,very astute and in control of things;an older brother who is boringly conformist,a model of filial duty,deeply bitter,or discovering his anger for the first time. We may know all these people.
There is outrageous,even offensive,element that says something more radical about the father's love and forgiveness than we realise. Apart from the son's unthinkable demand to have his inheritance early--in that culture,he was treating his father as dead--we cannot underestimate verses 15-16. The thought of eating pig-swill is revolting,but we miss the horror for people for whom pigs were unclean;the son was desperate. It helps us to understand the older brother,who may indeed be self-righteous,but may also be a faithful and observant son,trying to honour his father and keep the commandments. Mixed with his anger could be puzzlement,even distress,that his father was prepared to overlookk his brother's sins-he named prosititutes,but pigs were too awful to contemplate. So was his complaint to his father spoken with anger,distress,or confusion?
Luke places this parable after two others about God's searching for sinners;but unlike them,it comes with the sting in its tail,when the older brother confronts his father. While there are people in church who identify with the younger brother,and have not yet comprehended the father's profligate welcome,many may be more like the elder brother;unhesitatingly faithful,and yet unaware of the riches that are theirs for the enjoyment,or,until something triggers it,of their own disappointment,even bitterness,that their fidelity has never been celebrated. Although this is not theme of the parable,perhaps it is time for families and churches to celebrate faithful devotion that has been taken for granted.
We are asking to be put in the place of both sons,not just the younger one. As we see the father's open-handed love,which was always looking and yearning for his wayward son's return,we might ponder how we respond when the self-centred behaviour of people whom we love challenges us,like the father,to risk bountiful goodness. The person who is missing from the story is the mother,an interesting thought when we hear it.I wonder how she coped with her turbulent male household.What comes to mind is Isaiah's poignant image of God as mother;''can a woman forget her nursing-child,or show no compassion for the child of her womb?Even these may forget,yet I will not forget you'' Isaiah 49;15 In that light,we can pray with confidence calling Him ABBA FATHER-A M EN.