Luke 15:1-3; 11-end
St Barbara’s 31.03.2019
Rev Tulo Raistrick
We are so familiar with this story that we are in danger of failing to be shocked by it, but shocking it is, and in so many ways.
Lets start with the attitude of the younger son. In asking his father for his half of the inheritance, he is essentially saying: ”I wish you were dead already.” There is little love or affection, just an eye for the material gain that will accrue on his father’s death, and the greed and impatience that prevent him from waiting.
But more than this. His demand means that his father has to sell off half the family land. This was land that would most likely have been passed down from generation to generation. It was part of who they were as a family, part of their identity. And the younger son is quite happy to tear this all up.
And to rub it in further, the son has no intention of hanging around to spend his money locally. Oh no. He heads off to distant lands, totally reneging on his responsibilities as a son to care for his father in his old age, in a time of no welfare state or elderly care homes. It is the height of selfishness and irresponsibility.
The son receives his comeuppance, much to the delight of Jesus’ listeners no doubt, although even they would have been shocked by how far he falls. There was nothing more unpleasant, religiously unclean and humiliating for a Jew than work that involved caring for pigs, and this is what the son has to resort to. Indeed, worse than that, so desperate the straits he ends up in, he even imagines having to eat pig food.
But the biggest shock of the story is still to come. As he nears home, the father sees his errant son, and he runs to greet him. In middle-eastern culture, no one of any age or dignity runs. To hoist up one’s garments and run – well, that is just too shocking for words. Has the father lost his senses? Surely the only appropriate action is for the father to turn his back on his returning son, and at most listen to his grovelling whilst seating aloof and removed.
But no. Such is the father’s overwhelming love he can’t get to his son fast enough. He runs. He throws his arms around him in an embrace that would have left him grimy and stinking but he won’t let go. This son who was lost is now found, the son who is dead is now alive.
This is what God’s love is like, Jesus tells his listeners. It is a love that does not seek to control – that allows us to make our own choices, even when those choices take us away from him – and it is a love that explodes into unalloyed joy when we return to him. This is a depth of personal love that no one had ever conceived could apply to God until Jesus began to talk about it and demonstrate it in his own love and care for others.
But there is another son lost in the story, also in need of being found. The older son may not have travelled away, but he is still living at a distance from his father. Listen to his resentful words to his father: “This son of your’s…” (not “this brother of mine”). In other words, I don’t want to have anything to do with him; he’s nothing to do with me. “I’ve been slaving away for you…” when in fact the father had made them joint partners – they were working together, but the son in his anger and resentment only sees injustice that isn’t there. He refuses to come in to the party, despite his father’s pleas. He is self-righteous and proud, where his father is loving and generous.
But the father does not have favourites. He reaches out to the older son as to the younger son. He leaves his place at the head of the table, he abandons his guests, in the middle of the feast (a quite shocking act in itself) to go and plead with his older son. He loves him as much as the younger son.
Jesus leaves the story hanging. We don’t know how the older son responds. We don’t know whether the younger son has turned the leaf. But that seems deliberate. It is for us to put ourselves in the story and to finish it off for ourselves.
For it is a message for those who feel far from God – God longs for us to turn back to him, for as soon as we do, he will come out to meet us with a loving embrace.
And it is a message for those who feel we have been dutifully serving God for many years – do we really understand the love and generosity of God? Have we really experienced it for ourselves? And are we able to delight when others discover it too?