Two sons

Lent 4 – 2010

Luke 15:11-32

Marian Free

In the name of God who asks only that we accept God’s love. Amen.

Today’s parable, which for centuries has been affectionately known as the prodigal son, and more recently as the “forgiving Father”, is really the story of two sons and their relationship with their loving father. It is not a matter of a good son and a bad son, but of both sons failing in different ways to respect their father and of both at different times rejecting the love their father has for them. Both sons behave badly, both sons are lost to and alienated from their father and both sons demonstrate a failure to properly understand the father-son relationship, one by walking away from it and the other by never embracing it. The one who leaves has turned his back on the love and protection of his father and the one who stays allows his resentment to alienate himself from that love and protection and so is as distant as if he had left. In a surprise ending, we discover that of the two sons, it is the one who stayed at home who turns out to be irredeemably lost.

At the beginning of this section of the gospel, Luke tells us that: “all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ Those who are the outsiders are those who “hear” what Jesus is saying and those who should be open to hearing are deaf to Jesus’ teaching as a consequence of their sense of self-importance and self-righteousness.

Today’s parable is the last of three parables about the lost which are Jesus’ attempt to open the minds of the Pharisees to the unconditional nature of God’s love. The story of a father’s love for two very different sons demonstrates not only that the father’s love is extended to both sons regardless of their behaviour, but also that the acceptance or rejection of that love can has serious and eternal consequences.

The story begins with the younger son who is greedy and thoughtless. Instead of shouldering the responsibility of helping to manage the farm, he demands his share of the property and abandons his father and brother to do all the work. However his wealth doesn’t bring the happiness and independence he seeks. Instead he finds himself not only engaged in a humiliating and degrading task, but also starving. It is only when he reaches the depths of despair that he comes to himself. He remembers that even the lowest slave in his father’s household has more than enough to eat. His hunger is sufficient for him to swallow his pride and to return home with a well rehearsed speech. He knows enough of his father’s generosity to suppose that he will be heard and probably received. In fact, his readiness to address his father as “father” is itself an indication that he believes that the relationship has not been completely severed by his going away.

His faith in his father is amply rewarded. Before he reaches home, his father runs to embrace him and before his speech is completed, his father has extravagantly welcomed him back into the fold. The robe, the ring and the sandals are all indications that his place as son was never lost.

The older brother has a very different story. He has stayed at home, but we gather from his reaction that he has not stayed willingly or happily. In fact, he despite having remained with his father, he has no real concept of his father’s love for him. It appears that he has stayed not out of love but out of a sense of obligation and a hope that his good behaviour will eventually earn him a reward. His language indicates that for all these years he has seen the relationship in terms of that between a slave and a master, rather than that of father and son: “For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command.” He obviously thinks that his father’s love is dependent on what he does rather than a natural result of their relationship.

Because he has never understood the true nature of the relationship or grasped the extent of his father’s generosity, this son has failed to recognise the constant state of privilege in which he lived, his equal status with the father. He has worked reluctantly and never taken advantage of his position as equal. It is not just the immediate situation which draws forth such a hostile response, but years of festering resentment. Even when his father comes out to comfort him, his anger will not be appeased.

The father doesn’t play favourites, but treats both sons in the same way. When he sees the younger son coming home, he has compassion and runs to meet him. He doesn’t berate him for his bad behaviour, but simply welcomes him home. When he senses the hurt and anger of the older son, he goes out to plead with him. Again, he doesn’t accuse the older son of ungraciousness, but tries make him part of the celebration.

The older son, however, having never understood or taken advantage of the benefits that were his, cannot bear that his brother has gained those benefits without doing anything to deserve them. Instead of allowing himself to be loved, he wants that love withheld from his brother.

Interestingly, it is the son who goes astray who best understands the strength of the bond between father and son and who has recognised the nature of the father’s generosity. The older who has stayed has never appreciated just how much he was loved, and because he has not understood, he has not seen that he was his father’s equal with all the privileges that entailed. The younger son is willing to swallow his pride and to accept love that he has done nothing to deserve. The older son stands on his dignity and demands love as a reward instead of receiving it as a gift.

The grumbling Pharisees are like the older son. Despite having never left the shelter of God’s love, they have utterly failed to understand God’s ongoing, unstinting love for them. Instead of rejoicing in their place as God’s chosen and wanting to share that love they have created boundaries and conditions which lock people out. The sad irony is, that those who have been locked out are those who now understand, whereas those who have always belonged are, as a result of their sense of self-righteousness, unable to find a way in.

God’s love is a constant. It is never withdrawn even from the most miscreant of God’s children. The difference between those who are saved and those who are not, is not their good or bad behaviour, but their willingness to recognise their need for God’s love and their readiness to sacrifice their pride and independence to accept that love.

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