A reason to party

Lent 4

Forgiving Father Luke 15:11-32

Marian Free

In the name of God whose love always welcomes us back. Amen.

Whenever the parable of the forgiving Father is read, more often than not I am told: “I really relate to the older brother!” This is a significant reaction and it tells us three things. One is that the sting in the parable has not been properly understood. A second is that it is very hard for most of us to let go of our egos. We are so bound up with concepts of fairness and judgement and we allow the injustices experienced in our past to dominate and determine our feelings in the present. The third is perhaps the most serious.  As the Father is clearly meant to represent God, our discomfort (resentment) at the treatment of the prodigal tells us something about our trust or lack of trust in God.

There are a number of differences between the two fictional sons. The older is sensible and responsible, willing to conform to societal and family norms and to work for his father until his father dies and passes his share of the property to him. We can imagine that, as a result, his life has had very few highs and lows. He has just gone about his business day by day secure in the knowledge that he has shelter, enough to eat and some sort of a future. He may even believe that he has all that he needs.

The younger brother is the opposite. He is reckless, irresponsible and impetuous. This son has no thought for centuries of tradition or for the respectability of his family. All he thinks about is himself. Half the property is due to him. His father can manage financially and otherwise without him. Why not take his share of the property now? Why not see the world and have adventures while he is still young enough to do so? Why submit himself to the humdrum of daily existence at home when the world has so much more to offer?

One stays and the other goes, with alarming consequences for both.  The younger son very quickly discovers that going it alone is not all that he had dreamed it would be. In a distant land, starving and condemned to feeding pigs he realises how good home really was. Having chosen adventure, he now longs for security. Aren’t his father’s servants better off than he is? What is he doing? Life as his father’s servant would be better than his present conditions. The humiliation of admitting that he was wrong, of confessing that he has squandered his inheritance and the shame of ending his days as a servant or slave are nothing compared to the degradation he is currently experiencing. He has sunk as low as it is possible to sink. Returning home cannot make him feel any worse.

The older son stays at home satisfied that he is doing the right thing. Possibly he even thinks that he is content. However, while his brother is away learning about the world, the older sibling has nothing to challenge his sense of security, nothing to force him to question whether he has made the right choice. He is relying on history and tradition to justify his position and, had his brother never come home, he might have remained smugly content, sure that he was the favoured son. After all, wasn’t he the one doing the right thing?

All the certainty of the older son is thrown into disarray when the younger son comes home. Instead of being met with censure and condemnation this wayward child is met with rejoicing! It is impossible for the older son to make sense of what is happening. His own certainly that he was doing what was right has not prepared him for something so totally unexpected. He has not learnt the lessons that his brother has been forced to learn. He has not descended to the place which has forced him to see his own short comings and to value what he does have, in particular his father’s love for him. He has based his decisions on a belief that his father needs him and has failed to realise his need for his father. His very “goodness” and his strict observance of societal norms have confirmed his sense of his own value and have ill-equipped him to understand either his brother, or his father’s reaction. His black and white view of right and wrong and his lack of self-knowledge will not allow him to move beyond conformity to compassion.

As we can see from the first few verses of chapter 15, Jesus is telling this parable against the Pharisees. Like the older son, they have relied on their observance of the Jewish tradition for their salvation. In doing so however they, like the older son, have lost sight of their dependence on God and on God’s grace. Instead of seeking a genuine relationship based on an honest view of themselves, they have developed some sort of replacement for a relationship based on formulas and rules. Their resultant self-assurance means that they have no reason to look beyond the surface of their lives to see that they are in fact self-righteous, judgemental, unforgiving and self-serving. They don’t understand that by hiding their real selves behind observance of rules and the keeping of traditions, they are not only limiting their growth, but they are also denying themselves an authentic relationship with God. At the same time, they are so used to measuring themselves against those who don’t measure up that they cannot comprehend that God might be able to have a more meaningful relationship with those who are more aware of and more readily acknowledge their imperfections. So it is with the older son.

Richard Rohr suggests that: “Sooner or later, if you are on any classic ‘spiritual schedule’, some event, person, death, idea, or relationship will enter your life that you simply cannot deal with, using your present skill set, your acquired knowledge, or your strong willpower. Spiritually speaking, you will be, you must be, led to the edge of your own spiritual resources.”[1] Sometimes, like the younger son, we need something to shake us out of our complacency, to help us to accept the love of God in our lives and to realise that ultimately nothing less than complete dependence on God will satisfy the longing of our souls. Until that point, we remain like the older son, limited to a superficial relationship with God, reliant on sterile observance of laws. We think that we have to earn God’s love and, blind to our own flaws and imperfections, we resent God’s generosity to others because we have not fully understood the generosity of God’s love for us.

The older son was not a bad person, just as the Pharisees were not bad Jews. Their mistake was a failure to understand that God’s love could not be bought by obeying rules and by observing traditions. They could not comprehend that it was in God’s nature to love and that as God loved them despite their shortcomings, so God loved all those who did not live up to their high standards. What the Pharisees and the older son simply did not understand is God’s love just cannot be bought. It is ours for free. It is when we truly comprehend how much our flawed, imperfect selves are loved by God that we understand God’s desire and right to extend that love to others. Knowing ourselves flawed and yet loved, lost and now found, we will be incapable of resentfully standing outside. Instead we will joyously and gratefully join in the celebrations, knowing that we ourselves are a cause for the party.

[1] Rohr, Richard. Falling Upwards: Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2011, 65.


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