If the truth is told, I’ve always struggled with this story. We often call it the prodigal son, and that choice of title sets off the problems for me. So often, I’ve heard and read, we’re to rejoice at the younger son coming home. My problem is that the younger son is such a nasty piece of work that human nature makes it almost impossible for me to feel much sympathy for him.
And then we move on to the older son, who displays loyalty, hard work, and sheer graft, and I think many of us feel some considerable sympathy for him. After all, the kinds of people who work hard in churches are loyal and hard working. However, the older brother is a bit too judgy and moralistic for me to have much sympathy for him either.
So, I find myself not really liking either of the main characters, which is why I’ve always struggled with this story, and found it hard to made much sense of it, until I thought about it a bit more. In the book Five Red Herrings by Dorothy L Sayers, Lord Peter Wimsey listens to a number of different policemen all give their own theory of how a crime was committed in turn, and then he says, “You are all wrong, but one of you is less wrong than the rest. Still none of you has got the right murderer, and none of you has got the whole of the method right, though some of you have got bits of it.”
That’s roughly how I feel about much of what I’ve read that tries to make sense of today’s story. I dug a bit deeper, and now think the two sons are there to represent two different kinds of people, and I now think the idea is that they’re both wrong, for very different reasons.
These two brothers each represent a different way to be alienated from God, and a different way to seek acceptance into the kingdom of heaven. I think that what Jesus is doing here is trying to shatter our categories. As well as the destructive self-centeredness of the younger brother, we also have the judgy older brother wanting to claim the moral high ground. I think that Jesus is saying that both the irreligious and the religious can be spiritually lost, both life-paths can be dead ends, and that we humans need to think more carefully about how we connect with God.
When Jesus was preaching to crowds of people, it’s important to remember that in general, religiously observant people of the time were offended by Jesus, but those estranged from religious and moral observance were intrigued and attracted to him. But church isn’t quite like that now. The kind of outsiders Jesus attracted are not attracted to contemporary churches, even our most avant-garde ones. The licentious and liberated, or the broken and marginal, avoid church, which makes me fear that churches might be more like the older brother than most of find comfortable.
Jesus offered us two brothers, I think to demonstrate two different ways of missing the mark: one overly irreligious, and one overly religious. Our Western society is so deeply divided between these two approaches that we can barely see any other way to live now. If we criticize or distance ourselves from one, everyone assumes that we have chosen to follow the other, because each of these approaches tends to divide the whole world into two basic groups. The moral conformists say: “the immoral people — the people who ‘do their own thing’ — are the problem with the world, and moral people are the solution.” The advocates of self-discovery say: “the bigoted people — the people who say, ‘We have the Truth’ — are the problem with the world, and progressive people are the solution.” Each side says: “our way is the way the world will be put to rights, and if you are not with us, you are against us.” If we allow that kind of division to creep into our thinking then we’re falling into the two sons that Jesus showed us.
Jesus the storyteller deliberately leaves the elder brother in his alienated state. The younger son enters his father’s feast, but the older son does not. The lover of prostitutes is saved, but the man of moral rectitude is still lost. Wow! We can almost hear the Pharisees gasp as the story ends. It was the complete reversal of everything they had ever been taught.
Did the older son want the same thing as his brother? Was he just as resentful of his father as the younger son was? Did either son love their father for himself, or for his goods and money? Is not Jesus using these two sons to remind us that we can rebel against God by keeping all the rules diligently as much as by breaking them?
I think one of the points of this passage is about making it clear that sin isn’t about breaking a list of rules. Jesus shows us that a man who has violated virtually nothing on the list of moral misbehaviours can be every bit as spiritually lost as the most profligate, immoral person, because sin isn’t just breaking the rules, isn’t really about breaking the rules, it’s about putting yourself in the place of God, just as both brothers sought to displace the authority of the father in his own life.
Both were wrong, but both were loved. The good news is not religion or irreligion, morality or immorality, moralism or relativism, conservatism or liberalism. Nor is it something halfway along a spectrum between two poles, it’s something else altogether: everyone is wrong, everyone is loved, and everyone is called to recognise this and change.
The danger for the older brother is that he will be trapped by his own bitterness, anger eventually becoming a prison of his own making. When we see the attitude of the older brother in the story, is it perhaps a sign of why the younger brother wanted to leave in the first place? Everybody knows that the Christian gospel calls us away from the recklessness of the younger brother, but do we realise that it also condemns the judgy moralistic older brother?
So what might this parable be saying to us? Don’t try to put ourselves in the place of God! Forgiveness is free and unconditional to the perpetrator, but it’s costly to the forgiver. Forgiveness must be free and unmerited to the wrongdoer, if the wrongdoer has to do something to merit it, then it isn’t mercy, but forgiveness always comes at a cost to the one granting the forgiveness.
This story that Jesus tells is about the story of the whole human race, and Jesus was reminding us that God promises nothing less than hope for the world. Our human race is a band of exiles trying to come home, and so this story is about every one of us.
Jesus holds out hope for ordinary human life, for each person. Our future is not an ethereal, impersonal form of consciousness. We can come to God, and our loving heavenly Father will meet us and embrace us, and we will be brought into the feast.
The feast is the end of Jesus’s story, and I think this has four things to tell us about God’s love:
- God’s love is an experience – Jesus came to bring joy and celebration, a festival.
- God’s love is material – this material world matters. God hates the suffering and oppression of this material world so much, that he was willing to get involved in it and to fight against it. Properly understood, Christianity is by no means the opium of the people – it’s more like the smelling salts!
- God’s love is Individual. God doesn’t love us because we are beautiful; we become beautiful through God’s love. Through God’s love our stinginess can become a reorientation to generosity.
- God’s love is communal. No reunion, no family gathering, no wedding, no other significant social event is complete without a meal.
If we get trapped in the sensual way of the younger brother or the ethical way of the older brother, both only lead to spiritual dead ends. Throughout life, most of us fall into these traps from time to time, but God’s love is bigger than that, calling us, challenging us, to recognise that at a deeper level we need to acknowledge God at the heart of our lives, calling us to take our part in a community of believers seeking to resemble, serve, and love Jesus, a place where we can try to grow ever more into his likeness. This is God’s love which is broad like beach and meadow, wide as the wind. This is God’s love enfolds the world in one embrace, which grasps every child of every race. This is god’s love which gains final triumph, which reigns over all the universe. And a little shadow of this limitless love of God is what can see reflected in the very best of our human love, those from whom we have known the love of a mother.