Monday, 18 August 2014

Reflections on The Prodigal Son

The Prodigal Son    Luke 15: 11 to end    (St Nicholas, Winsley on 17 August 2014)

Who do you identify with in this story of the Prodigal Son?  The younger rebellious son, the older resentful, sulky, son, or do you identify with the compassionate Father? We know this story of Jesus’ Prodigal Son so well don’t we.

The Father throws his arms round the prodigal’s neck in delight, when his son returns to him. He welcomes him home with open arms - throws a party and kills the fatted calf to celebrate. And the story ends with the elder brother going off in a sulk, because he thinks he’s been hard done by, because the Father has forgiven the prodigal son.

The story of the Prodigal Son is so well known to us that we can miss the fact that to Jesus’ hearers it was both shocking and countercultural. Why? Well for at least two reasons:-

The first reason: Agreeing to split the property would have been out of the question. It was tantamount to telling his Father that he wished him dead. And the Father’s reaction in giving the son his inheritance was simply contrary to conventional Jewish wisdom.

The second reason that the story would have been shocking was the Father’s reaction to the prodigal’s return. No self-respecting Father would have run to greet a wayward son. It was far too undignified for the head of the family to do that. It broke all Middle Eastern protocol.

But of course our ways are not God’s ways. As St Paul put it; ‘For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.’ (1 Cor 1:25). So those who heard the story at Jesus’ time would have been stunned by this countercultural story.  And I wonder how we hear it today?

At one of my previous churches we had a worship band leader who wrote a musical called ‘The Return’. It was based on the book by Henri Nouwen who happened to come across a reproduction of Rembrandt’s painting ‘The Return of the Prodigal Son’ and who then wrote a book with the same title. As members of the choir singing in The Return’ we were asked to read it for ourselves. If you haven’t read it, do get it.  It’s an excellent book and one of those books you can come back to again and again. In it Nouwen explores his personal reaction to the younger son’s return, the vengeful older son’s resentment and the compassionate behaviour of the forgiving father.

I expect we’ve all been able to relate to the behaviour of the wild, younger son and the jealous older brother but of course the real challenge is for us to be like the Father. At the heart of Jesus’s message - is that we are to be like the Father.  We’re to grow up, be true sons of God and model our lives on Jesus. Remember he said ‘Whoever has seen me has seen the Father’.  As long as we belong to this world we are subject to its competitive ways and expect to be rewarded for all the good we do. The great conversion called for by Jesus is for us to move from belonging to the world to belonging to God. 

And God is a God of compassion and we too are to be compassionate. We are challenged to be countercultural – to love our enemies and be good to them, to lend without any hope of return; we must become like God, our heavenly father and see through his eyes. 

This week, as I’ve watched the agony and suffering of those Yezidi refugees in Iraq, struggling to survive as they cross the mountains, loved ones killed or kidnapped, children hungry and traumatized, and of course the continuing bombardments between Israel and Gaza, homes destroyed, no electricity in Gaza, no medical supplies, nowhere safe to hide, I wonder how those who suffer can possibly forgive. 

Yet we know of stories don’t we, closer to home where parents who have lost children through violence have publicly forgiven the killers, we know about the numerous people who survived the concentration and prisoner of war camps and forgave their captors. Henri Nouwen wrote that from studying Rembrandt’s painting he was challenged to pray, to prepare his heart to be compassionate, to forgive unconditionally and to pour himself out for others. 

In our story of the Prodigal son, the father says to the younger son, come let’s celebrate, he dresses him in finery, a robe, a ring, sandals and to the jealous older son he says – ‘all I have is yours’ – he holds nothing back.

As the rebellious son in us, as the resentful son in us both receive unconditional forgiving love from God the father we can be gradually transformed into that compassionate father, bringing acceptance, forgiveness, understanding and love to others.  

And that experience is counter-cultural – we’re striving to be in a place where there is no power, no success, no popularity, no easy satisfaction as we understand them. But it’s that place where there is ‘nothing left to lose’, a place where love has no strings attached and where real spiritual strength is found.

So who can you identify with in this story of the Prodigal Son?  The younger rebellious son, the older resentful son, or can you also identify with the compassionate Father?

Rev. Ann Keating