Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.
“Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
“When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and went to his father.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
“The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
“But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
“Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
“The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your propertywith prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
“‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”
This should be a story about serious religious honour, faithfulness and obedience and about how the older brother is the only one who gets it.
Fortunately for all of us Jesus sees it differently. For him the story is all about the lost son. And that, of course, is what most of us are, lost sons and daughters. We might not be spending a fortune in a weekend, living on champagne followed by pigswill but we are lost.
To my mind no-one has ever captured this sense of lost-ness better than Bob Dylan (the Psalmist of the 20th century).
“How does it feel?
To be on your own,
With no direction home,
A complete unknown,
Like a rolling stone.”
So what of the soft-brained and deluded father? He is God the Father, except he is not soft-brained but soft-hearted and not deluded but determined. Determined to welcome back his lost children, to celebrate, forgive and party.
Many years ago I was made a priest in the Church of England. As such I was given a charge ‘to go out into the wilderness’ and find the Father’s lost children. I think all of us who have ourselves enjoyed the ‘welcome back into’ should then take part in the ‘going out again to find’.
It is probably the most famous and the best loved short story in the whole world. Although I personally have never liked it. I think it’s sentimental, naïve and just way too soft and idealistic. If it was down to me (which thankfully it isn’t) I would do it in a much more hard-faced but realistic way.
So this is the Robin Gamble version of the Prodigal Son:
- The youngest son was a spoilt little brat and who spoiled him? The father of course. So being the completely self-centred, greedy, decadent, ‘couldn’t give a damn about anyone else’, ‘me obsessive’ that he was takes the money, walks out on the family and lives for the now. If he ever had a favourite song it was probably Queen singing ‘I want it all, and I want it now!’
- The father is just a big sugar fairy with too much money and too little sense. He spoilt the youngest son as a kid and now he is spoiling him as a man. He makes it all just way too easy.
- The oldest brother is the only one with any sort of backbone at all. He is careful, hard-working, respectful of his father and the family tradition. He stood by quietly the first time around but not anymore. He has had enough of his useless younger brother and of his totally indulgent ageing father and so he takes over, tells a few home truths and seriously kicks a few butts.
Thinking about myself in real life however, I have a very strong feeling that I could never measure up to the high standards of the older brother. In contrast and desperate gratitude I could look up to the overwhelmingly generous forgiveness and ‘begin again’ love of the father.
Is it really true
That I can come back to you,
That I can be forgiven,
That I can begin again?
Thank you because you tell me in this story,
That the answer is always yes.