A reflection offered at Hobart North UCA, 10th March, 2013
Check out these pictures. I wonder what you see…
As you look, please take note of what you notice first… what draws you in, if anything?
Note the position of the characters… their expressions, their stance towards each other…
What touches you? You know the story, how do the pictures help you see it? Anything new?
What did you notice most?
For me, it was the expressions on the father’s face: delight, relief, gratitude… and some emotions beyond mere words, it seemed to me!
It left me with a question. Why is this story most widely known as “the prodigal son”??
Quite apart from the fact that ‘prodigal’ is a really strange word, this story of Jesus isn’t about the son at all! It’s about the other 2 characters: the father, & the elder son.
They are the ones whose responses are important to Jesus the storyteller: they, and their relationships with the younger son.
As we attend to this story it’s useful to remember that, within Luke’s gospel, it has two settings:
- The story Jesus tells, and
- Whatever was going on around him that prompted him to create and tell it.
Second setting first:
Jesus was under attack from the scribes and Pharisees, who were shocked at his behaviour. Most particularly with whom he was associating, with whom he was eating and drinking. They might let him be, if was just the poor and destitute people, but it’s not. It’s the small entrepreneurs, the tax collectors, etc. In other words, the ‘undesirables’.
And ‘eating and drinking’: not as in eating lunch, but as in feasting!
Nor was he there doing what gets known today as ‘pre-evangelism’ (horrible idea!): sitting with someone long enough to get their trust and them preaching them ’the gospel’
He was actually feasting with them… talking and listening to them…
The good folks were scandalised! And Jesus knew it.
His demonstration of radical inclusiveness wasn’t going down too well, so he decided to push the point with a story.
And so we come back to the first setting for the parable, the story itself.
I don’t need or want to re-tell the story, it’s one of the best known of all gospel stories.
I want us to re-enter it at the point where the younger son has come home. That’s where all of those images come in… all of the expressions we saw on the face of the father. That’s where the really radical nature of Jesus’ story comes into its own.
What goes before is kind of setting the scene for the main act of the drama.
Look again at the people in this painting by Australian outback painter Lynton Allan (The 5th image): particularly the two facing us, and how they’re placed in relation to the returning younger son.
There’s text on here as well:
“With his heart pounding
he drove to the outer gate,
ran out and embraced him.
The son started to apologise and ask for work,
but his father was not listening.
He was dancing to another tune-grace, pretty amazing grace”.
“Meanwhile, the older son stood back seething in anger and disgust”.
For Jesus, I think these two sum up what he wants to say to those who are attacking him and his choice of feast companions.
They become symbols of the ways in which people can respond to the ones “who have been lost, and are found”.
The father in the parable clearly represents GOD, and the way of grace, delight, and welcome. The older son stands for those who resent the salvation of others.
(Did you see what I did there? I inserted the ‘s’ word – salvation. It’s a critical part of the parable.
After all, what IS salvation, if it’s not restored or right relationship with GOD, in this world as well as the next?)
But it’s not only about the different responses: I noticed something this week that I’ve not really seen before. It’s to do with the way the older son and the father speak of the younger son, in that exchange at the end of the story.
(and it’s where my title for this Witness comes from).
But he answered his father, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.
But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’
Then the father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’ “
I think the problem here is not simply that the older son resents the young brother being forgiven and welcomed, it is that he has dismissed him altogether and denied that he is his brother. (“… this son of yours”)
Now we need to be a bit careful about being too judgemental here: even though this is a made up story, relationships are always complex. But it seems to me that this may be why this conversation is in Jesus’ parable.
And the father’s comments are not only about the older son’s response to his brother.
They are designed to bring him back to a right relationship, or indeed any sort of a relationship, with his brother (“…this brother of yours”). “You can’t just ignore this, my boy” This is not about someone else, this is about US!”
“Don’t you see, son?” “We have to celebrate! My son, your brother, has come back to us!”
“…The son started to apologise and ask for work,
but his father was not listening.
He was dancing to another tune-
grace, pretty amazing grace”.
And he wants both of his sons to dance with him!
Without both, the dance is incomplete
Jesus, the teacher, told them a parable.
Simply telling them off would do no good, so he told them a story instead…
That’s what teachers do sometimes.
Luke gives no suggestion of how Jesus’ hearers responded to this parable, or if they heard what he was saying…
Let’s be still with it for a few moments now… just in case it’s speaking to us!