On this Mothering Sunday we have just heard one of the best-known stories in the Gospel. Although it’s about a father and his two sons, and there’s no mention of a wife or mother, it’s one of the most revealing images Jesus used to explain what God is like.
The story is allegory: the characters represented are God, a sinner and the righteous. Jesus told the story for two reasons – first to highlight God’s merciful nature and, second, to challenge people to see themselves in the behaviour of the older son.
This is the third of three successive stories Jesus tells in St Luke’s Gospel about what God is like when a person strays from God’s love. The first is God being like a shepherd who risks all to recover a lost sheep; the second is God being like a desperately poor woman frantically searching for a lost coin; and the third is God being like a worried parent who lavishly welcomes back a child who had turned his back on him, demanding his inheritance and then wasting it.
In these three stories the lead characters – the shepherd, the woman and the father – rejoice when they find what was lost: the shepherd finds his lost sheep, the woman finds her lost coin and the father finds his lost son. Each case signifies for Jesus how God behaves when people who lose their way eventually return to Him.
But in today’s story, known as the Parable of the Prodigal or Wasteful Son, there is a twist in the tale. The older brother is furious that his father offered a lavish welcome to his brother – hosting a huge banquet, covering his wasteful son with his own festal robe, giving him the family signet ring, and putting sandals on his feet (clearly denoting him as a restored member of the family, unlike the barefoot servants). The older brother resents this and feels that his brother should have been punished instead. This would be our reaction too?
Nevertheless, the story ends with an invitation. The father invites his older son to let go of his resentment and share the joy of his brother being found safe and well once more, restored to his family.
Jesus told this story for two reasons. The first was to highlight God’s unlimited forgiveness – God is like the father in the story. The second was to challenge the people who resented Jesus’ kindness to public sinners to see themselves in the behaviour of the resentful older brother. Here Jesus says to his critics that if you are happy to delight in God’s mercy for yourselves, like the repentant wasteful son, then don’t begrudge God offering this same mercy to others, especially to people you dislike.
Stories such as this were recorded in the Gospel some 50 years after Jesus told them, most likely because they had something to do with what was happening in the local churches at the time, all those years later. This story, found only in St Luke, indicates, perhaps, that church members – like the older son in the story – were annoyed and even resentful by how public sinners and pagans were being welcomed into the Church. They may have been offended that less than desirable people (in their eyes) were allowed to participate in Mass and Church life. They may have forgotten Jesus’ approach to sinners and needed to be reminded that their Church community needed to do the same?
Isn’t it all too easy for us to forget this lesson also? Like the older son, we too may resent or look down on people in our Church who may have lived in ways not to or liking while being blind at the same time to our own failings and sins.
Who do you identify with in this story? Are you the forgiving father, the wasteful son who has repented his ways or the older brother who is hard hearted and unforgiving? And which person would your nearest and dearest say you are?
Holy Name, Jesmond
27 March 2022