LONG LOST FAMILY
Some types of storytelling mess with your brain. Intentionally.
Like one of those novels where you assume the narrator is the one you should be rooting for until you slowly realise they are a psychopath. The niche TV series, The Americans achieved this by making you sympathise for the lead characters even though they were Soviet communist agents subverting the West. We make similar assumptions with the parables of Jesus when we latch on to one character in the story, when God may be asking us to look more closely.
It’s possible we fall into this trap with the much loved parable of the prodigal son. The prodigal is impetuous and undisciplined. A share of his rich father’s property waits for him, but this promise gives him no pleasure. In a very modern way, he wants it all, and he wants it now. His character flaws are prominent and unappealing: amorality, selfishness, the using of others for his immediate gratification. But he has redeemable qualities too. When the money runs out, he does not curse his luck or steal from others. Instead he is willing to do menial work in a foreign country - and with pigs, which as a Jewish person would humiliate him and make him unclean. There is a steeliness to him, too. He remained hungry in a famine stricken land. No-one would feed him. He was a lowly immigrant worker in a country that didn’t have enough to feed its own people, never mind chancers like him. But still he kept working.
Many people identify with the prodigal son in their journey of faith. A lingering sense that they have squandered the best years of their lives by being selfish with others and manipulating them in order to get what they want. But there is another child in this parable and it is striking how many people - perhaps more people – identify with him instead.
He is the older son, filling the archetype perfectly. He is dutiful, hard-working, loyal to his father. If there are dreams of pleasure, he denies himself. On the face of it, he is a model child – the polar opposite of the dissolute younger brother who breaks his father’s heart. But a closer look reveals something else. Any self-respecting Californian psychoanalyst would diagnose him within minutes as a passive-aggressive. He appears self-effacing, but underneath he is a cauldron of grievance. He feels taken for granted and boring compared to the wild child. No-one notices him and his work has become joyless. He does the right things, but it brings him no pleasure. There may be a powerful yearning to go on a sustained bender like his brother, but he curses himself for not having the courage to risk it all.
And then the parable says the prodigal son ‘came to himself’. It is a powerful phrase and one many can identify with in coming to faith in Christ. The years of drift nag away internally. Is this all there is? Why am I here? Is there another life I could have? Faith in Christ does not provide all the answers to the strange and unsettling questions life can confront us with, but it provides a sense of direction. More important still, a sense that God himself walks with us on the journey. He has given his life to join us on the way; to bring us to a destination we could not reach.
And so the prodigal son returns to his father who, we learn, has been yearning patiently for the moment when his son would appear on the horizon. There are people, perhaps some people reading this, whose primary connection in this story is not with the children, but the parent. Those who have lost a child to self-destructive ways of life experience a gnawing, enduring grief every bit as painful as the hunger the prodigal son endured. The love with which they nurtured their child from infancy still pulses within, but there are no hugs or kisses to be had, the casual intimacy of family life. It is a terrible loss and one often hidden to others. If their child is saved from this way of life, the feelings are euphoric. Like the response of the father in this story. The response of God himself when his children turn back to him.
The celebrations in the parable are completely over the top. No gesture could possibly account for the joy felt, but the father tries. The emaciated, threadbare son is given a feast, the best clothes, a symbolic ring. This is how God feels when we return to him. This is what Jesus is trying to tell us. It is a revelation into God’s character – the strange vulnerability and anguish God experiences as we turn our back on him. The overwhelming joy he feels when someone chooses to be restored.
There is no reproach from the father. All that was lost is forgotten. All that matters is the return of the son. The son is repentant, but the celebrations render him speechless. He is overcome with grace. The other son, by contrast, is far from tongue-tied. All the years of buttoned-up stoicism and self-denial are punctured. He hasn’t seen his brother in ages but has no desire to join in the celebrations. The passive-aggression gives way to overt hostility and long dormant accusations against the father: ‘Listen!’, he says, ‘For all these years I have been working like a slave…yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends’.
That’s the problem with relatives. We know them too well. There are many people we know a bit in life, but not enough of to challenge our love for them. Not so with families. We know them inside out. The perennial flaws, the petty grievances, the annoying habits. Years of resenting the sheer entitlement of his brother boil over. The prodigal’s multitude of sins too great for the weak love the older brother feels for him.
This is why we struggle with God’s grace. It seems so unfair at times. We are hard on ourselves and we think this releases us to be hard on others too. But God is hard on neither. As people return to him, he forgives their way of life. Big sins. Small sins. They are all cancelled. We would be so much more punitive in God’s shoes, but thankfully we are not. Grace is bigger than anything in its path.
Shortly before this parable in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus tells another story about the lost sheep. On losing one of his flock, the shepherd will not rest until he has found it. There are two sides to the coin of salvation. One side tells us we return to God, seeking him out and looking for forgiveness, like the prodigal son. The other says it is really God who seeks us out, searching the hillsides and valleys, high and low, until he locates us, wandering aimlessly, sometimes recklessly, on a road.
We may feel like God in this story; the lost sheep; the prodigal son; the resentful brother. It maybe we have an entirely different story to tell. Or one we are waiting for to be written. It is said that God is the author of salvation. For many of us, perhaps, a new chapter is just beginning.
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