Those of us who have heard this story before have probably come to understand it to be about the prodigal son, the one who wanders off and then later returns, but we could equally describe this as the story of the loving father, or the story of the older brother, or even the story of the absent mother. When you heard the story which of the characters most captivated your imagination?
This story – the parable of the prodigal son and his older brother – is one of the greatest stories of hope in the world. In mediaeval times the parable was known as the “summary gospel,” because as the Church heard the story again and again they recognised that it provided, in a compacted form, a summary of the whole of the good news of Jesus. The Gospel in one: the whole Gospel abbreviated into a single story of images about God’s love for us, and not just us but the whole world.
The story points us to the kind of covenant relationship which God wants to have with each of us.
In the world in which we live there are a great many covenants, although we tend to call them agreements or contracts. Some of them are written down and spoken about, some of them are unwritten and unspoken but just as powerful. “I will do something for you, and in return you will do something for me” is the great unwritten contract of our society. I want food, and you want money to buy other things, and so we exchange your food with my money in proportions which we deem to be a fair agreement. This is the way that the society in which we live operates.
The big agreement in life is that you get something for something, and nothing for nothing, but you don’t get something for nothing. That is how our society works.
And when we perceive that it isn’t working properly or fairly people go to court to try to ensure that they can get as much of what they want by giving as little as they possibly can in return. As it is for us, so it was in the time of Jesus. In the time that Jesus told this story, the world worked on these kinds of agreements too.
The younger son in the story had probably worked for his father for some time. He felt that he had given something but had received nothing in return. So far as ordinary thinking was concerned, he was entitled to something for what he had done, and he was impatient (like all young men) to receive it. His father did not refuse him, or make conditions. The son received his inheritance in ready money and set off for a better life elsewhere.
In the far country he entered into new agreements, giving money in exchange for parties and riotous living and personal pleasure. But when the money ran out he had nothing left to offer to continue his lifestyle: his emptiness is doubly emphasised in the story by the famine that not only affects him but the whole land. And so he enters into another agreement, another way of living. He enters into an agreement in which he gives himself as a slave in return for continuing his life and probably having his debts paid.
And then in the story this young man comes to his senses, and he begins the long painful journey back, long because all that he has done has separated him so greatly from his father; painful because of the realisation that all that he has had has been squandered. He does not begin that journey thinking that he is returning to be a son, but instead hoping that in return for his labour, his father will pay him a wage. Something for something, even though he no longer considers himself to be a somebody.
“Although I am no longer worthy to be his son, perhaps nevertheless he will give me a wage for my work,” the son thinks as he travels back. On his journey he rehearses a speech which he will give if his father is willing to see him.
Yet that is not how it is to be – because all the time that the son has been away, the father had been watching, and waiting, and hoping for his son’s return. His father dashes out as soon as the dust on the horizon stirs, and meeting his son he embraces him, not even allowing him to finish the speech that he has prepared.
Out comes everything from nothing: an embrace, a kiss, a robe, a ring, sandals for his feet. He gets more than something for nothing – far more – he gets everything for nothing, and in the process he is restored from nobody to somebody. All the usual agreement rules are broken. The rules of ordinary, standard, right-thinking, right-judging people count for nothing. The system of contracts and agreements is abolished. All ideas of justice are cast aside in the welcome that the son receives.
If you are visiting us for the first time, let me just briefly say a word to you this afternoon. This Church community here at Wangi in the Parish of Southlakes gathers to do two things week by week. A whole lot of other things happen, but there are only two reasons really why this community exists.
Firstly, it gathers to worship God in your local community. Week by week, month by month, year by year, people gather on Saturday evenings to remember that all that we have has been given to us by God, so we gather to remember all the blessings that we have received, and to worship God, the source of our being.
Secondly, it gathers in your local community to be a sign of God’s love for everyone who lives here. Visitors to this Church find here a way to explore the big questions of life, and how Jesus can make sense of them for us. Prodigal sons and daughters, of every description are welcome here. I hope that you feel welcome here today. We would love to have the opportunity over the coming weeks to get to know you better, and to welcome you into our life, and to share with you what Jesus has done for each one of us.
I remember the mystic David Adam telling the story of how he made the decision to follow Jesus. I am going to use his words rather than my own. “My uncle,” he said, “came back from the war uncommunicative. He had a New Testament which had been supplied to him by the Army. On the cover it had the words ‘God so loved’ and then there was a space, a blank, followed by ‘that God gave His only Son’. I asked him what the blank was for, ‘To put your name in it,’ he barked.
He gave me the book, I went to my room and I put my name in the blank section and I knew that I was remembered by the God in whom no-one is forgotten. ‘God so loved David Adam that God gave His only Son’.”
This good news story in the Gospel of Luke which we have just heard, is a summary of the whole of the good news of God in Jesus for us. Put simply it is like this: there is nothing at all, that we could ever do which would make God love us more than God already loves us. And there is nothing that we could do that would make God love us even less. Like prodigal sons and daughter down through the ages, God longs to welcome us home. And if you are visiting us today I want to encourage you to consider coming home to God through this Church community, where I know you will find both love and support.
This word-picture story of the father and the son re-assures us that in the Kingdom of God every normal rule is broken, is turned upside down, in the name of the love of God. And I simply offer the story to you this afternoon, for you to make it your own.
I want to say something as well to the people who come here week by week, the people who are already the Church here in Wangi, because there is much more to Jesus’ story than the son whose relationship is restored with his father.
We know that because when Jesus paints this parable, he is speaking to people like you and me who were established in the religious institutions of their day. People much more like the older brother than the prodigal son. The older brother is the one who faithfully continues to do the father’s work. And so it isn’t any wonder that he is so angry in the story when he sees what is happening. But what the older brother has not noticed is that whilst he has been working away on the estate, maintaining the property, keeping the show on the road, his father has spent his time looking beyond the farm in the hope that his other son will return.
Had the older brother understood that the greatest desire of his father was to see his son return, then he would have left his work on the estate, and gone in search of his wayward brother, and brought him home to give his father great joy. But instead he is caught up by the old rules and old agreements. He has forgotten that he too is the son of his father, and the brother of his brother. In the story he begins to speak about all that he has done, as if he were a worker who deserves payment in exchange for his labour, rather than a son who has everything. When his wandering brother returns, he somehow forgets that this does not mean that he is loved any the less, and is invited to share with the whole family in his father’s joy.
If the older brother in the story could just put to one side for a moment all of the hard work that he has done for his father on the estate, he would be able to instead share in the deep joy of his brother’s return.
So this is not just a story about a prodigal son, or a loving father, it is a story about an older brother as well.
We don’t know what happens at the end of the story. Jesus deliberately does not tell us, because as a Church those of us who gather here week by week are living in this story today. Some observers of the Church have noted that, generally speaking, we are much better at staying on the estate and looking after the maintenance, than we are at going out to seek out those who God is longing will return to a relationship with him.
So this story is a challenging to those of us who have worked hard in the Church for many years, to remember how joyful it is when we can welcome others here.
If I can speak very personally: as I have lived with this story of the prodigal son over the last years, the story has grown with me, and changed me. I am having to grow out of seeing myself as the prodigal son (as I once was) into seeing myself as the older brother. Living in the life of the Church, seeking to be faithful, but often forgetting that God’s concern is not only for me and the others in the Church, but for all those who live around us as well. Which is why I need to be reminded again and again that God is not only in here, but he is out there as well.
Watching and waiting and acting in the world, longing for people to return to him, and inviting me to share in his work of mission with him.
Jesus does not finish the parable. We do not know what happens next. That’s true for all of us as well.
Who do you associate yourself with as you hear this story?
If you find a connection with the older brother, then remember that everything that God has to give is already yours, and be ready to joyfully share it with others.
If you find a connection with the prodigal son, then today is the day – the invitation is here – to re-connect with God through this community of faith, in the knowledge that God loves you more than you have ever been loved by anyone else.
God so loved you that he gave his only son Jesus.