“There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’” (Luke 15: 11–32)
This is equally the most famous parable of Jesus (along with The Good Samaritan) and I wonder whom you identify with the most in this story. If you’ve ever really stuffed up, you will identify with the younger son. The younger son really does stuff up and he ends up in a very bad place. Because we’re not Jews living in the 1st century AD, it’s really easy to miss how bad a place he ends up in: feeding pigs was the lowest and most unacceptable job for a Jewish boy and Jesus’ listeners would have known that all too well. But how he ends up there is equally appalling: in asking for his share of the inheritance, the younger son is effectively saying to his father, give me my share, as if you were already dead. Then he takes off and squanders the lot in dissolute living. We’ve all stuffed up occasionally, perhaps not as spectacularly as the younger son, but nonetheless we know what it is like to fail and to want forgiveness.
Jesus wants us to understand the younger son, even if we’ve never quite been in as bad a situation as he finds himself. Then comes this loving phrase, but when he came to himself… What power is contained in that particular phrase. It is a spiritual awakening, a realisation that he doesn’t have to be there. Perhaps this is something we might find more familiar. We wake up to ourselves one day and realise that we can be better, including in the way we deal with others. The brilliance of Jesus’ parable is that even though the youngest son had sunk to the lowest depths possible, he hadn’t quite abandoned everything. Underneath the self-loathing, poverty stricken outside remained the vestiges of a proud son, just waiting to be rediscovered. And when he came to himself, this son emerged, desperate, certainly, but with a resolution to return to the father’s embrace. Sure, he goes back expecting to become a slave, but he goes back! That takes a certain amount of courage in itself.
Of course, there is another son in Jesus’ parable. This one is perhaps far more familiar to us. The elder son… he is a seething mass of resentment, frustration and envy. Sure, he says, this son of yours comes back having wasted all your money and you throw him a party!
So, have a think for a moment. How often have you felt like the elder son? It’s hard being the elder son. We do everything right: we do out of duty, we look after our family, we’re conscientious about doing work, we don’t take drugs or drink drive, and we’re surrounded by idiots who do the wrong thing! I suspect when the Bible was written, the parts, which talk about God’s wrath were written by people who were eldest sons! We might say, I’ve done my homework, if you haven’t done yours you deserve God’s wrath!!
The challenge for those of us who are like the elder son is to think, people actually do value me for what I do. You might be that kind of guy who does everything right. If that’s you, it’s easy to feel resentful if you don’t get enough praise or acknowledgement. So, I have a challenge for you: the first is to know, to accept, that people value you and love you. Just like the father runs out to meet the younger son, welcoming him home, so too the father goes out to the elder son and pleads with him to come in. The challenge to us is whether we too are able to forgive, to set aside the resentments, to realise that God has given us all that we need, to accept the invitation to go to the party and rejoice.
In the middle of all this stands the father.
At different stages of our lives we are different characters in the parable. If you’ve ever really stuffed up, you know, perhaps rather painfully, what it is like to be the younger brother, and how warm the father’s welcome is when you finally come to yourself. When you’ve been the younger son, it’s hard to be too judgemental of others. Yet, I’m sure we’ve all had moments of being like the elder brother, moments of resentment and envy, of bitterness and pain, which flash into anger. But our real vocation is not just to see God as the father, who welcomes us back, indeed who runs to greet us, such is his joy at our return. We are to see God in that way, and Jesus’ parable is very clear about that. But we are also called to be the father, to share the qualities which Jesus himself preached and lived. This is the harder path, especially if you’re like the elder son, when it can be hard to forgive.
The Reverend Dr Theo McCall