14th March 2010 - "The Prodigal Son"
Stephen Fielding - St Mary's
Of all the parables of Jesus, the parable of the prodigal son is for many of us the most memorable, the most heartfelt and the most profound. What is it about the broken hearted father and the son who eventually comes home that convinces us that this is real life? What is it about the resentful older brother that causes so many to identify with him? ‘It’s not fair’, we might say. Maybe at different times we see ourselves in the person of both sons and sometimes, dare I say it, we find ourselves in the position of the father. I see three signs in this great parable of forgiveness.
I see first of all a sign of the reality of human pain. There is pain in this story, is there not? Think first how painful it is for the father. Remember the father knows that when he dies, his younger son will get a third of what he owns, and the eldest son will get two thirds. But the younger son says, ‘I want it now please, I want to take it and I want to go and do my own thing’. Can you imagine it? It is as if the son had said to his father, ‘Why don't you drop dead? I want your money and I want it now.’ If the brazenness of the son doesn't hurt the father, imagine his heartbreak when the son packs his bags and goes away. On top of the brazen grasping, there is the sheer pain of losing a son. The father must think ‘He's gone away and my heart is breaking’. So it's painful for the father. It becomes extremely painful for the son. For sure he starts out by enjoying himself. There is the life of unbridled freedom and excess. I bet he had a great time to start with. But what starts in freedom and enjoyment becomes an utter disaster - penury and destitution. He's even reduced to feeding the pigs and eating their food, something particularly abhorrent to a Jew. He reaches rock bottom. So it's painful for the son. And of course it's painful for the older brother whose double resentment goes very deep indeed. Yes - at the deepest human level there is real pain here in all three lives. How well Jesus knew what the human heart has to go through. What he says rings true. He knows us, and he knows what we go through at the deepest level. And let me just say on this Mothering Sunday that this is true for many mothers. Mothers know the reality of human pain. This parable, then, is first and foremost a sign of the reality of human pain. Let me ask you a question. What pain, what rejection, what resentment, what sin are you holding on to in your own heart? What unresolved pain, what forgiveness withheld, are we holding on to in our own lives? This parable says that the reality of human pain is a part of human life and we who hear the story must name it in and for ourselves.
It is secondly a sign of the reality of human joy. Life is not only painful. At his lowest ebb, the younger son realises that only going home will restore his fortunes, will get him back on an even keel, and will give him his life back, as indeed it does. He is welcomed home by his father and becomes the centre and focus of the greatest celebration. He has gone from despair to delight. The father who in his heartbreak has been longing for the son to return, sees him returning and his heart breaks again, this time for joy. What a marvellous reunion and making up - the reuniting of the father with the son of his own heart. And what the son sees when he looks into his father's face is a beard rather greyer, hair rather whiter, and the face more deeply lined than when he went away. The cost of loving has been incredibly high for the father, and now, in the acceptance of the son and the sheer joy of the father, we can see that both know a deep and transforming delight. This is the joy of the Lord. And Jesus says, it's always worth it. However low you fall, get up and come back. If you need forgiveness, ask for it. If you can give forgiveness, give it without hesitation and without reservation. The reconciliation will be the reconciliation of delight and joy. So in this story there is a sign of the reality of human pain and the reality of human joy. What joy may result from my own recognition of the need for forgiveness or my own giving of it.
And thirdly this parable is a sign of something we should never forget, that the initiative is always God's. We can so easily misread this parable. We can read it as meaning that it needed the son’s change of heart to cause the father's change of heart. As if the father was not always longing for the boy to come back. But this is seriously to misrepresent the story and its meaning. We are already saved, already rescued. The gift of grace has already been given to us, just as the son has already received his inheritance. We are part of the kingdom of heaven already. So when we fail, it is the failure to respond to what God has already given us in opening up the kingdom of heaven to us. It's not that we have forfeited our membership of the Kingdom. It is simply that we have not lived according to its rules. So we turn, like the prodigal, and we say sorry. We say sorry for failing to honour and use the gift of God's grace. The initiative is first God's and then it is ours. God's heart is constant to save. He is a rescuing God; that is his character. He has given us his inheritance. The initiative is always God’s; the gift and the rescue have already been given.
Here then, in the greatest of all the parables, are three signs - a sign of the reality of human pain, a sign of the reality of human joy, and the assurance that God’s initiative always precedes our own. When we are at our lowest ebb, when things are down and out, we are to turn to the living God, putting our faith and our trust in the Father who has freely given and who always delights to call us home.