We all know the story of the Prodigal Son, don’t we. Or…do we? Do we really pay attention to all the bits and pieces which somehow tend to get buried in what we think is the whole story: simply a tale of an impatient younger son, anxious to get on in the word and satisfy his own desires long before his father dies. Who then goes away and wastes – squanders – every bit of his inheritance in ‘dissolute living’. Just imagine the images we can create about what THAT is! And then, when the money runs out and he’s had to find a job – a really lowly mucky labourer’s job – which doesn’t give him much to live on, decides that he’ll go back to his father and take whatever is on offer. Daddy will always provide, so I don’t need to worry. Is that it?
In some ways, what he plans to say to his father seems to be so carefully constructed and rehearsed that it sounds phoney, just a ploy to get back into his father’s good books. What’s really interesting is that he never says he’s sorry to anyone, not even his father. To us, this story could start to sound like an illustration of how to be very effectively manipulative. When the father sees his son, supposedly lost for ever, there’s an open arms welcome, with instant rewards of the best clothes, a bit of bling and a splendid feast to celebrate. It’s obvious that the prodigal son isn’t even expected to apologise for his actions and can just come home and rather selfishly carry on as before. In fact, Daddy makes the younger son’s homecoming much easier by giving in to the child’s selfishness. No words of discipline, no punishment, not even a command to never do it again.
But there’s another crucial part to this story – one which we almost always forget. There are two sons in this parable. The elder son, the responsible one who stayed at home, did the work he was supposed to, presumably obeyed his father and was a good boy – what about him. Has his father forgotten he has another child? His part in the story is relegated to a meagre few lines right at the end. He isn’t even invited to the party Daddy gives for the returning prodigal, he has to find out from one of the slaves what all the music and fuss is about. Even when his father comes in person there’s no invitation to the party. ‘Began to plead with him’ sounds more like an attempt to justify Daddy’s seal of approval on the wasteful, unrepentant younger son. No wonder the older son feels resentful and like he’s been taken for granted. Forgotten about because he’s always done what his father told him to do but never got praise or reward. Daddy appears to be playing favourites. The father temporarily lost his younger son – but is he at risk of losing his elder one for much longer? Maybe forever?
We all could ask ourselves – which child would we identify ourselves with? Maybe some of us have actually been that younger child, who was subsidised to go off into the world with no responsibilities and no need to worry about the future. And perhaps some of us have been a resentful older sibling who dutifully stayed at home and worked hard when everyone else seemed to be having a good time. Would any of us be angry about a younger sibling who made off with their share of the family money, threw it all away on living it up while the money lasted, and then crawled back home being pretty sure that Daddy would just carry on providing? Perhaps eventually at their expense?
However we might understand repentance and saying sorry, there’s no hint of repentance here; although much of the Christian Church has assumed that Jesus is teaching about the need to come to your senses if you’ve sinned and grovel to God, begging to be taken back into the fold. You and I might wonder if there’s a whole bunch of important meanings hidden in the layers of the Prodigal Son story which have been sidelined over the centuries. It’s the last of 3 similar stories of losing and finding placed together in Luke’s Gospel; the shepherd losing 1 sheep out of 100 and going to find it, the woman losing 1 coin out of 10 and working tirelessly to discover it, and here the father giving all his care and attention to the younger son who comes back home, but forgetting that he actually has 2 sons. But doesn’t seem to bother about finding that second son, not even to tell him what’s going on!
So…what is it that Jesus is trying to say to us here. It certainly isn’t that we have to be good at all times, following the rules, or risk God’s anger and condemnation if we don’t. The father of the very naughty prodigal son takes him back into the household with great rejoicing instead of disowning him. It may be the hard lesson that, like the older son, we ought to do the right thing regardless of whether or not we get praise and reward for it.
I wonder if Jesus’ message is that God wants everyone and everything to be brought together, unified and complete, into the family of the Kingdom of Heaven. Each and every one of us has equal worth in God’s eyes even though we all have different abilities and live very different lives because we’ve been given the gift of making our own good, bad or indifferent choices. God will never forget us, even if we forget God, who doesn’t play favourites. The lost single sheep is returned to the flock, the lost single coin is put back in its stash, and the forgotten elder son, lost in the anonymity of his presumably obedient life is hopefully eventually reconciled to his father. The unity of creation will be restored. Maybe even in Jesus’ own context, he’s saying that the Kingdom of Heaven is open to all, not just the lost children of Israel but also the Gentiles, quite a revolutionary and astonishing thing to say in his day. God wants to find and care for everyone.
Nobody, nothing is to be left out and there’s always a way to return to the heavenly family. There’s no price of admission. And the rejoicing over the lost ones isn’t because they’re sinners who repent, whose value is in their repentance – it’s simply because they belong to God anyway. Returning the dead to life, finding the lost, reuniting creation’s family is God’s purpose, and Jesus’ teaching. The elder son’s father says “Child, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” ’
God gives us the freedom to choose. If we get lost, of course there’s going to be rejoicing that the family is whole again if we come back. But it doesn’t mean that those who’ve been there all along are going to be forgotten. Or less valuable to God.
Leslie Spatt ©2022