11 Then Jesus said, ‘There was a man who had two sons. 12The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” So he divided his property between them. 13A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’ ” 20So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” 22But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate.
25 ‘Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27He replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.” 28Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29But he answered his father, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.30But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” 31Then the father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead
Luke 15:11-32 – NRSV
Of all of Jesus’s stories, none is more familiar than the much-loved story of the Prodigal Son. But perhaps because it’s so well-known, we miss so much. I think we need to try to open ourselves up to hearing this story in a new way, to strain to hear it as those for whom it was first told may have heard it, however difficult that might be and however huge the cultural and historic gulf between us and Jesus’s first audience. Because here lies Jesus’s own story about his Father’s true nature. (Click on the title to read more)
We need, for example, to imagine the sharp intake of breath from Jesus’s first hearers, when they heard the sentence spoken by the younger son: ‘Father, give me the share of the property that falls to me.’ Experts in Middle Eastern culture have pointed out that this can only really mean one thing – that the son’s impatient for the death of his father. The phrase would have been absolutely shocking. Theologically, this is mankind wanting God dead, which is the message that sometimes comes across in our own time and culture. In the story, the father agrees to his younger son’s disgraceful demands, and then the younger son sells half his father’s assets built up over a lifetime, in a few days, by means of a fire sale that would again have been truly shocking. Immediately afterwards, the son abandons his father, family, community, everything, taking the cash with him. And we need to grasp that he chooses in cold blood to wound his father and cut off all ties with his family and the wider community. He shows his father and all the others that he simply doesn’t care about them. We’re so used to young people travelling long distances in our day and age, that the story’s lost its power to shock us, but in first century Palestine, there was a high risk that the son would never return alive, as travelling was so dangerous. The father no doubt is distraught at this; the son just doesn’t mind how his father feels. The son demands privilege without responsibility. The father, in stark contrast, grants his son the freedom to reject him, and although he’s deeply hurt by his son, he doesn’t love him any less because of the selfish way that he’s behaved.
The son then travels to Gentile, ie non-Jewish lands, which we know because they’re keepers of pigs. Again more shock; that the son of a respected Jewish patriarch would have chosen to go and live among those viewed by the Jews as the savage and uncivilised gentiles. A modern Biblical scholar has compared how first century Jews viewed the eating of pork, with how we’d react in our day to someone who ate live cockroaches. But when the son’s squandered his entire inheritance and comes to his senses, he decides that he’ll go and ask his father to be treated as one of his hired hands. Through this we know that he still doesn’t quite get it, even when he’s on his uppers. There’s no repentance implied in the words in this part of the story; he finds himself hungry and thinks of a way that he can go back into the community and still retain some standing and self-respect. It’s all about him; he doesn’t understand that the real issue isn’t about him, nor is it about the lost money. What it’s about is that he’s chosen, quite deliberately, to break his father’s heart and treat his relationship with the community as if it didn’t matter.
And so we move forward to what I want to persuade you is the most important part of the story, and one for which the true meaning has become blurred: the response of the Father to these events. For here lies an astonishing story about the nature of God; here’s the part of the story that helps us to answer the question: ‘What is God’s true nature?’
We read that the son sets off back to his father, but that ‘while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion, and ran and put his arms around him and kissed him’.
To understand this sentence properly, we have to put ourselves into the mind-set of a first century Jewish Palestinian. We know that the father’s wealthy, and with his wealth comes the respect due to the patriarch of the community. Those listening to this story, in view of the disgraceful way in which the son’s behaved so far, would have expected the father to have forced his son to walk through the village to meet him, under the scornful and humiliating stare of everyone in the community.
A man of the social standing of the father, would retain his dignity and status at all times. If he was in a hurry, we might see his robes flowing out behind him as he strode forth in a purposeful way. However, to rush would not have been dignified; and to run was absolutely unthinkable. To run, he’d have to gather up his robes, exposing his lower legs to shameful and humiliating public view.
And so, we read, the father runs. He runs not just a few steps, but to a place that St Luke calls ‘far off’, and he uses the Greek word that’s translated into English as ‘run’, but which actually means ‘race’. The father races towards the son who rejected, humiliated, ashamed him and wanted him dead, with not a second’s thought for his own loss of dignity. The father chooses to shame and humiliate himself publicly, in front of the entire community.
This passage is truly shocking. It invites us to see God’s nature in a way that’s deeply subversive and challenging. Personally I find even thinking about God’s response to his son very emotional, which is why, I think, I’ve been gripped for some years by Rembrandt’s portrait of the Prodigal Son, which I feel privileged to have stood in front of in St Petersburg in February this year. I wasn’t disappointed; it’s very powerful.
In the last few years, there’s been a national debate about the need for Food Banks in our modern, wealthy society. There are those who feel that it reflects badly on us as a nation, to have to acknowledge the existence in our society of those who are unable to feed themselves and their families. But there are also, I know, those who feel that those needing Food Banks are likely to have been irresponsible with money and that’s why they find themselves with no money for food. The story of the Prodigal Son speaks powerfully into this debate, as it’s the story of someone who chooses to cut himself off; who chooses to reject his father and wish him dead; who chooses to liquidate the family’s assets at a knock-down price; who chooses to travel to the most sinful place for Jews in his world and who chooses, when he gets there, to waste his money and squander it, in the most irresponsible way imaginable in that world. It isn’t possible to imagine a case of someone who’s contributed more to his own disaster. The Prodigal Son is offered to us as an extreme example of someone who doesn’t deserve support from anyone, least of all from the father whom he wished was dead. And yet what’s the father’s response? He races towards his son in compassion, abandoning all thoughts of his own dignity and social position. What does this say about those who claim that welfare payments should be withheld from those who’ve become needy only because of their own irresponsibility? What does it say, for that matter, about those who demand that public repentance must be made by those who are seeking forgiveness?
This story told by Jesus indicates to us that God’s nature is not to judge; not to demand repentance, for certainly as the father races towards his son, the father has no indication whatsoever that his son is contrite – he just sees him at a distance and has compassion and races towards him.
So is the younger son not contrite at all, is that the message we need to take, that our father’s love is so unending that there’s no need for us to repent? Well, we know the answer to this, too, for it’s hidden in the story. When he decides to return, the Prodigal Son plans to say: ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’ But after his father’s lost all his dignity on his behalf and shown the unlimited depth of his unconditional love and compassion, the son doesn’t get as far as asking to be treated like one of his father’s hired hands – that last part of his prepared speech is missing. Suddenly, he’s realised what this is all about, and he throws himself on his father’s mercy, recognising what he’s done and abandoning hope of any face-saving solution. Crucially for our understanding of God’s nature, God races to his unrepentant son, who then responds fully to his father’s demonstration of unlimited and unreserved love with love and repentance of his own. So repentance in the story comes about as a response to love. Not, repeat not, because of fear of punishment. Do please re-read the Bible story above, note the sequence and think about its meaning; it’s critical to our understanding of what Jesus is telling us about his father’s nature.
It is, of course, challenging to accept this as the nature of God; it’s counter-intuitive. We’re all hard-wired into thinking that people should have to pay for their misdemeanours; we’re instinctively uncomfortable at the thought that those who’ve hurt and harmed us won’t have to pay for their behaviour in some way. But if we insist that God must act in the way we humans do, then we’re guilty of the heresy of trying to show God as being made in our image, rather than us in his.
You see, that’s why the question ‘What is God’s true nature?’ is so deceptively simple.
What Jesus seems to be saying to us in the story of the Prodigal Son is this: ‘’This is God’s nature; to offer love without condition to us all, whatever we may have done, in the hope that we may respond to him with a reflection of that love and a determination to try to share his love with others who need it. Can we accept this unconditional love for ourselves, and can we accept that all others are loved just the same?’
A wise old Roman Catholic priest was once asked what the most common problem was that he met in the confession box. He replied: ‘God. The misconception of God. The inability, for whatever reason, to see God as a God of unlimited love, forgiveness, tenderness and compassion.’
And that, ultimately, is why Christianity survived and spread and why it’s so important that it continues to survive; because it shows us what the world could be like, if only we could all accept Jesus’s depiction of his father, without any reservation whatsoever.