2 Corinthians 5.16-21
In the image of the motherly father ©Suzanne Grimmett
Just at this point in Lent when we might be tempted to make a performance of our penitence, along comes the story of a blatantly unrepentant wastrel of a son and a profligate father. While we refer to this story as “The Prodigal Son”, since prodigal means to be wastefully extravagant, the tale would be much better referred to as “The Prodigal Father.” The central purpose of the story, after all, is about the nature of a God whose love is lavishly poured out with seeming disregard for the worthiness of its object. Forgiveness, apparently, is not all about us.
It can be a meaningful exercise to imagine yourself into this story. Perhaps you are drawn most to the character of the younger son as you reflect on ways you have failed or turned away from God. You might notice the utter disrespect of the younger son, who, not satisfied with asking for money and leaving, demands his share of the inheritance, which is the equivalent of saying, “Dad, you are dead to me.” When he finds himself in trouble, we may be tempted to see in his ‘coming to himself’ an expression of humble repentance. I think we are tempted to read that into the text because that is the way our minds work- that we should be sorry enough if we are to be forgiven. But this is not in the story …which tells us instead that the main motivation for the younger son’s return is the ache in his belly and a certain pragmatic deal making that he knows will secure himself something better than the abject misery he currently knows. And so, if we imagine ourselves as this character, with all of these mixed motivations, perhaps we can also imagine the shock of seeing the father lifting up his skirts and running in such an undignified way down the road to meet us, before we have the chance to stammer out any part of our carefully rehearsed lines. The younger son may have messed up, but he was still trying to plan out his future on his own terms. What happens to our sense of control over our lives when our return is via a God who shows such undignified joy at our appearance?
Perhaps, though, you relate more to the elder son. That is likely for many here who may have been part of the church all their lives and have always tried to do the right thing. The elder son represents one who is being offered the power of choice over whether to accept the father’s love on the kind of terms being offered- that of a parent who rejoices over your worthless sibling with an extravagance you have never experienced. It seems to be a message that has some echoes in the parable of the workers in the vineyard found in Matthew’s Gospel. When those who had laboured all day received the same wages as those recruited at the last minute, there is grumbling and the owner of the vineyard asks them, “Are you envious because I am generous?” With the older brother, many of us would probably need to answer “Yes” if we were being honest. Most of us at some time would have a wish for the kind of justice that offers less to those we perceive to be less deserving. What do we do with a God who seems to be evoked here as abundantly rewarding those who we think deserve punishment rather than fatted calves and rings on fingers? It may be that this story brings up old wounds and pain from those moments when we have tried so hard, and yet things don’t just seem to fall in our laps the way they do for others who put in seemingly little effort. Why do again and again others get the invitations, the attention, the honour when you may feel left out or ignored despite your hard work? I know when I sense the resentment stirring in me, or a murmuring grumbling spirit, it is time to catch myself and recognise that patterns of condemnation of others find their fullest expression in condemnation of myself, and that these movements reinforce one another in ways that rob me of life, (and sometimes those unfortunate enough to be around me!).
If you can take a moment to imagine yourself as that older brother, simmering with resentment and whiney-what-about-me-ness ….hearing the music and dancing and seeing his reprobate brother adorned in the best footwear and expensive jewellery… ……what would it feel like to have your father come away in search of you and hear the words, “You are always with me and all that is mine is yours.” We do not know if that could have been a transformative moment- the story does not tell us. We do know that joy and resentment cannot coexist, so the extravagant exuberance of the party may have remained inaccessible to the older brother. We also know the heart of the father in the story…a heart that longs to gather, restore and reconcile.
It is common for us to see ourselves in one or other of these brothers, maybe at different times of our lives. What is not so common, and yet is the invitation of every parable, is to take on the role of the final character- the father. Your first reaction may be a quick negative- surely that is not a role for us to imagine, when we commonly interpret that character as God. Yet are we not interested in being like God…like Jesus? Isn’t this the calling of our faith? I know many women who talk about whether they are a Martha or a Mary, finding themselves in the characterisation of those women who followed Jesus so closely, and yet would not consider imagining themselves as the Christ figure. The maleness of all the characters doesn’t help women to see themselves as made in God’s image and to live into this calling. We have made being self-deprecating, or even having low self-esteem…a virtue…when really it is sinful to deny God’s love for us and the inherent goodness of that God-imaged self. There is a clear theological invitation to live into that image as we hear in Romans that we are children of God, “and if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ.” (Romans 8:17).
Can I see myself as not only the one forgiven despite my moral failures or resentments, but as the one who forgives? Not just the one who receives compassion but offers it? The one who doesn‘t judge? Would that be a relief? Part of the burden of our culture is the pressure to conceive of ourselves as self-made, self-sufficient people who move through our lives on a trajectory of achievement. This construct invariably needs us to be achieving more than others and constantly comparing ourselves. Imagine what it would be like to be so secure in our belovedness that we do not need to judge anyone, least of all ourselves. While the resentful brother looks for justice as punishment, the loving father is only interested in justice as reconciliation. If we could surrender our pride and our need to control, and accept the grace we are offered, we would have the freedom to tend all relationships with care and generosity of spirit.
Who is the father revealed in the story? Certainly one who loves with the nurturing motherly and fatherly warmth, but never forces or coerces, waiting patiently for the return of the beloved. We may be able to see those qualities with wonder, but to take on those qualities? There is, suggests Henri Nouwen in his beautiful book, “The Return of the Prodigal Son”, a subtle pressure in both Church and society to remain a dependent child. Sometimes the Church has expressed the need for obedience rather than responsibility, further infantilising us all and leaving us with childish habits of self-gratification and self-interested dependencies. This failure to be able to see ourselves as “little Christs” as C.S Lewis put it, is a failure that also leaves us outsourcing our life to other authorities and mistrusting our own prophetic voice when we need to speak out against things that are harmful and wrong. How much louder could the voice of the church today be in speaking out against war, the treatment of refugees, the harm to the planet and the growing gap between rich and poor if we all lived into our full responsibility as the people of God?
I believe the world needs a grown-up Church more than ever; a Church full of those who, because they have received God’s love and grace, are set free to love and forgive others. Instead of being co-opted into the spirit of constant judgement which plagues our communities, a mature Church can surrender to the work of the Spirit who would give us back to one another in reconciling love. And maybe, as we do that, we will discover the liberation that comes when we live from a place of extravagant generosity; the kind that demands nothing of others, but freely gives and freely blesses, just as we are blessed.
 Henri J.M Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming, (Darton, Longman+ Todd, London: 1994),96