This morning, we hear the parable of the Prodigal Son, perhaps one of the most significant, and complex parables in the gospel. Certainly, for many of us, it will bring up an emotional response. How you respond to the Prodigal Son, will, I imagine, depend a great deal on your own story in your family. Were you the eldest, expected to keep everything together, upon whom everyone depended, while your siblings had more fun? Were you the one who stepped up to do the hard work, while the rest popped in once and while? Were you the quiet one who got less attention? The alternative one who always seemed to get too much criticism? Or were you the Golden Child, basking in adoration, who could do no wrong? Family dynamics are the setting for many of the stories and parables in the Bible. And of course they are - our families shape and define us. They lock us in a cage, or they set us free. They pull us down and lift us up. And long after we are grown, those roles and narratives really come back to us, sometimes without our even knowing it. Perhaps we care too much what people say. Or we can’t share our feelings with others. Maybe we feel unworthy. Or maybe, if we are lucky, we know our worth, we have an inner voice that is positive and affirmational, and we are happy. Not all of this, of course, can be laid at the feet of our families. But I have a been a pastor, a son, a father, and a partner, long enough to know, that for better or worse, our families leave their mark upon us. Let us consider our parable, then. We have three main characters: two sons and a father. Now the elder son is like many people I know and have met. He stays home and does his duty. He works like a slave and asks for nothing, not even a young goat to cook for his friends. Perhaps he had other dreams and ambitions, but we don’t know: the elder is defined by his choice to stay home. The younger son - he is a free spirit. He asks for his inheritance early, and then he goes off and parties it away. He has, we must imagine, a wonderful time - until the money runs out. Then, we hear, he is forced to do menial labour, feeding pigs, and eating little, until he has a thought: my dad might hire me back, and he feeds his servants. And so he heads home. And then we have the father, the parent figure. Clearly, he loves his sons, for he shares his wealth with them. He values the faithful company of the elder, and the independence of the younger, and he rewards them according to their wishes. When the younger son arrived home, having lost it all, how does this father respond? With love and happiness that his son has returned to the family, and throws a fancy party, and cooks a fatted calf. And the elder, toiling away, hears of this, and understandably, is enraged: where is his fatted calf, after working so hard for so long? But his father says, why shouldn’t we celebrate? For your brother was lost, and now he has been found. Perhaps a good way to understand the parable is to consider ourselves in each of these roles: how we would want to be treated, what we might be missing in the story. The gospel goes into great detail about the transformation of the younger son – who skips away joyfully with his inheritance, wastes it, and then has to labour just to get a bit of food on the table. What a lesson for a young man born into relative wealth to learn? What it is like to be truly hungry. Having learned it, he returns to his father, humbled and begging forgiveness, declaring himself unworthy. Rather than judging and scorning him – incidentally, as his brother does – his father sees his pain and forgives him. He is just happy to have him home. Let us not be too hard on the elder son, watching angrily from the fields. Who wouldn’t feel as he does? Not even a goat comes my way, and this sloth of a brother gets the fatted calf. But what is the elder son missing? What lesson is in this story for us? The parable is meant to add definition to our relationship with God, who is, of course, the father in this story. God welcomes us home when we make mistakes. Even when we feel unworthy, as the younger son says of himself, God sees our value. We make mistakes all our lives. The valuable action is in seeking to correct that mistake, in turning back to God. When we seek forgiveness, we are forgiven. The elder was missing an important point: he was invited to feast on the fatted calf. He was seeing a situation in which for him to win, his brother had to lose; but the love of God doesn’t work that way. God meets us where we are, and face-to-face with who we are. The parent loves the elder who stays; and the parent loves the son who must leave first to return. And there is not one kind of love for the first, and a second kind of love for the second; there is only love. Now, many of our families do not work like the gospel; our parents are not God. In real life, this parable may still chafe and irritate us, and that is okay. This is a story about agape or the love of God that is beyond human understanding, that is all encompassing, and unfaltering. It is a love to aspire to, or to stumble towards. The hope is that when we understand our relationship with God in this way – that in the drifting and stumbling of our lives we might know we are always loved and worthy. And we might also aim for that same kind of open, non-judging love with the people in our own lives. We don’t always get that right, not always, but the good news is we can go back to God and begin again. That new beginning was promised to the elder son, the same as the younger. A fresh start; freedom from the past. Perhaps, with the younger one home, the older would no longer have to work so hard; perhaps he could have the party with his friends and roast a goat. Perhaps, he might come to love and appreciate his younger brother. Perhaps, having seen his father show such welcoming love to a wayward son, he would feel more secure himself in his parent’s love. And maybe not. Maybe he could never let go of the bitterness he felt and was made smaller by. Like I said, it’s a complicated parable. Complicated, but for one simple lesson we are meant to learn: we may come and go; we may stumble and slip; we may be careless, and we may judge. But when we have woken up, we may always come home to God and find love waiting for us. Amen.
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