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The prodigal son

Fourth Sunday in Lent: 14th March, 2010
Fr Tom Brown
Associate Priest, St Peter's, Eastern Hill

'What's in a name?' asked Juliet, 'That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.' But as Juliet found to her cost there can be a great deal in a name. And I suggest that this is true for the parable we heard in the gospel just now, the parable of the prodigal son, the wasteful son. I believe this name given universally to the parable can easily distort our understanding of it.

The parable of the prodigal son is frequently interpreted as a parable about God's forgiving love for the one who repents. Just as the father forgives his wayward son, so God forgives us. Of course this is true. God does indeed love us with a father's love, and when we repent he receives us joyfully and unconditionally, and forgives our sins. This is at the heart of the gospel message, and generations of Christians have been rightly comforted and encouraged by this interpretation of the parable. It's just that I don't believe that this was Jesus' purpose in telling the parable.

For one thing the parable is not just about the prodigal son; it's about his elder brother as well. We need to look at the parable as a whole, not stop half way through. Also the usual interpretation of the parable as being about God's forgiving love gives it a very comforting message. This might make us suspicious. Generally speaking, Jesus didn't tell parables to comfort people. He told parables to confront, to challenge, to bring about a new understanding. I don't believe the parable of the prodigal son is an exception to this.

So let's look at it again, this parable about a father with two sons. As a story it's very believable. The major part of an estate always went to the first-born son, and younger sons didn't get much at all. It was common for them to go to another country to try and make their fortune. And there's nothing particularly surprising about the way the prodigal squandered his inheritance. Likewise, there's nothing surprising or unusual about the joy with which the father welcomed him home. Would any father not be pleased when a much loved son comes home at last? Well, some fathers perhaps, but I think they'd be the exceptions. We don't have to see the father as representing God for him to have shown such love and forgiveness; this was simply a loving human father, overjoyed to welcome his son home.

The parable's climax comes at the end, when the elder son discovers that his father has welcomed his brother home and has thrown a party for him. He's extremely angry. Why is he so angry? It wasn't because his brother's return was going result in financial or material loss for him. There's no suggestion that the father was now going to make a new division of the estate so that the elder son would get less. He couldn't do this: the estate was entailed to the elder son, and a father couldn't interfere with this. The younger son's share of the property would have been only a minor part, which he'd now frittered away.

So it wasn't the prospect of material loss which made the elder son angry. 'Listen!' he says to his father, 'For all these years I've been working like a slave for you; yet you've never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours (he can't bring himself to refer to him as his brother) — when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!' The father pleads with his son to join the feast: 'Son, 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.' And there the parable ends.

So why did Jesus tell this parable? St Luke says that this parable and the two preceding parables were provoked by the grumbling of the scribes and Pharisees at the way Jesus welcomed sinners and ate with them. Jesus repeatedly scandalised people by his habit of befriending and accepting those who were marginalised by respectable society: tax collectors, prostitutes, and people like this. So it was to answer those who criticised him for this behaviour that Jesus told the parable. He told it to try and change the understanding of the scribes and Pharisees, to open their eyes to see the situation in a different way. So he engages them, he draws them in their imaginations into this quite absorbing and compelling story of the father and his two sons. At the end of it they're left up in the air; the parable ends abruptly, inconclusively. We don't hear what the elder son decides to do. This is certainly intentional. Jesus' aim is to leave his hearers with questions in their mind; asking themselves, Who was right, the father or the elder son? His aim, of course, is to get his listeners, his critics, to agree with the father: 'This is your brother; he was dead and is alive again, lost and now found. This is an occasion for rejoicing. Come in and join the feast.' Jesus was trying to get his hearers to recognise what a joyless, ungenerous and self-satisfied attitude the elder brother had. And having recognised this, then the scribes and Pharisees might look at their own attitudes, and for it to dawn on them that their attitude to the ones Jesus was welcoming and accepting, the sinners and outcasts — their attitude was like that of the elder son. Instead of criticising they should be rejoicing that the lost had been found; they should be generous, not grudging, but grateful for God's mercy to these, their lost brothers and sisters.

I believe that this parable confronts us also as it did the scribes and Pharisees. I think that we would have to agree that the elder son's attitude to his brother, though perhaps understandable, was grudging and ungenerous. Perhaps the parable should remind us that these attitudes are to be found also in our time, in our society, and perhaps in ourselves. The father was trying to get the elder son to recognise that this was his brother, not just 'this son of yours'. This might lead us on to ask, Whom should we be recognising as our brothers, our sisters, our fellow human beings? Whom should we be recognising as those to whom we should have a generous and welcoming attitude, like the father's?

I must say that I perceive an attitude not unlike the elder brother's in the attitude that we in Australia have in recent years been encouraged to take toward asylum seekers, especially the ones who are so desperate that they risk their lives to come here in barely seaworthy boats. It's not that the coming of boat people will disadvantage us materially in any significant way: very few if any Australians will lose their jobs because of them, or suffer any financial loss — any more than the elder son did with the return of his prodigal brother. Nor is it that we're being swamped by asylum seekers: the numbers entering Australia are trivial, minute, compared with the number of illegal immigrants entering many other countries, where they're measured in hundreds of thousands.

The elder brother distanced himself from his brother by referring to him as 'this son of yours'. Perhaps this is not dissimilar from distancing ourselves from boat people by calling them 'queue jumpers', or 'illegal immigrants' (and so they should be locked up), or 'economic migrants' (despite the fact that the vast majority turn out to be genuine refugees, fleeing in fear of persecution). Why such a grudging and ungenerous attitude, especially compared with the 1970s when Vietnamese refugees were generously welcomed into Australia?

Of course this is a complex issue; there are no simple answers, no easy solutions. But we might keep before ourselves the question, How do we strike the right balance between protecting our borders, and recognising those in desperate need as our fellow human beings, our brothers and sisters? I believe that emphasising national identity or patriotism at the expense of an awareness of our common humanity is one of the great evils of our time.

The attitude of Jesus was consistently generous and welcoming towards all people, especially those on the margins of society, the poor, the homeless. And a similarly generous attitude is one that as Christians we are exhorted to have. 'Just as you did it to one of the least of these', Jesus said, 'you did it to me.'

Jesus told the parable of the prodigal son, to challenge his opponents to look at their attitudes. And he challenges us: 'Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you.' The elder son's attitude is the opposite of this. Where do we stand?


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