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Two lost sons: both wrong: both loved

Ordinary Sunday 24: 12th September, 2010
Bishop Graeme Rutherford,
Assistant Priest, St Peter's, Eastern Hill

Luke 15:11-32

Timothy Keller has drawn attention to the way in which the two main characters in Peter Shaffer's play, 'Amadeus' — Salieri and Mozart — correspond in many respects to the two brothers in Jesus' parable. Usually we refer to this parable as The Prodigal Son because we focus on the worst-case scenario of the younger son who squanders his wealth in riotous living. This young son represents as dramatic a picture as could possibly be painted of the abandonment of godly living. Even so, the parable concerns an elder brother and it might better be called the parable of The Two Sons.

The devout Salieri in Shaffer's play has the mind-set of the older brother in Jesus' parable, whilst the irreligious Amadeus (Mozart's middle name) could be likened to the indulgent, rat-bag, younger brother, who went to the bottom of the barrel and ended up in a pigsty. Salieri bargains with God in a way that I hope none of our choristers in the gallery ever do! I hope that they sing for the glory of God. Salieri definitely didn't.

He bargained with God and prayed: 'Lord, make me a great composer! Let me celebrate your glory through music — and be celebrated myself! Make me famous through the world, dear God! ... After I die let people speak my name forever with love for what I wrote! In return I vow I will give you my chastity, my industry, my deepest humility, every hour of my life. And I will help my fellow man all I can. Amen and amen!'

It was for him, a hopelessly unrealistic vow. But give Salieri his due. He was desperately earnest in trying to keep his side of it. And he earnestly hoped that God would return the compliment by keeping his side of the bargain too. Salieri managed to keep his hands (and other parts of his anatomy) off women; he instructed aspiring musicians without charging them a fee and he gave generously to the poor, as he promised.

And then, Mozart/Amadeus arrived on the scene with musical gifts that far exceeded those of Salieri. Here was a man, who, true to his name, was lavishly gifted by God. (The name Amadeus literally means 'beloved by God'). And yet, at the same time, he was a real play-boy and womanizer! Mozart's arrival on the scene precipitated a crisis in the 'elder brother heart' of Salieri. Just like the 'elder brother' who complained and whined about how he was the one who had slaved all his life and how his faithfulness had never been rewarded with such a lavish party as the father was throwing for his younger brother, so too, the passive-aggressive, religious, rebel, Salieri resentfully mutters: 'Here I was denying all my natural lust in order to deserve God's gift and there was Mozart indulging his in all directions — even though engaged to be married — and no rebuke at all!' Feeling let down, Salieri angrily cries out to God, 'From now on we are enemies, You and I'.

In Amadeus and Salieri we can recognize the two brothers in Jesus' parable, because it is a plot that recurs again and again. In fact, as we listen to the parable we probably find ourselves saying of each brother, 'I know somebody just like you'. Or, if we are honest, we might catch ourselves thinking, 'there are times when I am just like you'. There are times when I am sorely tempted to dramatically give up on godliness by behaving like the younger flibbertigibbet brother who went 'far away'. And there are other times, I am sure, when I behave exactly like the hard-hearted, resentful, up-tight, elder brother who 'stayed close'.

Timothy Keller perceptively comments, 'Some combine both approaches under the roof of the same personality. There are some traditional-looking elder brothers that, as a release valve, maintain a secret life of younger-brother behaviour'. And one only has to think of the scandal of Clergy sex abuse to see how this attitude can work itself out and distort behaviour. Keller says, 'Each one rebelled — but one did so by being very bad and the other by being extremely good. Both were alienated from the father's heart; both were lost sons ... one out of control and one under control'. Both were wrong; and yet for both, God stands ready to run and hug and welcome. That is the 'good news' of this parable. It is the message of the extravagant, prodigal, obsessional love of the Father. God stands ready to forgive the sins of both sons and God wants us to be ready to do the same.

We in the church have a poor track record of dealing with those whom we regard as coming from particularly sinful backgrounds. Like the upright Scribes and Pharisees, we have our 'clobber texts' from the Bible ready to justify our self-righteous attitudes. This parable challenges us all to identify with and model the love of the Father for both sons.

The gospel is not ultimately about morality or immorality. Nor is it something half way along the spectrum between the two poles — it is something else altogether. It is 'good news' and the 'good news' of this parable is that 'everyone is wrong, everyone is loved, and everyone is called to recognize this and change'.

In the film, The Hiding Place, Corrie ten Boom, the Dutch Christian woman who harboured and protected Jews during World War 11, summed up the 'good news' of this best known parable of Jesus in an unforgettable way when she said of the Father's exuberant, redeeming love: 'No pit is so deep that God is not deeper still'.


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