Who do you most associate with in the story that Jesus told, and that we have just heard? We have come to understand the story to be about the prodigal son, the one who wanders off and then later returns, but we could equally describe this as the story of the loving father, or the story of the older brother, or even the story of the absent mother. When you heard the story again today which of the characters most captivated your imagination?
The parable of the prodigal son and his older brother is one of the greatest stories of hope in the world. In mediaeval times the parable was known as the “summary gospel,” because as the Church heard the story again and again they recognised that it provided, in a compacted form, a summary of the whole of the good news of Jesus. The Gospel in one: the whole Gospel abbreviated into a single story of images.
The first time that I became fully conscious of the power of that story was on an evening in Upton Park, which is the stadium of West Ham Football Club in East London, in May 1989. I was there with around 20,000 other Londoners to hear Dr Billy Graham, the famous American evangelist. At that evening mission rally Billy Graham expounded for us the story which is our Gospel this morning. That was twenty three years ago, but I can still bring to mind almost every detail of that evening to this day. I remember clearly on that evening having an overwhelming sense of the love that God had for me, even though I had been in the Church for a long time before it. And that God not only invited me to share in his life, but that more than that he waited eagerly for me to respond to the invitation. Many of us here may share together that kind of moment, or awakening or encounter with the love of God through a special service or mission or event.
Christians down through the centuries have heard in this story of the prodigal son and his older brother a summary of the whole of the good news that God loves us, and not just us, but the whole world. The story points us to the kind of covenant relationship which is normative within the Kingdom of God.
In the world in which we live there are a great many covenants, although we tend to call them agreements or contracts. Some of them are written down and spoken about, some of them are unwritten and unspoken but just as powerful. “I will do something for you, and in return you will do something for me” is the great unwritten contract of our society.
I want food, and you want money to buy other things, and so we exchange your food with my money in proportions which we deem to be a fair agreement. This is the way that the society in which we live operates. The big agreement in life is that you get something for something, and nothing for nothing, but you do not get something for nothing. That is how our society works. When we perceive that it is not working properly or fairly people go to court to try to ensure that they can get as much of what they want by giving as little as they possibly can in return.
As it is for us, so it was in the time of Jesus. Jesus’ world worked on these kinds of agreements too. The younger son in the story had probably worked for his father for some time. He felt that he had given something but had received nothing in return. So far as ordinary thinking was concerned, he was entitled to something for what he had done, and he was impatient (like all young men) to receive it. His father did not refuse him, or make conditions. The son received his inheritance in ready money and set off for a better life elsewhere. In the far country he entered into new agreements, giving money in exchange for parties and riotous living and personal pleasure. But when the money ran out he had nothing left to offer to continue his lifestyle: his emptiness is doubly emphasised in the story by the famine that not only affects him but the whole land.
So he enters into another agreement, another way of living. He enters into an agreement in which he gives himself as a slave in return for continuing his life and probably having his debts paid. Then in the story this young man comes to his senses, and he begins the long painful journey back, long because all that he has done has separated him so greatly from his father; painful because of the realisation of all that he has had has been squandered. He does not begin that journey thinking that he is returning to be a son, but instead hoping that in return for his labour, his father will pay him a wage. Something for something, even though he no longer considers himself to be a somebody. “Although I am no longer worthy to be his son, perhaps nevertheless he will give me a wage for my work,” the son thinks as he travels back.
On his journey he rehearses a speech which he will give if his father is willing to see him. And yet that is not how it is to be – because all the time that the son has been away, the father had been watching, and waiting, and hoping for his son’s return. His father dashes out as soon as the dust on the horizon stirs, and meeting his son he embraces him, not even allowing him to finish the speech that he has prepared. Out comes everything from nothing: an embrace, a kiss, a robe, a ring, sandals for his feet. He gets more than something for nothing – far more – he gets everything for nothing, and in the process he is restored from nobody to somebody. All the usual agreement rules are broken. The rules of ordinary, standard, right-thinking, right-judging people count for nothing. The system of contracts and agreements is abolished. All ideas of justice are cast aside in the welcome that the son receives.
Jesus made up this story, in one sense the Prodigal Son and his brother and father did not actually exist. In another sense they exist in each one of us. This word-picture of the father and son re-assures us that in the Kingdom of God every normal rule is broken, is turned upside down, in the name of the love of God. That is the exciting part of the story – the parent who is willing to forgive, the child who has messed up everything but who is nevertheless welcomed home. I think instinctively, and understandably most of us associate ourselves with that part of the story when we hear it. But in doing so we miss the point.
There is much more to Jesus’ story than the son whose relationship is restored with his father. We know that because the Gospel writers inform us that Jesus is not telling this story to people who are separated from the love of God, like the son and who need to be assured that there is a way back to him again. When Jesus paints this parable, he is speaking to people like you and me who were established in the religious institutions of their day. So Jesus is not telling this story in order to encourage people back to God, he is telling it to people like you and me, the scribes and the Pharisees who know God already. People much more like the older brother than the prodigal son. The point of the story is that God’s love is sheer gift, sheer grace to both of the brothers, and the surprise in the story is that it is the one who has been irresponsible and reckless, and wandered away from God – and not the one who has stayed close to God – who is ultimately able to accept that love most fully.
What happens if we associate ourselves with the older brother? How does the story feel then? The older brother is the one who faithfully continues to do the father’s work. And so it is no wonder that he is so angry when he sees what is happening. But what the older brother has not noticed is that whilst he has been working away on the estate, maintaining the property, keeping the show on the road, his father has spent his time looking beyond the farm in the hope that his other son will return. Had the older brother understood that the greatest desire of his father was to see his son return, then he would have left his work on the estate, and gone in search of his wayward brother, and brought him home to give his father great joy.
But instead he is caught up in the old rules and the old agreements. He has forgotten that he too is the son of his father, and the brother of his brother. And in the story he begins to speak about all that he has done, as if he were a worker who deserves payment in exchange for his labour, rather than a son who has everything. When his wandering brother returns, he somehow forgets that this does not mean that he is loved any the less, and is invited to share with the whole family in his father’s joy. If the older brother in the story could just put to one side for a moment all of the hard work that he has done for his father on the estate, he would be able to instead share in the deep joy of his brother’s return. So this is not just a story about a prodigal son, or a loving father, it is a story about an older brother as well.
We do not know what happens at the end of the story. Jesus deliberately does not tell us, because as a Church we are living in this story today. As I have lived with this story of the prodigal son over the years, the story has grown with me, and changed me. I am having to grow out of seeing myself as the prodigal son (as I once was) into seeing myself as the older brother. Living in the life of the Church, seeking to be faithful, but often forgetting that God’s concern is not only for me and the others in the Church, but for all those who live around us as well. Which is why I need to be reminded again and again that God is not only in here, but he is out there as well. Watching and waiting and acting in the world, longing for people to return to him, and inviting me and you to share in his work of mission with him.
Jesus does not finish the parable. We do not know what happens next. That is true for our Church as well. If we are the older brother in the parable, and if it is possible that there are many prodigal sons and daughters living around us, how will the story end for us and for them?