on Sunday 10 March 2019 at the High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire’s Legal Service at St Mary’s Church, Nottingham.
Readings Isaiah 58: 6-12 and Luke 15: 11-32
I wonder what it was like for you when you first properly left your family home. I’m not talking about your first overnight stay away from your family home, but when you left home to make somewhere else your more-or-less permanent residence.
Thinking about that might be especially poignant for you as it is for me. Maybe, like me, you’re at a time in your life when now your children are beginning to leave home and you’re walking that difficult line of being a parent to adult children; trying to judge when to advise and support and when to hold back and let them take the risks that will lead to success or important learning.
Maybe you’re beyond those years and you’re watching your children having children of their own and trying to create the safe, secure and loving homes from which their children will too one day step out. Thinking about adult children leaving home is a good way into our Gospel story today. After the story of the Good Samaritan, the story of the Prodigal Son, as it’s known is perhaps the most well-known of the stories Jesus told.
Because it’s familiar, we perhaps miss some of what is really happening. We might first-of-all be tempted to see it as a morality tale aimed at young people. Today we celebrate and give thanks for all that we’ve inherited from the past, most especially in our justice system.
In the light of this, we might think this story is about the dangers of breaking with convention and trying to go our own way, but I don’t think for one minute that this is what Jesus is getting at. It’s clear from its context, that this story, along with the parables of the lost sheep and lost coin that precede it, is addressed to the Pharisees and Scribes, who in verse two of this chapter are ‘grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’’
It’s the older, grumpier brother that Jesus has in his sights in telling this story; more of him in a minute. This is ultimately a story about forgiveness and how it works. It invites us to reflect on how we respond on those who have lost their way, even if that be through their own poor decisions. In reflecting on that, we might find some guidance and help on how we might relate to each other and how justice might work in our society beyond the criminal justice system. In short, it offers us wisdom in how to treat each other and makes some demands of us.
Let’s look then at this young man who loses his way. What might be lost on us, but would have been shocking to Jesus’s original hearers, is the implication of the younger brother’s words to his father. What he is in effect saying in asking for his inheritance now is: ‘I wish you were dead; I wish you were dead.’
How many of us in those moments of relational difficulty have heard or possibly even said such profoundly hurtful words? The utter rejection of his home and its values at the start of this story is truly scandalous. As becomes clear as the story unfolds, this is someone who has utterly lost their way.
Like many of the people so many of you here today have encountered in the criminal justice system, this is a young person who through a succession of bad choices has met with personal disaster. It has cost him, and it has cost his family deeply.
He was wealthy, well-fed and popular. He ends up homeless, hungry and alone. This is where we reach a crucial moment in the story; the moment when the young man comes to his senses. In the experience of so many, it is only when reaching rock bottom that such a realisation can follow. It’s only at this moment when desperation outweighs shame, that he can think of returning home to the father he wished dead
And now we turn our attention from this wayward son, losing his way and then coming to his senses. Now we take a moment to regard his father. It has been said that this parable might be better called the parable of the running father than the parable of the prodigal son.
Those hearing Jesus tell this story for the first time would have been scandalised not just by the insult spoken by the son, but by the dishonour the father brings upon himself. For any man of status in first-century Palestine, to run was disgraceful. It was degrading. It was a dishonour. But this man runs to greet his son on the road as soon as he sees him.
He runs to offer him forgiveness. What this suggests to us is that in any act of offering forgiveness there is an inevitable loss of face, a self-abasement. In offering forgiveness, the father willingly and freely abandons his status and dignity.
We might notice too that the father does not wait to hear the words of sorrow and repentance. The son’s appearance on the road home is enough. The father’s forgiveness and love overflows and is not dependent on any expression of regret. So often we regard forgiveness as a transaction; as if it were something we might offer in response to remorse. This story invites a different stance, one where forgiveness is freely and unconditionally offered. That’s not to say that remorse, regret and repentance are not important, but that they are the states of mind and heart that enable us to receive the forgiveness freely offered to us, rather than the precondition that invokes grace and mercy.
This all might put us in mind of the story of Shamima Begum – a young girl arguably groomed, trafficked and raped, but also, in the terms of this story, one who turned her back on her country, who perhaps even wished us dead and made some devastatingly bad choices. We might wonder what response this story would suggest to her situation as she attempts to turn back to the road that would lead her back to the home she once rejected.
The response to her, as to many others who have rejected what was good about home, have made bad choices, have come to their senses and have turned back might have more in common with the older brother in our story today.
So now, finally, we turn our attention to him. His response to the joyous abandon and generosity of his father is completely understandable. It is where many of us most naturally stand. How often have we seen others we regard as undeserving receive those things for which we have faithfully and law-abidingly striven? Those Pharisees of Jesus’s time, like this older brother, did not see in the welcome of sinners a dawning of a new era of grace, but the abandonment of principles of justice they held dear.
Perhaps we, like them, and like the older brother, find this all a bit much, a bit too hard to take. It’s a natural and in many ways proper response. But this story invites us to imagine another world where grace, forgiveness and love abound, where the undeserving who turn towards home are welcomed with open arms.
I don’t imagine Jesus meant this to be a prescription for systems of national justice, such as our own criminal justice system. That way could lie chaos and the breakdown of law and order. But alongside the criminal justice system there is the wider issue of what justice looks like in our culture and society. To put it more simply, there is the issue of how we respond as individuals and communities to those who have lost their way and turned back. Will we shun and shame them, or will we, inspired by love, be prepared to lose face and run to offer them a welcome?
This might all feel beyond us. It is. To err is human, to forgive divine, after all. But maybe, at the last, there is hope in a different reading of this story. What if instead of seeing the prodigal son as a sinner, we see him as Jesus himself, taking his leave of heaven and coming to be with us in our pig sty; spending the riches of heaven with abandon and finally returning home, penitent, not on his own behalf, but on behalf of all of us, all of us who in ways perhaps obvious, and perhaps hidden, have lost our way?
It is this Son, profligate with the riches of heaven, who meets us in our humanity and transforms it; who makes it possible for us to do what is impossible to muster from within: to forgive as he forgives. May we receive this forgiveness in our own lives and offer it to one another joyfully. Amen