Lent 4C
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

A Liturgy is also available


The story of the ‘Prodigal Son’ is one of the best known
of all the biblical stories in our religious tradition.

It’s right up there with the stories of the Good Samaritan, and
the birth of Jesus - all, I might just add, told by the storyteller Luke.

And while its title, wrongly named, seems to be about one main character,
it is really a story about three persons or types of persons
- a father/parent and two sons.

Indeed, we have probably heard this particular story
a thousand times or so in our churchgoing career.
        But have we really heard it?
        Or are we just bored by it’s bland three-year predictability?

Having now raised these questions let me offer some suggestions
as to how we might engage with this story.
        And I hope, in the process, that we all might hear this story again, with new ears.


Let me offer a few background comments I have picked up along the way.

For nearly a couple of thousand years, or thereabouts anyway,
the stories we call parables and ascribe to Jesus,
have in the main been received and interpreted as allegories.
        This morning’s story is a ‘classic’ in that interpretive tradition.

That is, the storyteller we call Luke, and others, have looked at this story,
and then asked the question: ‘what does it all mean’?
and then proceeded to give it a series of so-called 'meanings'.

And because many of us are so emotionally attached to this story
we have invested heavily in it because
of our image of God and our notions of repentance.
        All this, rather than asking the question: what is going on in this story?
(Hedrick 2004:42).

Then over time the early Christian movements took this story,
did a bit more reshaping and added an allegorical interpretation:
• the
father is understood to stand for God,
• the
younger son for the Gentiles,
• the
elder son for the Judeans or the pharisees.

Which has led parables scholar Bernard Scott to suggest:
“...(they) used the parable... to reflect on its self-understanding.  Naturally they identified themselves with the younger son, and faithless Israel with the elder”
(Scott 1989:124).

But about 100 years ago that way of interpreting the parables was challenged.
Now the ‘modern’ trend of interpretation asks:
        How do we listen? rather than, What does it mean?

So now to the story itself - in sketch outline only.

The younger son wants to leave home.
He insultingly asks his father for his share of what may become his inheritance.

Knowing there was no point in trying to hold on,
the father agrees and shares out his livelihood to both sons.

The younger son leaves home and lives a life of extravagance.
When an economic depression hits the country where he is living, the younger son is soon broke.
        He takes a low-caste job to try and survive.

But soon finds out this is not for him and decides to go home.
So he works on a speech to tug at his father’s heart strings
        in the hope he will be welcomed back and not killed.

The father, who has always be watching and waiting and loving,
sees his son, and ignoring the teachings of the Hebrew scriptures once again,
        runs out to meet him,
and acting like a mother rather than a father,
welcomes him back with an extravagant homecoming party.

Likewise, the elder son, after a hard days work separated from his father,
also decides to go home.  On his arrival
        he notices a party is in progress
        and is told it is for the younger son,
                          who has now come home.

In true sibling rivalry he takes offence, yells abuse at his father,
and refuses to ‘go in’ to the party.

As with the younger son, the father lovingly goes out to meet him.

And the story ends - unresolved - after a short but heated debate
        about feelings and property and power,
        between the father and the angry elder son.

Meanwhile... the younger son is still inside at his homecoming party
with all the trappings of being received back,
        thinking he has struck a clever bargain with the father.

That’s our story.  But it is more than just a simple story.
It’s a special kind of story - called a parable.
And a parable is a story with a twist in the tail.
        A story with a fang.
        A story which turns our perceived world upside down.

So where’s the ‘fang’?  Where’s the ‘twist’?

Again let me offer a suggestion or three.

Firstly, this is a story about a father who had two sons.
Indeed, not only had two sons but loved two sons,
        went out to two sons,
        and was generous to two sons.

The father does not reject either son, under any circumstance.
His love is given to both, not to one at the expense of the other.
        Love does not resolve every conflict.
        It accepts conflicts as the arena
                    in which the work of love is to be done (Williams 1968).

So there is a touch of universality rather than a particularity in this parable.
Which kinda blows right out of the water, both
        the early Christian community’s interpretation,
        and much of the current arguing of the fundamentalist ‘Religious Right’!

Second, Matthew Fox's comments on "compassion" are helpful here.  Fox writes:
“Competition isolates, separates and estranges.  Compassion unites, makes one and embraces...  If we can move from competition to compassion we will have moved from dull and moralistic and ungrateful and legalistic (thinking)... to celebrative thanking... Celebration leads to fuller and fuller compassion” (Fox 1979:72, 89).

And third, there is a missing third act in this parable (BB Scott).
The conflict between the brothers is left unresolved.
So we can ask: what happens next?

Bernard Scott is again helpful, I think, with this suggestion:
“Soon the father will die.  Then what?  If the sons continue on with their established scripts, they are headed for a collision.  One will kill the other.  Or they can follow the father’s script and surrender their male hono(u)r and keep on welcoming, accepting, and being with the other.  They have a choice between being lost or found, dead or alive”
(Scott 2001:82-83).


So how can we listen to or engage with this story today?

Well...  it doesn’t tell us much if anything biographical about Jesus.
But it does help us make sense of who Jesus was,
        and how Jesus was remembered.

And Jesus ‘was’, to continue the thoughts of Scott, a rebel who revolts in parable.
For the parables create a counter-world, a hoped-for world,
        a re-imagined world - all in the face of the other world,
        the so-called 'real world'.

Over the years we have heard another story from Luke.
The story of Jesus’ return to his hometown of Nazareth.

In that story Luke suggests no one, not even the so-called ‘God’s people’
should ever think of themselves as privileged.
        God’s love is inclusive and embracing, not exclusive.

And then this groundbreaking claim:
adopting an exclusivist attitude actually causes one to miss God’s blessings.
        Closed hands, closed hearts, and closed minds 
        can no longer receive blessings.

Now in today's parable Luke makes a similar claim:
that re-imagined world, hoped-for world,
co-operation, not contest,
        as the basis for the Empire or realm of God.

So engaging with this story can raise issues for us as modern-day hearers, too.
Especially when it challenges the accepted social norms we have come to accept.
        Or when we confuse wealth and status with personal fulfilment.
        Or when others reinforce, rather than allaying, our fears,
                       as some politicians are wont to do - especially if there happens to be an election in the wind.

The ‘twist’ in this parable is that it offers another criterion,
a “glimpsed alternative, a revelation of potential” (Heaney 1995),
        upon which to base our living.

And that, it seems to me, leaves us with this important question:
can we have faith
with Jesus in the re-imagined world of the parables?

Faithfulness, I would suggest, demands living with such a risk.


PS: Also picked this up nearly 18 years ago... Henri Nouwen's book The Return of the Prodigal Son,
is a reflection on Rembrandt's famous painting of the same name.


The following is an excerpt and is shaped by earlier scholarship which looks for 'meaning'.
However I reckon Nouwen could just easily have said: what is the story/painting 'saying'?

Often I have asked friends to give me their first impression of Rembrandt's Prodigal Son.
Inevitably, they point to the wise old man
who forgives his son: the benevolent patriarch.

"The longer I look at 'the patriarch', the clearer it becomes to me that Rembrandt has done something quite different from letting God pose as the wise old head of a family.  It all began with the hands.  The two are quite different.  The father's left hand touching the son's shoulder is strong and muscular.  The fingers are spread out and cover a large part of the prodigal son's shoulder and back.  I can see a certain pressure, especially in the thumb.  That hand seems not only to touch, but, with its strength, also to hold.  Even though there is a gentleness in the way the father's left hand touches his son, it is not without a firm grip.

"How different is the father's right hand!  This hand does not hold or grasp.  It is refined, soft, and very tender.  The fingers are close to each other and they have an elegant quality.  It lies gently upon the son's shoulder.  It wants to caress, to stroke, and to offer consolation and comfort.  It is a mother's hand....

"As soon as I recognized the difference between the two hands of the father, a new world of meaning opened up for me.  The Father is not simply a great patriarch.  He is mother as well as father.  He touches the son with a masculine hand and a feminine hand.  He holds, and she caresses.  He confirms and she consoles.  He is, indeed, God, in whom both manhood and womanhood, fatherhood and motherhood, are fully present.  That gentle and caressing right hand echoes for me the words of the prophet Isaiah: "Can a woman forget her baby at the breast, feel no pity for the chile she has borne?  Even if these were to forget, I shall not forget you.  Look, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands."  (Nouwen, H. 1994.  The Return of the Prodigal Son. A story of homecoming.)


Fox, M. A Spirituality Named Compassion and the Healing of the Global Village, Humpty Dumpty and Us. Santa Fe. Bear & Company, 1979.
Heaney, S. The Redress of Poetry. London. Faber & Faber, 1995.
Hedrick, C. W. Many Things in Parables. Jesus and his Modern Critics. Louisville. Westminster/John Knox Press, 2004.
Horsley, R. A.
Jesus in Context. Power, People, and Performance. Minneapolis. Fortress Press.
Scott, B. B.
Re-Imagine the World. An Introduction to the Parables of Jesus. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2001.
Scott, B. B.
Hear Then the Parable. A Commentary on the Parables of Jesus. Minneapolis. Fortress Press, 1989.
Williams, D. D.
The Spirit and Forms of Love. New York. Harper & Row, 1968.