Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear [Jesus]. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable:
And he said, “There was a man who had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.
“But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”’ And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.
“Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’” (Luke 15:1-3, 11-32 ESV)
It is not without a little irony that one of the Gospels in the 3 Year Lectionary for Mothering Sunday in the UK is about a gracious Father! The 4th Sunday in Lent – known as Laetare Sunday (Latin for ‘rejoice’) relaxes the penitential nature of Lent – the purple changes to rose (for those who have rose vestments) and in earlier centuries there is a returning to the mother church for industrial and domestic workers – often the women – who worked away from home and with that came the opportunity to return to the family home as well with its own celebrations – flowers and sweets being part of that. What we hear in this Gospel – well known – is that a son has returned home and there is a celebration.
What we may have missed in the hearing and re-telling of Jess’ parable is that the story is about two sons and it ends with the older brother in the darkness, outside the celebrations, angry. What is the ending of this story?
Jesus was being criticised for receiving sinners and eating with them. The issue was that he wasn’t following the Pharisee protocol – they, too, were more than happy to eat with sinners – rather former
sinners – and in doing so bring in the Kingdom of God to the world. Jesus skipped that part of getting the sinners to change first but offered and extended fellowship to sinners. What was the ending to those meals?
We don’t know. Jesus tells three parables – and we learn the endings in two of them. The lost sheep is found and the community rejoices. Women join the woman who found her lost coin and rejoice. The father rejoices at the son’s return to the family home as a son – that is key – this son having done all that he did – wanting his father dead, selling what he should never have sold, wasting everything, and scheming to come back as a hired hand because he still had some self respect and didn’t want to live on charity for the rest of his life as a son receiving kindness from his father and older brother has instead been humbled, broken even, by his father’s love and mercy and so he will be a son to this father! We can imagine a happy ending here.
But the father has two sons. What we might miss about families back then – though I suspect we can understand and relate to it – is that the older brother has a role to play in relation to the younger brother and he doesn’t play it. It is expected that this son stays by the father’s side and reflects the father’s heart socially – behaves in the same way as the father in the community as the father ages – hopefully with integrity and honesty, honour and seeking the well-being of all. Instead the older brother is just as happy – according to some New Testament scholars who have studied Semitic life – even today – to have control over his share of the inheritance albeit while his father is still alive. The young brother wants his father dead to have the inheritance and he leaves. The older brother is more than happy to have his inheritance and he stays but his heart is not aligned to his father. And up to a point he hides in his stay-at-home behaviour but now the father has gone too far and reinstated his younger brother. And so he refuses to go in. Generally we don’t appreciate the seriousness of this action back then – the public humiliation of the father and the defiance of this son – his heart is finally exposed!
And what does the father do? As he did for the younger son by going out – running even – to reach the son before others did who might have done him harm – so the father publically goes out to the older brother. This is a father who seems to absorb humiliation and scorn. This is a father who goes out to rescue and restore. This is a father who goes into the darkness to call out that mercy is always better than justice. Mercy when received transforms in ways that paying the fine or doing the crime doesn’t do. Death doesn’t have to be the end result of relationships but there can always be life.
What will the older brother do?
What would you do?
Part of repentance is the awareness that the mercy I receive I have no claim to; I don’t deserve. The mercy, the restoration of a broken relationship and the pain and hurt that has happened – can’t be erased – it is born, carried, and in time part of the background – not necessarily forgotten but forgiven – and carried by the one who has been hurt, humiliated, betrayed, denied, violated. At times people can say, ‘Let me fix this with justice – I’ll make amends’ – but that is only a band aid, a stop gap, a cessation of hostilities with maybe with a ‘moving on’. Reconciliation or restoration truly comes from the one hurt – and it is remembered by the one restored – trusted and received as the grace that it is.
Jesus told 3 stories about being lost and there is rejoicing from two stories and a rejoicing in the third story but we are still waiting for an ending. And while we wait the shepherd, the woman, the father – all pictures of the God who keeps going out to find the lost – continues to do so as we hear all about Jesus and what he has said and done for us – and even for those who are respectable, in plain sight, and close to home.
- Luke 15:1 - 32