The Gospel reading on Sunday, the 4th Sunday of Lent, is a parable famous for the way it presents us with an opportunity to reflect on mercy, and responsibility for the ministering of mercy. It presents heartbreak and reconciliation.
The tax collectors and the sinners were all seeking the company of Jesus to hear what he had to say, and the Pharisees and the scribes complained. ‘This man’ they said ‘welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ So he spoke this parable to them:
‘A man had two sons. The younger said to his father, “Father, let me have the share of the estate that would come to me.” So the father divided the property between them. A few days later, the younger son got together everything he had and left for a distant country where he squandered his money on a life of debauchery.
‘When he had spent it all, that country experienced a severe famine, and now he began to feel the pinch, so he hired himself out to one of the local inhabitants who put him on his farm to feed the pigs. And he would willingly have filled his belly with the husks the pigs were eating but no one offered him anything. Then he came to his senses and said, “How many of my father’s paid servants have more food than they want, and here am I dying of hunger! I will leave this place and go to my father and say: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as one of your paid servants.” So he left the place and went back to his father.
‘While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with pity. He ran to the boy, clasped him in his arms and kissed him tenderly. Then his son said, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son.” But the father said to his servants, “Quick! Bring out the best robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the calf we have been fattening, and kill it; we are going to have a feast, a celebration, because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life; he was lost and is found.” And they began to celebrate.
‘Now the elder son was out in the fields, and on his way back, as he drew near the house, he could hear music and dancing. Calling one of the servants he asked what it was all about. “Your brother has come” replied the servant “and your father has killed the calf we had fattened because he has got him back safe and sound.” He was angry then and refused to go in, and his father came out to plead with him; but he answered his father, “Look, all these years I have slaved for you and never once disobeyed your orders, yet you never offered me so much as a kid for me to celebrate with my friends. But, for this son of yours, when he comes back after swallowing up your property – he and his women – you kill the calf we had been fattening.”
‘The father said, “My son, you are with me always and all I have is yours. But it was only right we should celebrate and rejoice, because your brother here was dead and has come to life; he was lost and is found.”’
The Parable is famous and complex.
- Complex in the central relationship between father and son; and complex in the relationship between the sons.
- Complex too in what is it that is going on in the ‘prodigal’ Son.
- What is his attitude to his father at the beginning, end and middle of the story?
- And what is the fault he bears for what goes wrong? What is the fault of the father? What the fault of the brother? And where is the mother in all this?
- Then there is the question of what is put right? Is the son reconciled? Is the father right to welcome as he does: or is he going to be responsible for the elder brother breaking with the family?
If we know anything of the mess and complexity of family relationships – of life! – we owe it to ourselves not to reduce the parable to a nice little fable about forgiveness and love. It is for grown-ups and it is dark. And it is given to bring new light to our darkness.
We need to allow its light to shine and – even slowly – dispel our shadows. For that we need time in the world of the story.
In the painting by Rembrandt, a detail of which is depicted above a figure, (a servant?) stands back, present to but seemingly abstracted from the central scene. He looks at us, looks to see what will happen next.
What will happen next?
- What moves us in the story?
- What challenges us in what happens
- And what impact will it have on us?
- Will we live differently in consequence as children? Parents? Siblings? Employers? Christians?
Detail of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt in the collection of the Hermitage, St Petersburg. (c) 2015, Allen Morris