Today’s gospel (as well as being the longest gospel I’ve ever had to sing) is one of the most famous of Jesus’ parables. It has been used time and time again and reinterpreted for different genres of expression, Kipling wrote a poem about it. Scott Joplin turned it into a ballet. Britten and Debussy set it to music. Rembrandt painted it.
It is so well known and loved by us that I’m sure I hardly need to say anything at all…….but I will all the same.
Because when a story becomes well loved, we can stop seeing the details.
One of the things I love about this parable is the dynamic between the characters, how they interact with each other and how we can interact with them.
In all good stories there are different types of characters, we have the hero, a role we’re familiar with in stories, then there is the protagonist around whom the story revolves, (sometimes these are the same person, but not always) and then there is the anti hero, generally my favorite character, because they are the ones who are flawed, who creates disruptions and conflicts, in the story and in your own feelings, they’re often the characters you like but shouldn’t. And of course there are support characters who help the story move along and the extras.
So, who is who in our parable?
Lets get the easy ones out of the way first, we have the servants and the pig farmer who are support and extras.
So then we have the father and his two sons. And now things become a little more tricky because who is placed in each role depends on how you read it.
It could be the younger son coming to his senses, seeing the light, and returning home.
Or, it could be the older son being shown that bitterness against his brother is no way to live, and that everything that the father owns is his anyway so he too should rejoice.
Or it could be the father, after searching for his child, giving the response of complete joy and forgiveness at his younger sons return.
What do you think?
You may change your mind when you consider the parables that have gone before because Jesus tells two other parables to the Pharisees at this time. We’re told that the Jesus is talking to the Pharisees and the scribes and they unhappy at Jesus’ friendships with sinners, they grumble when they come close to hear Jesus. So Jesus tells them a series of stories to get them understanding why he spends time with them.
I give thanks the lectionary compilers didn’t include these other two parables this morning. They are the lost sheep and the lost coin.
All lost things will be found, and in these other parables it is made clear that the shepherd who found his sheep and the woman who found her coin are the heroes of those, so, the father who found his son must be the hero.
So now we have our hero identified, we can put the others in their place. We have the protagonist around whom the story revolves as the younger Son, who goes away, blows everything, and comes crawling back.
And then my favorite, the anti-hero, the older son, who puts the twist into the story at the very end.
Because if this story was just about sinners repenting and coming back to the father, the story could end when the younger son returns home.
But Jesus goes on to tell us about the reaction of the older Son, who is resentful and bitter towards both the Father and his brother.
“Listen, all these years I have slaved for you and never once disobeyed any orders of yours, yet you never gave me anything.
But, for this son of yours, when he comes back after wasting your property gets the fattened calf and a party to go with it”.
The older son feels hard done by, deserving of reward for his years of faithful service but going without. But he is blind with jealousy and misses the fact completely that he already has everything in his possession, everything that the father has is already his. His wealth and property and love are already in his possession, but he just can’t see it.
Jesus doesn’t tell stories for our enjoyment, so the question is, where are you in this parable?
Are you a lost child, feeling unworthy, too sinful for the love and forgiveness of the father? Are you painfully making your way back, searching for the right path to lead you back?
Are you a slave to faithful work, but without the joy of the reward? Or are you full of jealousy for those around you who seem to be given better gifts?
Where is your relationship with the Father? Are you on speaking terms? Are you shouting or scared to talk?
This reading is important because it makes us question, our sinful actions and need for repentance, and also about the attitude we practice our faith with.
This is a calling, in the middle of Lent, for some further self assessment, and perseverance for the journey so that we can be the children that return confident, and with joy for each other too.