What’s the point! Am I bovvered? Do I care? In so many ways the younger son sounds very much like Catherine Tate’s famous adolescent. He certainly doesn’t come across as a pleasant specimen, but let’s try and get into his head and see what’s going on there.
For all Jews, life under the Romans was depressing – theirs was a highly restrictive regime. There were all sorts of rules and regulations to follow and taxes to be paid. There wasn’t too much joy in everyday life. For the Younger Son, this was compounded by his position in the family. As the younger son (you might remember an earlier sermon in this series dealing with children arguing over their inheritance) he would expect to get the smaller share of his Father’s wealth. This particular Father wasn’t as poor as many others – he had property and hired men – and so their would be something for this young man to inherit, but chances were that it wouldn’t be enough to bring him security and financial freedom. Chances were, it may not really be even enough to earn his keep from.
As the youngest Son, I suspect he probably also was desperate to be seen as a person in his own right – not his Father’s Son. Can identify with this being the son of the local headmaster in a village school. Everybody knew me, I didn’t know them. Thought I would escape when I went to Uni. – but surprised when one of my lecturers knew of me because of some connection with Mum. No doubt he was sick of always being compared to his Older Brother too.
So how could he find the freedom he so desired? The freedom to find his own identity and life the life he wanted?
His desire was to escape – up sticks and leave. Leave behind those who knew him, those who held him back or oppressed him. We know the story – he had no money and so went to his dad and asked for his inheritance.
I remember my younger cousin Alan taking a fancy to my Grandparent’s reclining garden chair, and in complete innocence asking if he could have it when Grandad died!
This Son is not so innocent. He knows I’m, sure, that what he was saying to his Dad is I wish you were dead…
I wonder if he was caught by surprise when his dad said okay and divided his property between them!
Anyway, he took the land that his dad gave him, sold it, and left, heading off to a distant land where know one knew him, and where the regime was much more relaxed. In many ways, this part of the story reminds me of what often happens when students first get to University. For the first time have some money of their own, and freedom to do what they want with it and their lives. Party time! The Younger Brother, like many students, squanders his money on wild living. I suspect though, that his living is wilder than your average student. We’re not told exactly what he got up to, but the comment by the Older Son, ‘this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes’ suggests that it was truly wild living, and not the odd party.
Not having really dealt with money before, it is no surprise that before too long he runs out of money. To make it worse, the land he has gone to is hit by severe famine. In desperate straits he ends up ‘hiring himself out’ to a Gentile – totally degrading to the Jews who prided themselves on keeping separate, pure. To make it worse, he is put to work feeding the pigs – unclean animals – and eating their food when the boss isn’t looking. There isn’t much further he could sink. He was alone, away from the safety of family and faith.
In the midst of this darkness, it says he ‘came to his senses’. If I go back to Dad and say I have sinned against Heaven and him, then maybe he’ll take me in as a worker and feed men…
Some read this to be like a conversion experience – here in the darkest pit, the Son realises the error of his ways and determines to repent and come back to his Father. I fear it is nothing of the sort! Does the phrase ‘I have sinned again heaven and you’ sound at all like a heartfelt apology? It may be true, but there is no sense of love or regret in this – except that he regrets having got himself into this mess. It really does feel as if he is working out the right set of words to get exactly what he wants
This son is really quite contemptible isn’t he! We might be able to see contributing factors behind the way he behaves, but there’s no getting away from the fact that he is a self-centred, calculating, scum-bag.
Listening to Jesus tell his story are a range of people, Pharisees, disciples, tax-collectors and various ‘sinners’. Many of them would share the Younger Son’s desire to escape from oppression. For some the dream of getting away from this life would be a real one. Reminds me of the sentiments expressed by many of my friends in Sierra Leone in West Africa. If they could they’d leave, leave behind the poverty and corruption and seek a better life elsewhere. But at the same time, they would also despair of this young man. He’d broken every rule in the book. He’d abandoned his faith, he’d dishonoured his Dad, he’d deserted his family. Worse than that in fact. By selling up his share of the property, he was forcing them to live on a smaller patch, lowering their status in the community and their security and income.
The Younger Son was taking a real risk here. There was every chance that his Dad would reject him completely here – quite right too everyone in the audience would have felt. Maybe the more generous amongst them might have some sympathy and let him come back as some servant, but he forfeited his rights… When he rehearses his line ‘I am no longer worthy to be called your Son’ he was telling the truth.
But then there’s this magical scene. The Dad sees him coming and is filled with compassion. Dignity would require the Son to come grovelling to him, but it is the other way around. The Father abandons all dignity and runs to him. He doesn’t care what everybody else thinks. He just wants his child back. He throws his arms around him and hugs him. This is the embrace of Father and Son. He calls for his best robe to be put on him, and places his ring on his finger. Kill the fattened calf, let’s celebrate the return of my lost son. He was dead, but now is alive again, lost now found.
The Father by putting on the robe and ring is treating the Younger Son as an equal – he is letting everybody know that this Son is his Son, part of His Family. There’s as always a scandal here. The mercy of this Father is beyond the scope of usual mercy. He doesn’t need to hear sorry before forgiving. He doesn’t need to see signs of repentance or to say I told you so. He pours mercy on him unconditionally, unsought for, undeserved. The only thing that matters is the restoration of his relationship with his Son.
But of course this isn’t the end of the story.
Out on the field the Older Son is working. He is the responsible one, the one who stayed behind to care for his Dad to work hard. He was a good Jewish Boy that any parent would be proud of.
Imagine what he has gone through these last months. Before his brother left, life was hard, but his leaving had made it so much worse. First of all there was the emotion strain of supporting his grieving Dad. Then there was the simple fact that they had had to make ends meet with less manpower and less land on which to do so. He had done the right thing, and all that he had to show for it was stress and sweat. His brother had swanned off having wrecked the family home, lived it up, and had now come back at was accepted without so much as a sorry and was being given a party at their expense. It wasn’t fair!!! There is certainly a lot to be said for the Older Sons complaint.
Maybe you can relate to him? I remember working alongside a bunch of guys doing community service and thinking how come you all have nice cars and gear, whilst I who have done nothing wrong have so little to show for it.
Certainly many in Jesus’ audience could relate to this. Whilst the younger Son had sought freedom in escapism, many thought that freedom would only return to the Jews if they worked harder at keeping the Law and maintaining the Jewish way of life – the Pharisees were prime examples of this. How many of us seek approval from our peers and the powers that be by working hard and striving to do the right thing?
The older son’s response to the return of the younger son would have been mirrored by many listening to Jesus.
So what does the Father do? No sooner has he got one son back, the other one threatens to leave him! He heads straight away to track him down, to try and sort things out. ‘All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so that I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
The Father’s reply is again stunning, ‘My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’
The truth is that his Father hadn’t given him a young goat, he’d given him everything! Right at the beginning of the story he divided up his property between them. It had been the Older Son’s choice not to use it, not to celebrate and make the most of what his Father had given him.
Is there actually a sense of regret as he lambastes his brother’s wild living – a touch of jealousy, I would have liked to have lived a little…
I love you Son, says the Dad, and I love your brother too. I have and will give up everything for you both.
Are either of the Sons on the right track, trying to discover freedom? Do escapism or grasping to rules and the traditional ways help? Or is the Father’s approach of putting relationships first a better way? Is freedom actually found in caring and accepting beyond the call of duty?
And how about the Father’s love? Is he misplaced? Naïve? A soft touch? Or does such love cut across barriers and offer the chance of transformation and hope?
It is fascinating that Jesus doesn’t comment on this story. He doesn’t say which is right and which is wrong. He just tells us the story and leaves us to let it do its work upon us. Let’s take a moment now to reflect on the story and to ask God what he wants to say to us through it…