By The Rev’d Canon Chris Palmer
My favourite story in the Bible is the story of the prodigal son, found in Luke 15. I can recount the story from memory just about word for word. It is so beautifully told by Luke and an acutely insightful portrayal of the human condition.
We call it ‘the prodigal son’, but really it’s a story of three characters: a father and his two sons.
The prodigal himself is perhaps the most straightforward of the three. The classic rebel, who sees the error of his ways – or perhaps just sees the disadvantages of his ways to himself! He comes home, humbled, wiser, and penitent. He discovers the joy of forgiveness, the truth that being at home in the love and life of his father is the truest life there is.
The older brother is more complex. He’s been faithful to his father all along, hard-working, and loyal. Often I’ve spoken to people who believe he is genuinely hard done by. But he is eaten up with resentment and self-pity. He refuses to enter the house where his brother’s return is being lauded. His father speaks words of real grace to him, “My son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” The question is, can he hear this grace? Will he remain in the fields with the mind-set of a servant, or return to the house and choose to take his place as a son?
Finally the father. He is the most mysterious – and lonely – of the three. He bears alone in his heart the deep grief that his younger son has deserted him. And then, just as he receives his son back, he faces the loss of his other son. He is the one who bears responsibility, but in no way allows it to harden him; a rare combination. He bears his graciousness, his love, his generosity, his responsibility alone – leaving the party for the son he’s found to plead with the son he risks losing. No one else knows what it is to be the father.
Our tenednecy in reading this is to compare ourselves with younger of older son: am I the wayward one who is called to repentance, or the dutiful one who is destroyed by resentment? And we think the father is just a portrayal of God. But I think the real challenge of the story – and the path of spiritual maturity – is to grow into the role of the father. Will I risk the lonely path of keeping hope when others tell me all is lost, of offering forgiveness to those others tell me are not worth it, of offering grace to those who throw it back in my face? Above all, dare I appreciate what it’s like for God to love me, and take the risk that God expects me to offer the same love to others?