Luke 15: 11-32
Christian faith involves a continual process of learning: getting in touch with what our mothers and fathers in faith believed and sometimes disagreeing with them. For Methodists it means sifting to our soul satisfaction the priorities of the Wesleys. It involves learning to live with the theological niceties of denominational differences and the stresses within them – the stern traditionalists, the earnest liberals and the wild charismatics.
It means of course learning from the scriptures: learning to make sense of their profusion and confusion. Learning from each other, learning from the Spirit, learning from faith other than Christian.
For children the first way to learn is by hearing stories, which was the method employed by Jesus and it may be that his stories tell us most about him and his gospel. Here perhaps is the most significant of them all : the story of two sons and their uncomfortable relationship, and of a patient and perhaps over fond father. What can we learn from it? There are four emotions within the story which all of us are likely to share.
If you are a Christian, do you ever ask yourself why? If you do, your answers will of course include that you believe in God and are drawn to him through the teaching and the person of Jesus.
You may once have had a life-changing experience when it seemed that the division between the human and the divine has broken down and you were in the presence of the Almighty. You may believe in the importance of relationships and have found a place in the community of believers, your local church. Perhaps it’s a habit, a good one,that you don’t want to drop. But one reason may because of what you get out of it.
The younger son in Jesus’ story wasn’t getting satisfaction out of life. He was fed up with farming.
Up with the sun, perpetual provider for chickens, cattle, pigs. He was fed up with the hardness, the inevitability of it all. Fed up with the family. So he wants to get out, and demands his share of the family’s wealth. Never mind how if it affects others, from now on all that matters is me, he says. And he gets what he wants, and lives recklessly. Spend, spend, spend – buying what he wants, buying women and fair-weather friends who when his money dries up, fade away. Suddenly he is alone; destitute, wanting for himself the very scraps of food he feeds the animals with.
So he decides to go home and face the music; face his grieving father – and his brother whose work has doubled since he has to work alone. He says to himself that if he can think of the right words and say how glad he is see everyone again, his Dad will forgive him, for he is that way inclined, and if the older brother moans about it, well he is used to that. At least he will have shelter and food. He is in it for himself again.
You can’t study the teaching of Jesus without recognising that he appeals to the basic interests of those who follow him. It won’t be easy but come with me he says, and you will gain the whole world. There are dividends of faith – not wealth or fame, but fulfilment, deep and profound gifts of the Spirit: love, security, hope, peace, your life having purpose and depth. A people to belong to, and a God to adore.
Older people like me are a bit in awe of modern young people in their hedonism, their all night raves, their apparent confidence ; and a bit envious as well perhaps. My generation was brought up to practice restraint: things should never get out of control. So, for some of us living through the sixties was good fun; we could be slightly wild but not dangerously so. Old values were challenged and new verities became possible. It was a pivotal time for some of us, better than the sober seventies and the greedy eighties that followed. Extravagance of some sort or other can be good for the soul. Routine and order are important but should never rule our lives, leaving no room for surprise and change.
The three characters in our story all go over the top. The younger son kicks over the traces, wanting to be free he wastes his liberty by total indulgence: his older brother, excessively the opposite of his brother, burns with anger. It is the father who really goes wild, prodigiously so, unconditionally generous and loving for the wastrel son and even reproving his other son who is dutiful but unloving, for not sharing his joy.
Jesus stretches normal morality and decorum to breaking point, beyond the barriers of caution and common sense. Be cheerful, he says, I have overcome the world. He says to Judas, do what you want to do, and then to his anxious friends, I shall die but three days afterwards I’ll be back and will never leave you. He opens a door that leads us out of a tight and constrained world into the spacious freedom of the kingdom of God.
If this story was about justice and rights, then the younger son wouldn’t have been surprised if on his return home, his father had disowned him. He shows little sign of contrition; it’s a calculated and unconvincing apology that he rehearses as he makes his journey. I’ve suggested that some sort of self-interest is reasonable enough, but this has a smell of hypocrisy about it. It’s all about me.
And the father’s response could have matched his mood. He could have said that he hadn’t slept a wink since his son had left, worrying about him. Tossing and turning every night and then in the morning he’d had to get up early to prune the vines. He had been forced to sell part of the estate to make up the inheritance pay-out. His wife had become an old woman by her loss. His older son was no fun to live with and had made a fine art of his continual sulk. But, he could then have said with gritted teeth, I forgive you. But it’s not like that at all. One of the most breath-taking moments in this book of surprises, ‘he’s back! We’ll have a feast! ‘
This ability Jesus had to move people to something and somewhere new. A woman accused of adultery isn’t stoned as would normally be the case, but is told ‘not to do it again’. A blind man is told his sins are forgiven. And when the whole adventure seems to be over, Jesus says to the rock who was Peter, ‘feed my sheep’. Forgiveness is not about just deserts but entering a new world and finding that the old one that held you in its grip and held you down, holds you no longer.
Living as we do today in a broken economy, we live in the middle of this constant debate about what the government’s priority should be – bringing down the deficit or facilitating economic growth. ‘Both’ say the pundits, but for many, growth is the most important. ‘Business’ rules the world. I heard a church leader on his four minute Thought for Today on Radio Four say that as a nation we had become too interested in personal wealth rather than in building relationships based on a commonwealth of life. One of his solutions was to rediscover spiritual values. A society measured by mutual care rather than personal greed. But how do you do that? Some would say by making people feel guilty.
That’s how the church has often seen its mission – shouting doom from the steeple, making people feel bad so that hopefully God can make them good. There’s a deeper challenge, Jesus seems to be saying in his story: the problem isn’t guilt but finding that God is a lover rather than a judge. The younger son eventually got to that position by admiting he had made a mess of his things and surrendering pride, his broken strength is empowered by the strong love of his father. We spend a lot of time – too much time – in pubclic worship telling God in prayer how awful we are when all the time God is saying ‘come home’.
This is the bond between us and God. There is nothing cautious, grudging, mean about the way he touches our lives. The God Jesus knew is infinitely gracious. This is his realism. There are few absolutes for me about Christian faith but this one: the absolute of God’s everlasting love.
We are thinking people, we who want to follow in the steps of the living Christ and our thinking can never be separated from feeling. Truth is emotional and here’s a story pulsating with it! We learn from the sons and more especially from their dear father that we can be honest about our self interest, about the extravagance of our response, about forgiveness and about love.
The contemporary church is not good – has it ever been? –at handling the unexpected truths that emerge from the stories of Jesus. They are all about life, not religion and we may find that difficult to accept. The younger son’s problem is what you do with a father who loves so much. The challenge for us is to represent such a God to an unbelieving world