By Canon Jeremy Haselock
The Fourth Sunday in Lent, Rose Sunday
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
31 March 2019
The Rev. Canon Jeremy M. Haselock, Household Chaplain to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II of England, returns to St. John’s as our Distinguished Priest in Residence throughout Lent.
O my goodness! What a challenge! What can I say about this parable of Jesus that has not already been said from this pulpit and every other pulpit in Christendom throughout all ages and many times over? Well! The first thing I am going to do is change the name of the story. It is always known as the Prodigal Son but I am going to call it the Prodigal Father because our theme on this mid-Lent, Refreshment Sunday is God our Father’s prodigious, overflowing, boundless and eternal love for us and for all his creation.
But, having renamed the story it is important to call to mind some of what we may well have heard before and reflect on some of the characteristics of the two brothers as they are depicted by Jesus in telling this parable.
First, the younger son. Just how could this boy be so dumb as not to recognize all the benefits and abundance available to him at home? Why does he even think about striking out on his own? What insensitivity, what ingratitude! Can he not recognize that his world is nothing less than a gift lavished upon him by a gracious and generous father? Oh! But doesn’t this seem a bit familiar? Paradise Lost? Go figure, as you say over here.
The young lad, as young lads do, decided he knew best and set out to make his own way relying on a substantial advance on his inheritance. Funds easily acquired are often equally easily lost and he soon wasted his substance on riotous living and was reduced to the basest and most demeaning of occupations, competing with pigs for the swill in their troughs. Familiar again? Is this not a metaphor for the human predicament? Again, go figure!
“When he came to himself,” as Jesus put it, he realised from whence he had so foolishly strayed and that the place could still be available for him. Even being a slave in the household where once he had been a beloved son was better than his current situation. He did a big thing for a young man, he swallowed his pride, returned home to confess to his foolishness and to plead for a servant’s position in his father’s house. Doesn’t this sound familiar too? “Lord, we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table: but thou are the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy.” Go figure! Here is repentance – something we have been talking about a great deal and appropriately so during this season of Lent. Here is a 180 degree change of course and, as with all true repentance, to his astonishment and ours, he was received like a prince returning to the palace he had thought forfeit!
But what of the older son? Yes, there is another player in this parable, an older and somewhat hardened brother who had stayed at home and worked his father’s land. Coming home from the fields, weary and looking for rest and refreshment, he hears the unfamiliar sound of a party in full swing. What was going on? His irresponsible young brother whom he thought had been expelled from “his father’s house” once and for all had reappeared and was the centre of attention and delight. The celebration of the wanderer’s return seemed far greater than the attention this responsible and much more mature older son had ever been given. He was incensed at this unfair turn of events, angry and very put out.
How do we relate to these boys? Are we alongside the older son in his righteous indignation? Or do we identify with the younger son? Surely there is a bit of both of them in all of us? We can find many faults with the behaviour of the younger son, but if we are honest, we can understand him, for he is not unlike us! We are like him because we regularly come before God asking for his grace and mercy, even though we do not deserve it, asking him to restore us to that place in his home we should never have forsaken. But how often do we find ourselves in the same position as the older brother, consumed with self-pity. “Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends.” Have we not time after time felt that others are favoured in some way or another over us? Do we not tell ourselves that the less deserving others are often favoured at the expense of our own far greater worth? Much as we may hate to admit it, our sympathies lie also with the older brother.
But actually, this parable is not really centred on the two sons. If we reflect on it, we realise that at its heart is really the father of the two boys. To appreciate this, we need to reflect on the word “prodigal”. The word means “given to reckless extravagance” or “lavish”. It has found its way into the title of this parable because the younger son was certainly guilty of “reckless extravagance” with his father’s and his own resources. But if the son was guilty of such wasteful expenditure, just see how the father is characterized by far more “reckless extravagance” in his lavish outpouring of fatherly love and concern than the so-called prodigal son spent on earthly goods and pleasures!
Yes, it is the father who is extravagant, overgenerous, so filled with forgiveness and pardon, love and tenderness, grace and mercy that he throws a party for a penitent son. So prodigal of love, too, that he pleads with his petulant, sullen older son to come in and join the party, begging him to put aside his resentment and share in the love and mercy that was so abundantly on offer.
Go figure! The prodigal father is none other than the One from whom the entire human family had estranged and separated itself in spite of a garden of delights and the warmth of a Creator’s love constantly surrounding them and available to them. Even using the word “prodigal” in the sense of “a radical extravagance of fatherly love and forgiveness” still falls far short of describing the Father around whom this parable is woven, for he not only wraps his arms around children who return home from the far country with words of penitence and contrition, but he sends his own Son into the far country to call all wayward children back home.
Even when those insubordinate children reject the Father’s Son, nailing him to a cross, the prodigal Father keeps on sending his Spirit throughout the world, coaxing the most defiantly insolent to return to him with the words “Welcome Home” ringing out over the entire world. He calls us all to his eternal banquet of celebration and foreshadows its wonders in the bread and wine of the Mass wherein we receive the bread of angels.
What then can be said that is “new” about such an old and well-known parable? A superabundance of grace! A radical extravagance of tenderness! An almost wasteful expenditure of mercy! No prodigal son here but a prodigal father embracing his estranged sons and daughters with prodigal love! None of this is really “new,” but for those who recognize themselves in the miserable younger son, tied by pride to the far country of sin and death, prodigal love never ever ceases to be new when it is made flesh in the person, life, suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And for those who have returned or are returning penitent to the Father’s home from the far country, this story has the most marvellously wonderful words one can ever hear because death has died, prodigal life abounds, and the lost are newly found every day!