The parable of the father who lost two sons
Sunday 19 June 2022, Father’s Day
When visiting The National gallery do you spend time simply gazing at the picture, or do you avidly read the information panel beside it?
Do you love a guidebook to a new place, or do you prefer to wander and see where your senses take you?
When listening to new music, do you read the reviews on-line and follow the artist on Instagram for insights, or do you prefer make up your own mind about what you hear?
Looking at the parables, as we are for the next term of Sundays. We need to start by remembering they are a form of art. They are stories. And good ones! Memorable ones! Stories that have stood the test of time. We will all approach them differently. Some of us will just want to sit in front of the artwork, the story, and take it all in. And some will want background information.
In our Monday Bible Study we are doing more of the guide book stuff – what was the world like? What might Jesus have been referring to? What was the custom of the day around that thing? Because parables present a challenge because they are on the one hand so familiar, (the charming story of the farmer sowing seed) and on the other hand so unfamiliar so unfamiliar, (What exactly is it like to sow seed when the survival of your family depends on the harvest they may or may not come?) These times are wonderful and as someone who heads for the programme notes in any artistic setting, I suppose this is my happy place!
But sometimes the programme notes can enclose our thinking and shut down our senses. We might begin to see Macbeth as a play only about ambition or Beyonce’s Lemonade album about onlyinfidelity. Of course, great art, including great stories are open to many interpretations. We see ourselves within them. We read our story on to theirs and crucially, the story begins to read us.
A few more notes before we tell the story. The Parables of Jesus are in every case, challenging. They were memorable because they were often surprising, they were frequently subversive, and they were plucked from the world of Jesus and his hearers. There is a reason why Jesus does not tell any parables about a forester in a cottage in a wood on a night of heavy snowfall. But what was familiar to his listeners became shocking because parables are parallels. They are not allegories where every character and setting have a meaning which you have to understand to find a deeper significance. If you don’t get that Animal Farm is really about Russian Communism you miss the allegorical power of it. But there is no such key to Jesus’ parables. Parables are stories Jesus told that helped him help us to shake off this world view to better see the parallel world - the Kingdom of Jesus he was always referring back to.
So perhaps one question we could ask ourselves as we look at parables is, ‘What might this story teach me about the Kingdom of God as I hear it today?’
Let’s take that question seriously, let’s pause, lets breaths and let’s make that question a prayer, ‘Loving God show me what this story can teach me about the Kingdom of God as I hear it today?’
So as we open ourselves to God’ spirit we need to bring ourselves as we are today.
Today happens to be Father’s Day. Today falls in pride month. Today the world has numerous wars and conflicts which concern us. Today our government is beset by problems and the cost of living is rising affecting us all. Today the climate crisis cannot be put to one side.
And today, here we are. A community held by faith in Jesus Christ, by our location and a set of shared values as to how to be together. A community that is made up of mothers, fathers, siblings, sons and daughters. For me my right now, I am finding parenting really hard. I am smarting and my family are smarting from the pain we inflict on each other. And what about you? Are you struggling as a parent too? Are you lonely, disappointed, in pain, celebrating, confused. We come as today we are to this ancient story. Can there be something for me?
Jesus told the people a parable
There was a man who had two sons. The man was a lone parent. His boys were growing up. He had always given in to his younger son and so when that son asked to get his share of the family farm before his father died, right now in fact, the father said “OK.” Because what could he do? It might be spoiling him, it was spoiling him, but the father loved the boy – is that so wrong.? He might turn out to use the money well, with a bit of belief. And if the father said no, the boy could cut him out of his life, or run away penniless which might have been worse. Loving a headstrong child is difficult. But decisions must be made. And the father decided to give the young man, what he asked for.
Despite his best hopes, and all the advice, the younger son left his father, brother, livelihood, and village (because parenting takes a village and where had they been as the father had agonised?) and goes far away where he proceeds to “squander” all that he had been given.
The father decided to give in to his son. And now his son is lost. The father has lost his son. The son is far away and all alone. Could the father have done any other?
But this father had two sons. So, what of the elder son? In most Old Testament stories, the pattern is that the older son is the bad egg and the younger son shows himself to be worthy in the end gets the better deal despite being younger. But here – the older son is very good. He is uncomplaining, hardworking, loyal and he is there. But the father, so worried about the more difficult child, seems to have forgotten the easy one. The good boy feels overlooked as the father worries and frets and makes allowances and excuses for the younger, lost son. The father is so full of grief, anger, regret, worry and so many other parenting emotions that wake him in the night, that his eyes are too bleary each morning to see the son who remains with him at the breakfast table.
Of course the father had not stopped loving his elcer son. The roof over his head, the food on the table, the hours of work and leisure they silently shared expressed love as far as the Father was concerned. The elder son never told his father he felt unloved and father never told his son he loved him. Both assumed their felings were being fully communicated and fully understood without words. But by these terrible twin assumption, the older son grows resentful, bitter. His feeling of invisibility crushes his spirit, and he goes through the motions of being present in a state of profound absence. He is lost. The father has managed to lose both his sons.
A broken family is laid out before us. A father, parenting alone has accidentally managed to lose both his sons because there is no guidebook and no perfect path.
Jesus continues with the story. The father is on the lookout. He knows he cannot force the younger boy to come home, the boy has to choose that for himself – but the father is watchful, waiting for that moment of return.
The younger son does come to his senses. He is at death’s door from hunger when he decides to walk home and to ask Dad to take him back, even as a servant just if he can eat and live again. But he doesn’t make it all the way – the father, who has been looking out, now goes out. He runs to his lost son. The powerful sense of one who had been dead being alive again propels him towards his son. No need for the apology, no need change your attitude, show remorse, pay the penalty, the father sees the opportunity to win back that which was lost. And despite the pain, the humiliation, the worry, the expense, The Father runs to his son and dramatically takes him back.
A band is booked the calf-roast is set up and all the village, because all of us parenting in community, are invited to a party to welcome back this boy. No mention of the waste, or the worry because all that matters to the father at this point is the reconciliation. When someone we love so much is near dead, breathing life into them is the single most important thing that can be done. And when that body begins to breathe again, wow – there is no feeling like it. Hang the inconvenience, stuff the cost, the loving father in this story throws a massive party and celebrates because what he had lost, has come back to him.
But there were two sons. And the father has got so excited about the younger one did he clean forget about the elder one? The village were invited to the party and the band are playing while the older son is still at work on the farm. He has no idea. Should dad not have gone to tell him? Included him? Invited him? Dad was so caught up in his own stuff, he didn’t give a thought to the child under his nose.
The older son is livid. Finding out from a member of his own staff that there is a party and that it is the celebrate the return of his brother is humiliating and it confirms in his mind what he has long suspected, “My father has forgotten me.” The elder son takes no joy in his brother’s return or in his father’s relief. He can only see his own problems.
The older son stands outside the house. He refused to go in. So the Father goes out again. This time he meets a son not on the road but on the garden path. But once again the father has left his home, to meet a child is a state.
The words of the father here are words of comfort (the Greek tells us) “My Darling child, here you are and here I am. We haven’t spoken much have we? But I have been here all the time. I need to tell you, in words, very clearly, my life is yours. You have never left me, and I have never left you. Lostness has affected us all, and now there is the chance of found-ness. We can all have a new start. Will you take that offer and come in?”
We never hear the answer. The story is left unresolved.
But each of us is invited to respond to the idea Jesus sows that the kingdom of God is like a family. Not a perfect breakfast cereal advert family, but a real family, one formed by reconciliation. And the story reveals that reconciliation worth going out of our way for and celebrating when we achieve it.
Each of us display the casual apathy of the village, the wilfulness of the younger son, the bitterness of the older son and the folly of the father at various times and in our various settings. But let’s finish on this Father’s Day with those identifying with the father.
Fathers, and those lone parents and are in fathering roles, no one expects you to get it right all the time. But we see you and see that you get it exactly right loads of the time. Thank you.
And, preparing this has reminded me of what Jesus said on another occasion to a group of fathers, (Lk 11:13)
“If you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?”
The Father in the story was imperfect, come in and join the celebration, because we are loved perfectly by our heavenly father. Amen