Few things are more moving than to see a family not giving up on an errant son or daughter. The parents have brought up their child but when he or she becomes a teenager, the parents have to stand back and leave them to make their own decisions.
Often, in the absence of strong family tradition, the young person loses their sense of direction and lands up in desperate trouble. The parents are shocked and distressed but there is little they can do if the young person refuses help.
The point of Jesus’ story about the errant son, the prodigal son, is that the parents do not give up. They wait. Anxiously, hopefully and prayerfully, they wait for the moment when their child ‘comes to his (her) senses’, sees that the mess they are in is self-inflicted and that the way out can also be self-activated. The young man in the story has abandoned his family, his country and his religion (he ends up working with ‘unclean’ pigs), but the father has not abandoned him. He waits for him, his eyes glued to the horizon, watching for his return.
The common assumption might be that the father scolds him, demands an explanation and maybe disinherits him. But this father embraces him, says not a word of condemnation and invests him with a robe, a ring and sandals – symbols that he is now in an even high state in the family than he was before.
Luke is telling us Israel has torn up the contract made in the desert, wasted its inheritance and abandoned its destiny. In the accounts of Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin this is precisely what the high priest does. But God has not abandoned Israel. He waits. When Ukraine jumps out at us every time we consult the media, we feel the anguish of the people – particularly the children and the mothers who try to care for them in the absence of their menfolk, fighting on the front line. (The media chooses to bring Ukraine to our attention but we constantly need to remember that there is a bitter war also continuing in Ethiopia.)
We pray. But, in a sense, even God has to wait. He cannot intervene if his ‘teenagers’ fight. He has given them freedom and wants them to use that freedom to find a way out of the mess. In some mysterious way we cannot understand, he does help them to open their eyes and see a way forward. But this help is dependent on a real desire on the part of those involved to be helped.
Finally, we hear that the story ends with a celebration, a win-win event of great joy. It is not a reward, not a victory parade. It is a moment when everyone rejoices as they recognise the father does not judge but welcomes his son who in his turn has learnt so much that you feel he is now twice the man he was before.
27 March 2022 Lent Sunday 4C Josh 5:9-12 2 Cor 5:17-21 Lk 15:11-32