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Prodigal Son - Coming Home

The oldest child is the conformer and the second is the rebel, so I read somewhere (so long ago, I’ve no idea where or when, I’m afraid). But it strikes me that this scenario is played out exactly in the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15). The second son, the rebel, demands his share of the inheritance, and leaves for a far-off country, where he spends it all having a good time. A good time that would be far from how his family and his village back home would describe as ‘good’. Meanwhile the older son has stayed at home, doing his duty by his father and his father’s property. Except it isn’t his father’s anymore. The property had been divided between the two sons. The younger one had gathered all he had and gone; all that was left was, presumably, the older son’s property. But I suspect he didn’t view it like that. To ask your father to give you your share of the inheritance is basically to ask for what is yours after they die. Something that would be unlikely nowadays, and would probably have been unthinkable then. I can see the older son continuing with his life as normal, working in the fields, tending the property and being a dutiful son. Feeling self-righteous as he refuses to accept what shouldn’t have been his until after his father’s death; doing what is expected of him by his culture; conforming to the rules, written or unwritten, of his time. Unlike the younger son who’d taken everything and lost it all. Which would have had far more of an impact then, when it would, I think, have been bound up with family, land and inheritance.

So, two sons: the older one, the conformer, doing what he thinks is expected of him; the younger, the rebel, defying it all. Neither have a real relationship with their father. The oldest is treating his father as a rule-maker whom he needs to obey; the younger as someone to reject and rebel against. The younger one ends up in more trouble; once he’s run out of money, a famine hits the land. He has no income, no money, no food, no friends. He hires himself out to a pig farmer, but not, apparently, for wages, or not for much. He is starving, and has nothing to eat. Eventually, he comes to himself, and realises that he has only one choice, if he isn’t to die of starvation. He has to go home – except, he has rather burnt his bridges. No one who returns after treating his father as he did is going to be welcome; he cannot return and expect to be given his position as younger son back. There is no position: he has had his inheritance, and lost it all; all that is left belongs to his brother, and he may well know his brother well enough to be sure of how unwelcome he will be. Nevertheless, he has no choice. He goes back, with the intention of acknowledging his faults, and asking to be treated as a hired servant. I’ve often wondered at this point how genuine the repentance is; was he truly sorry, or was he just starving and desperate? Maybe it doesn’t matter; no-one who is that hungry is going to have spare energy for thinking through the ramifications of their decision. He decided to go home. Did he anticipate his father’s reaction, or did he expect to be treated as he deserved? Had he, in the course of his long journey home, had time to think through what he had done? Was he genuinely sorry, or just hungry? He knew enough to know he had done wrong, been stupid, and that he would be lucky to be treated as a hired servant; earning wages, where he could earn his living, and maybe contribute something of what he had lost.

What he may not have expected is that his father was looking out for him; saw him with compassion and, throwing dignity to the winds, ran and embraced him. Barely giving his son time to bring out his prepared speech, he tells the servants to clothe his son, kill the fatted calf and a party starts. I think, at this stage, the younger son, the rebel, must have realised who his father was, if he hadn’t earlier. His father loved him, and that relationship, of father and son, was the primary one. The rebel had done wrong, but he was back, and could now start anew. The sight of his father flinging his dignity to the winds, and literally running to embrace him must have brought home how truly stupid he had been. It was time to celebrate, for the lost had been found.

Meanwhile, what is the older son doing? He is out in the fields, and apparently no one thought to tell him what was happening. Had he been forgotten? Or had he been sent for, and ignored it? Or had he known his brother was on the way home, and deliberately taken himself out of the way? The father saw the younger son at a distance, and may have been looking out for him. Is it possible that, as the younger son walked home, news of his coming filtered through to his village, through people with faster transport? I have no idea. But we can’t just assume that the older son knew nothing about what was happening. I can imagine his resentment growing, as his father seems not to acknowledge his dutifulness; I can imagine him staying in the fields because that was what he should have been doing; I can see his jealousy of his younger brother increasing, as his father seemingly misses the rebel, far more than he appreciates the presence of the conformer. The older son is also wrong; he, too, has missed the point of his relationship with his father. He, too, cannot see the love that is there for both sons. When he discovers what has happened, he refuses to go in, and his father comes out to him. To plead, to explain, to try to get through to the older son, as he has to his younger brother. The answer the conformer gives his father portrays his resentment: ‘I’ve served you and obeyed your every command for all these years, and you’ve never given me an opportunity to celebrate with my friends, whereas you kill the fatted calf for that wastrel!’ The father has to explain that all that he has actually belongs to the older son. Literally: the younger son had taken his portion, so all that was left belonged to the older brother. It had been split between them; there was no need to wait for the offer of a goat. They were already his. But it was fitting to celebrate the return of one lost and found, one dead, and now alive.

For the younger son had returned and come truly alive; aware of all he had missed before, aware of the primacy of love. What we are left unknowing is whether the older son came to the same awareness. Did he realise how much he had missed by living his life through rule keeping rather than love? Did he go in and celebrate his brother’s return, or did he stay outside, refusing to see? Or did he go in, conforming to his father’s wishes, while – still – missing the point? The answer as to how he responded is left unclear. It is left in our hands. Whether both brothers or only one came to the knowledge of their father’s love is not the point. The point is: have we? Do we respond the gospel because we are conformers, and always have? Because it is what is ‘done’? Or are we responding as rebels, for whatever reason? (I fully acknowledge that I am more able to write about conforming than rebelling…). The answer is important, that we know how we relate to God; but it is not important which one we are. Both conformers and rebels bring their own gifts to God. What is crucial is whether we are relating primarily as a conformer or a rebel; or whether we are relating primarily in love. Have we come to ourselves and returned to our God of love and compassion, knowing that we can only truly respond to love with love? Or are we merely living, while missing the most essential thing? What answer we give is less important than the honesty of that answer. The journey of love is a long one, and the realisation that we have missed the point of our faith may well be the beginning of that journey.

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