Thoughts from John on the story of the Prodigal Son
I love the story of the Prodigal son, and I enjoyed Jonathan’s sermon this morning – I was interested in his references to the culture of Kezazah, which is new to me. I guess our experience of God is a reversal of Kezazah – the broken pot of our lives is healed and restored; the burnt deadness within us flourishes in new life; we who were once cut off are now grafted in.
When I was talking in the service this morning about Kenneth Steven’s poetry, I mentioned that his latest collection is called Letting in the Light, and charts his journey through the brokenness of bereavement, marriage break-up and the loss of much access to his young daughter. The title reflect Kenneth’s conviction that it is often when we are broken that the light of God’s restoring love reaches us. Somehow through the cracks of our brokenness light shines through which previously we have not been open to.
I think we see that in the story of the lost son. It was in his place of utter brokenness that the light reaches him.
And whatever our despair, our lostness, our anguish, our addictive behaviours, our suicidal impulses we are not beyond the reach of God’s love and God’s light. As Jonathan reminded us – God loves us, God has done everything which needs to be done to bring us home.
When I popped up the Bible readings for today on the web site on Friday evening, the famous Paul Simon song Homeward Bound came to mind – you never forget the songs which were big when you were a teenager. A travelling musician, dispirited with life on the road, a constant series of concerts in nondescript locations, longs for home, where his love awaits him.
I was reading somewhere that if a preacher talks of home, then for that period of time she or he was the congregations’s full attention, no matter how boring they may find the rest of the sermon. There is within each of us a longing for home, and for a homecoming which our everyday homecomings only symbolised. There is a compass in our hearts pointing to the spiritual dimension where our home is. We long, with all the wisfulness of Paul Simon’s song, to be homeward bound to the place where our love awaits us. And the story of the lost son and the wonderfully loving father assures us that we can come home today, and feel those arms around, and know ourselves welcomed. The Feast, as Jonathan says, reflects the Father’s joy, but we are there too, celebrating the grace which heals our brokenness.
It’s one thing to read about God’s love – another to experience it. I think I’ve written about this before, but I remember the Sunday evening, sitting in the middle of the gallery at Airdrie Baptist Church when I understood for the first time what a phrase in the Prodigal Son story actually meant. You would be right in thinking me rather naïve and stupid, but the words in Luke 15:20 translated in the old Authorised Version of the Bible which I was brought up on as ‘he fell on his neck and kissed him’ I had misinterpreted. I always assumed that falling on your neck involved prostrating yourself on the ground in some strange oriental greeting ritual. That day in Airdrie Baptist Church when I was in my 30s for goodness sake, I suddenly under stood that the words meant that the father flung his arms around the son’s neck, embracing him, kissing him in deep-felt paternal welcome. And with that understanding came a deeper realisation that God loved me extravagantly and with abandon.
Some of us, because of our brokenness find it hard to experience divine love. The light does shine through, but often it builds over a quite lengthy period of time, and we will find that learning to accept and love ourselves, and learning that God loves us are part of the same journey to wholeness.
I think this story is a difficult one for those whose own father was not a good model of fatherhood for us. If our own fathers belittled or abused us that very word ‘father’ may be tarnished in our memory. It’s an important to remember that that Jesus told a story about a Father, but what lies behind the story is the love of a non-gendered God who loves us absolutely. God is also seen in the Bible as a protective Mother – it may help some of us to see a loving Mother figure pounding down the dusty path towards us in our brokenness.
There are, as Jonathan said, many lessons to be learned from these parables, and especially the one about the lost son. Here are three which strike me this afternoon:
Am I living for God in the light of the fact that everything is a gift, that all is grace. Or, having once understood and welcomed the gift, have I drifted back to way of thinking which sees my performance or my deep confession as the road back to the Father’s house. It’s still totally a gift! Lay down your burden, lift up your eyes, receive the Father’s welcome.
Am I keeping those who I deem to me ‘not like me’ at the edge of village, or does my hospitality mirror that of the gracious welcoming father? Am I ‘cutting off’ those whom God calls me to help find their way home?
Am I remembering that the Father’s love is often expressed through my words, my actions, my hugs, my sympathetic eyes, my open acceptance?
The fascinating thing about stories is that regardless of the intention of the original storyteller, we see different lessons in them depending on what we bring to them as we read.
Here’s what I wondered about the parable this morning. It’s not the primary meaning of the story but it’s the way the story most spoke to me.
Is it, I wondered, about our inner lives as individuals? Perhaps after a troubled youth, I have tried to move on. I’ve found myself in the church, and I am dutiful and attentive in seeking to do the very best I can in the Father’s house. But in so doing, I have disconnected from part of me – that young self whom I’m ashamed of, whose attitudes and actions offend me, whose good points I have tried to airbrush out of my memory. And then there’s my deepest self, represented by the Father in the story.
My deepest self has long known something is wrong with me life, and has felt the absence, without fully understanding it, of the younger self. The dutiful self insists all is well. ‘Focus on duty and the future.’ But then as the light shines in increasingly, the deepest self longs to welcome back the younger self, despite all his foolishness. There comes a day when I embrace who I truly am and accept and forgive myself, and in that acceptance access a new river of creativity and joy. And in the party which follows, the dutiful self will join in and somehow lose himself in the dance of the heart no longer split in three, but increasingly united as one. And often this inner dance of the selves accompanies our journey towards the Father.
Whether this take on the story is deeply meaningful or incomprehensible to you, the point is that the story is one through which God reaches us. May each of us know today the Father’s love.