Today is Father’s Day. To say that this is a religious occasion in GB is a total misnomer as its origins in the USA are largely national and commercial. In other countries fathers are celebrated on various days. In many Catholic countries on St Joseph’s Day in March. Sue and I always lose out with regard to our Auckland daughter as Mother’s Day and Father’s Day have quite different dates in NZ and we miss out on both! Here in Britain, we follow the American lead, though, a National Holiday there since the 1960’s.
I don’t want to be a spoilsport but realistically it is another occasion to buy gifts – ties, socks, wine and so on – to thank our fathers and has none of the deep significance of Mother’s Day which the Church celebrates on a wider front as Mothering Sunday.
The problem is that for some, unfortunately, their experience of one parent or another has been less that positive. And to speak today of fathers we need to be very sensitive. For some we need to speak symbolically of the Christian ideal of fatherhood. Hence my choice of the parable of the Prodigal Son, one of the best-loved stories in the Gospels.
As we saw and heard on Trinity Sunday, the Christian paradigm sees God as creator, saviour and sustainer. In Jesus’ life we see the working out of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, images we can relate to. The image of fatherhood is there in the OT but the whole Bible is predicated on a society in which men are dominant, and fathers authoritarian. If we fully grasp that our story today is still largely based on that culture, we are in for the same shock as were those who heard Jesus tell it. This father deserves and expects obedience. He is a traditional patriarchal figure and when we realise this, we can understand that he represents a traditional view of God, the creator who deserves obedience and might expect to get it.
In our story we see the adventurous youth, eager to branch out on his own, but oblivious of his obligations to his father, and also the, we suspect, sullen older brother who is deeply resentful that he has not been rewarded with even a party for his friends.
With parables we need to get the basic message, but sometimes other things stand out as truths for us. Have you ever tried to use this text as a sort of roleplay meditation? Image you are one of the characters, the father, the younger son, the older brother, even one of the servants and you will see the story from a rather different perspective. This is a classic text with which to employ this form of Bible immersion. Be there, hear the words, feel the breath, smell the pigs!
Our story is the third in this section of Luke’s gospel which deals with the lost – the lost sheep and the lost coin precede it. Traditionally it is known as The Prodigal Son but there is much more to it than that label might suggest. In fact all the characters are significant and speak to us clearly.
The culture of the time dictated that inheritance was fixed, with the elder brother receiving a bigger proportion of his father’s assets upon his death, with the expectation that this would continue the family business. The inheritance would be assumed well before the father’s demise. The brothers’ roles were to support the estate and wait patiently. Hence our first surprise is the request by the younger son to receive his inheritance early. This was clearly a slight, but the father accepts this. Perhaps this is not so different from today’s society when often children of all ages have needs and wants which we fulfil. And yet more and more people recognise that offspring often need the money early instead of waiting till middle age. But in those days, this was clearly not on. So why does the father agree to this demand?
The older son has worked all his life and is resentful that his father has given in so easily. It’s not fair! We note that he is sullen and dismissive of his father, and especially of his brother. He exaggerates the life his brother has been leading – there is no mention of loose women in the earlier part of the story. Addressing his father, he calls him “your son” not “my brother”.
The father seems at first glance weak and susceptible. He lets the younger son get away with his slight; he lets the older son speak to him in front of the servants in an unacceptable way; he does not seem to be a model father in either his own day, or for many in today’s society. Yet this is to miss the point of the story.
Jesus is addressing the Pharisees, a religious group who have codified the Law of Moses into a series of strict do’s and don’ts. To start with in the story, the hearers would have been amazed at the response of the father to his younger son’s insolence and later that of the older son’s sullen approach to his father in front of his servants, causing him to lose face. But gradually I suspect an element of guilt creeps into their reaction as they see that the father’s response is not weak but sensitive, sensitive to both his children who is their own ways have “erred and strayed”. We note that the younger son has rehearsed a whole speech in which he pleads for a limited forgiveness. To be a hired hand was worse in those days that being a slave since slaves were treated as part of the household, whereas hired hands could be dismissed peremptorily. Yet this speech never gets said. The father clearly reinstates his son, symbolised by cloak and ring. He accepts him unconditionally. And what of the older son? He leaves the home just as festivities are getting going. He sulks, he resents, he is jealous. We fail to notice perhaps that the Father had not only RUN to meet the younger boy but had left the party to find his older son. Hardy the act of an authoritarian father.
As with all parables we must be careful not to try and read in a whole family history here. The characters are symbols, but symbols that speak to us of human nature throughout the ages. The focal point is the response of the father, true, but in re-reading this story we need to look to ourselves and see where the truths ring true for us. There is something of all of them in us: our wilfulness, our jealousy, our potential for an authoritarian response. But above all there is something counter-cultural in the father who is prepared to lose face in order to support, nurture and embrace his children. This is God, this is the God who comes looking for Adam in the garden, this is the God who submits, in Christ, to everything the world can throw at him. This is the God who is mirrored in Jesus. This is the example that we are to follow as we are called to see all those we come into contact with as fellow brothers and sisters, “children of our heavenly father”. At this time of racial unrest, we need to be reminded: this is the uniqueness of the Christian gospel – God is our father and we are all his children. This we believe and this we must proclaim.
By Berwick Curtis