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Parable of the Prodigal Son or the Running Father

It was great to welcome the school on Friday for the Mother’s Day service and in the Diocese at the moment there is a focus on the importance of Church Schools.

Sometimes I hear folk who say we really want our child to go to a church school and although they may not be religious themselves, they appreciate the values that a church school will teach. Church schools can be associated with values and ethics that will make you a better person.

I think all schools are concerned with values and how to behave and this focus on looking after ourselves and others is a good thing.

Yet from a church perspective there is a reverse to this focus. If church life is about how we live and how we behave, you might start to worry that you are not good enough to be here.

On Mothering Sunday we can say again that church life is about grace and Jesus welcomes everyone.

Jesus often makes a point through a story or a parable.

Jesus showed what God is like through stories, and what is interesting about them is that they lack neat endings or immediately apparent points.

When you hear them, you are not always sure what the point of the story is. Even the disciples have to pull Jesus aside and ask him what something meant.

Jesus comes across at times as this Zen-like teacher whose greatest desire is not to pass out the right answers but rather to tease and to provoke even more questions.

And yet, Jesus' parables tend not to explain and few of the parables have well-wrought conclusions. They tend to leave room for us to provide a conclusion.

Jesus is aware that some people don’t like the company he keeps: “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

What type of teacher are you?

You might think that he will say I’m going to put them on a fast track self-improvement course so they become better and more respectable people.

This is the response.

A man had two sons. (It is known by us as "The Prodigal Son," although Jesus doesn't give his parables titles.) The younger son says, "Dad, give me my inheritance." In other words, I want what I should have when you have died. And the father does just that.

Out in the "far country," Jesus says this boy engages in "loose or dissolute living."

What that might mean is left undefined and I think we are being asked to use our imagination.

With all the money wasted on loose living, the young man is reduced to the demeaning work of looking after pigs.

Eventually, it was hangover, empty pockets, wake-up time.

The boy "comes to himself," says Jesus. The boy says, "Wait a minute. I don't have to starve out here. I've got a father, I've got a home."

And so, he turns back toward home. He has written a little speech for the occasion.

“Father, I have sinned. I am unworthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants."

But the father isn't interested in speeches.

Before he can say anything, his Father has seen him and filled with compassion, he runs towards him and embraces him.

This is when the story takes a shocking turn.

If we want Jesus to improve our ethical standards, you think that the Father would say at least I want you to reflect on what you have done and what lessons you have learned.

A homecoming for the younger son is fine, but he should be in sackcloth and ashes and focused on showing that he won’t let his family or himself down again.

You sense that he expected this but instead he is met with what might have felt like embarrassing kindness.

The first part of the parable fits in with other themes in St Luke.

Jesus tells them that God loves to party with sinners, tells them parables of a party when a woman found a lost coin, and a party after a shepherd found one lost sheep, followed by the biggest, most questionable celebration - a party for a prodigal son. So, "they began to make merry."

We might feel a bit like the older brother when he says, "Is it fitting to throw a party for a prodigal?”

He doesn’t even find out until he questions a servant.

Why is there music and dancing. No-one has gone to get him and he finishes his swift in the fields.

He would have felt forgotten and undervalued.

He is angry. His father has given everyone the night off when there is work to be done and spent money on a party and now his father comes out and pleads with him.

The younger son’s speech is cut off by his fathers embrace but the older one is given his chance to speak.

I have worked like a slave for you and never been disobedient. You have never given me a party but now my brother who has spent your money on prostitutes is welcomed back like some returning hero.

When Jesus was telling this story earlier, did he say anything about prostitutes? All he said was that the younger son blew his money in the far country on "loose living." Perhaps "loose living" can mean anything that you want it to mean.

So he stands outside, indignant in his righteous anger.

As it turns out, the most interesting character in the story is not the prodigal son or even the older brother.

It's the father. The father is the real prodigal because his love is extravagant.

He does not condemn the older brother. He quietly assures him of his concern and love for him as well as his younger brother.

He tells him of the course of action he has chosen and leaves it up to him to decide on his own.

So, at the end of the parable you have a younger son, most likely feeling embarrassed at being the centre of such undeserved attention

There is also the angry older son unsure if he is going to come in and join the party. Both in different ways are lost.

Then you have the father who is excessive in his persistence to have a family, who meets us when we drag in from the far country after good times go bad and who comes out to the lonely dark of our self-righteousness and begs us, "Come, come in and party."

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