Last autumn we heard about the sad and tragic incident that happened in Cults Academy in Aberdeen, where a teenage boy died after being stabbed. The news was shocking, particularly as it took place in a leafy area of the city, not known for gang culture or knife violence. The final act of that incident is now taking place in court. Details revealed at the hearings have shown a much more complicated picture of the circumstances that led to that tragedy. There seemed to be a complicated relationship between the victim and the accused, which went out of control and ended badly. Talking about this tragedy while the judicial proceedings are going on is a minefield. It’s the jurors’ job to decide on guilt or innocence. What seems to be quite clear now though is that two young lives have been lost, one literally; and there are two devastated families. This story just came to mind when I read the parable in today’s gospel.
We know it so well. We know it so well that nothing in this story can surprise us any more. It’s perhaps the most renowned and admired of the parables in the gospel. It’s also one the thorniest, if we want to take its message seriously. And – honestly – there’s no point in reading it otherwise. Let me ask you a question I asked myself while reading this parable: in which character do I find myself in this story? Is it in the prodigal son, or the obedient one, or the father, or perhaps one of the servants, playing their part and watching the developing situation from the sidelines?
In this parable Jesus presents a story that initially looks clear-cut. The younger of the two sons requests his share of his father’s estate. At best that’s bad manners, at worst it’s a death-wish for his father. Then he wastes all the money and his own life while away from home, and he is utterly humiliated when hired to feed pigs – animals considered unclean by Jesus’ audience – and wishing to eat their fodder. Even the motive that drives him back home is low: just the desire to stuff his belly. I believe not one of us here can identify with this man. We’re not that bad.
And then we have the elder son, the one who’s always been at his father’s side, ready to fulfil his wishes diligently and without delay. He’s been a model son, but he snaps at the arrival of his reckless younger brother, welcomed by their father. Suddenly it seems that his mask falls, revealing a resentful and unhappy individual, blinded by anger and perceived injustice. He is no less a broken man than his younger brother, though in a different way. At the end of this story we can see two different, complicated and shattered individuals, both in need of healing and forgiveness.
And then we have the father, a man showing a great deal of practical wisdom. He respects his sons’ choices and freedom at a high and heart-rending price. The father is being accused of indifference by the elder son, and is being shown contempt by the younger. Driven by love for his two so-different sons, he pays a terrible price that he’s willing to accept, keeping his arms open for each of them.
The ending of the parable is also left open; we don’t know the elder son’s final reaction. The parable was left seemingly unfinished to allow Jesus’ audience to give their own responses. In order to do so, they had to recognise the elder son in themselves. In our case it might be a bit more challenging, as perhaps we cannot fully recognise ourselves in either son. The point of this parable for you and me is to recognise that, in one way or another, each one of us is a broken person. And that’s the key to opening us up to the healing love of God the Father.