Luke 15: 11-32 . In Israel, 2000 years ago, it would have been unheard of for a son to have asked his father for his share of any eventual inheritance. To do that was the equivalent of saying that you wished your father was dead.
Also, for the father to have given his son what he asked for would have needed him to sell off a portion of his land, a transaction which would have brought terrible disgrace with it.
And we can add to this, the shame which the younger son would also have caused by leaving home. In his culture, it was the responsibility of the youngest son to care for his parents when they became old. To abandon this duty would have been shocking in the extreme.
Finally, when he’d squandered everything, the younger son was reduced to eating pig slops. For a Jew, to have anything to do with pigs was bad enough. To care for them and to share their food was about as low as you could get.
So, the picture which Jesus drew about this young lad was about as dark as it could be. Human beings didn’t get much worse than this.
But his Father loved him. And I don’t suppose there’s a parent sitting in this church today who doesn’t feel their heart strings pulled as they think of the older man looking out, each day and anxiously scanning the horizon.
Never giving up hope, and then actually running out in joy to welcome back the lad who’d caused so much shame and disgrace.
In that culture senior figures were far too dignified to run anywhere, but this one didn’t give it a second thought.
“That”, said Jesus “is what God is like”.
The younger son had absolutely nothing to commend him to his father, or to anyone else. But the father’s closing line says it all.
This, my son, was lost, but now is found; he was dead, but now he’s alive again “
How could this not be a cause for celebration?
We don’t have to think very hard to understand exactly how the critics of Jesus saw all of this.
They knew Jesus was teaching that the Kingdom of God was coming in through what he was saying and doing. They’d criticized him continuously for eating and drinking with people who any decent religious person would avoid like the plague. And here he was, through this parable, saying once more, that God was working through him to welcome back those men and women who, like the prodigal son, had reached rock bottom.
Jesus certainly saw this as a cause for celebration, and he showed his joy by mixing with these people whom the religious authorities despised so much. People who’d seen the love of God the Father in the words and work of Jesus, and who’d responded to this by coming home.
But what about the older brother? The one whom Jesus clearly thought, represented the religious Pharisees.
It’s fair to say that he certainly didn’t want the younger one back. He didn’t even recognise him as his brother. “This son of yours “is the way in which he talks about him to his father. As far as he was concerned there was no place for his younger brother anymore. He was effectively dead by what he’d done and there was no way back.
It’s not hard for us to recognise the self-righteous arrogance of this man, because I suspect there’s a bit of him in most of us. “I’ve always obeyed you “he said to his father. “And yet here you are, pouring out your favours on him, and ignoring me. “
But the father’s reply is still shot through with generosity and compassion even to his self-centred older son.
Can you see how Jesus is trying to tell the religious elite, that even though God’s generosity was reaching out to people whom they least expected to respond, there was still plenty left for them? They could lock themselves out of the party if they wanted, but they weren’t free to say that it was because God didn’t love them, just as much as he loved all of his children.
Perhaps we need to ask ourselves how the story might end? Because maybe Jesus wants us to work this out for ourselves. I wonder if the brothers were ever reconciled? And if they were who would have found the most difficulty in trying to understand their father’s behaviour ?
And where do we fit into this story? If we had to take a part in a play based on what we’ve learned today which character would we choose as the one who most resembles us? Are we with the younger brother; grateful that God accepts us just as we are. Happy to go to God understanding that we have absolutely nothing to commend ourselves to him, just throwing ourselves on his love.
Or do we have more sympathy with the older brother? Do we perhaps pride ourselves that we’re really pretty good servants of the Lord?
Do we think the church wouldn’t function quite as well if we left it? Do we feel that those late comers, who have little idea of what we do and how we do it, are really as good as us? And by our attitude, do we let them know it?
Many churches have older brothers and sisters, as well as prodigal sons and daughters, and you will be able to recognise them amongst both lay people and priests.
But even so, we must ask God to help us want to celebrate the party of his love in such a way that we welcome not only the younger brothers who’ve come back from the dead, but also the older brothers who think that actually, there’s not much really wrong with them.
So, perhaps it’s time we took a look at ourselves in order to find out who we resemble. And when we have a better idea of the truth, maybe we will be able to welcome our brother in love, and move from the position of either sinner or Pharisee into warmth of our Father’s acceptance, just as we are.
An acceptance which will change us, because it will actually cause us to be born again.