Why do we love this story so much? It’s one of the most beautifully told in the entire Bible: Luke is the supreme craftsman of the New Testament when it comes to storytelling. Think of the birth narratives or the passion story or the Good Samaritan or the Emmaus Road.
But no doubt the subject matter has a lot to do with the way we feel about this story. I put it that way deliberately, for the parables are addressed as much to our capacity to feel and imagine as they are to our ability to think. It presents us with so many themes that that resonate within us at a profound level: our love for our parents and children and siblings; our anxiety at the prospect of being distant from those who care for us; our fear of finding ourselves in some kind of exile or estrangement; our longing for whatever home means for us and our lifelong quest to find it. These themes are universal to our human experience: family, kinship, journey, exile, homecoming, welcome, love.
The three parables in this fifteenth chapter of St Luke are all concerned with finding what was lost. The setting is the familiar grumble: ‘this fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them’ – familiar in the gospels, familiar across two thousand years of Christian history, for it will not do, say the scribes and Pharisees and their plentiful successors, to associate with the wrong sort. In the case of the lost sheep and the lost coin, the pattern is the same: the happy gathering together of friends and neighbours to celebrate: ‘rejoice with me, for I have found what was lost!’ And Jesus’ twice-repeated comment, ‘Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents’.
In the case of the lost son, Luke does not need to elaborate on the story, simply to tell as tenderly as he can of losing and finding, turning away and then turning round, coming home and finding joy. For repentance is metanoia, changing your mind, reorienting yourself, turning to face a different direction. This is the emotional and spiritual drama of the beloved son. His father longs for him not to leave, but go he must and make his own way in the world. Does the father intuit that it will not be for ever? And yet he gives him his share of the inheritance – how final that must have seemed as he stood and watched him disappear over the horizon. How long did it take the son to contemplate turning round? How many days, months, years are collapsed into that telling phrase ‘But when he came to himself’? And then, how much time had to elapse before he climbed that last hill (why do I always imagine the return journey being uphill?) and there was his father running to meet him?
‘Home is where we start from’ said the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott. He meant our mother’s womb, for however painful our early lives may have been, whatever loss we have known, whatever damage we have suffered, the womb was our original place of safety. Our mother was once our world. And if we were born well and had good enough parenting, the world in turn became our mother and we were at home as children of the world. Some of you will remember the 1950s advert for children’s shoes. ‘Start-rite and they’ll walk happily ever after.’ Being born, growing up, becoming an adult, starting work, every threshold we cross on the human journey is a starting-out, a fresh beginning. I am learning that in this, to me, still quite new life-stage called retirement. Inevitably, what we knew before, if it was good, takes on the aspect of what was familiar and trusted and safe, like the home we started out from.
Yet the more we travel through life, the more we are aware that exile is a fact of human existence. I don’t mean that it’s the whole story, or that we always experience it as sharply as the bitter cry of Psalm 137. With Jeremiah (but this takes time), we learn to negotiate it, befriend it, find ourselves at home in what we would once have called a strange land. But that only serves to underline what becomes increasingly clear to us as life goes on, that ‘here we have no lasting city, but we look for the one that is to come’ (Hebrews 13.14). We long for a place of rest. We long to be held and loved. We long for home.
It’s not primarily a matter of geography, but of the spirit. The ‘distant country’ of the prodigal may not have been further than the town across the hill, just far enough to be out of sight, but father and son both knew they were separated by a great gulf that only metanoia could bridge. And this is the point of the parable, of course, the greatness of spirit in both the father and his prodigal son that was able to cross that bridge and come home. And yes, for there was a coming home for the father too who had been in his own exile ever since his beloved boy had left. Compare them both with the meanness of the older son who, when the others rejoiced at this marvellous homecoming, refused to have anything to do with either of them. Always at home with his father, yet never at home, for ever in the far country of self-righteousness and surliness and moral rectitude.
One more point about home as the place we start from. We must understand that what the younger son came back to was not the same as the home he set out from. His relationship with his father had changed, and with his elder brother too. He no longer had his inheritance. His experience of estrangement and reconciliation had shaped him in ways that nothing else could have done. Home had changed and he had changed and they had changed. He, they, all had to learn to inhabit this new place they all called home. The famous words of T. S. Eliot in the Four Quartets were true for all of them but especially for the one who had travelled furthest: ‘we shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time’. We may think we are going back. But we never are. And like the cherubim and the flaming sword that guarded the way back to Eden at the end of the Genesis story, it’s an illusion to think we ever can. The only way to travel is onwards. Which, once we understand it, takes real strength and courage. It calls upon the deepest resources of faith and hope we can ever summon within us.
How does this story of the prodigal son speak to us?
The point of the parable is of course so that we may learn what kind of God Jesus is pointing us to. It’s not so much about the prodigal son as the tender father who longs to find his beloved child once again and goes running to meet him when he returns. We don’t need to hear the words we heard in those earlier stories, ‘rejoice with me, for I have found what was lost’. We can see for ourselves the beautiful truth that there can never be more joy in heaven or on earth than when in some state of alienation or exile, we find ourselves once more, experience that change of mind and heart called metanoia, and come home to the God who looks for us because he loves us. This is spiritual work, heart-work if you like, that I need to do all my life if I want to be true to my Christian faith. And in every way I can, to reflect this divine way of being in all my human relationships, reaching out in compassion and tenderness to all whose paths cross mine, as God reaches out to me. And finding my true self as well, coming home to who and what I am, fearfully and wonderfully made by the God welcomes me and loves me.
I have preached this text all my life. I don’t underestimate how hard it is in practice. But I think we need to hear what this story says to us collectively too. I mean our churches and faith communities especially. I believe that the ideas of home and hospitality are intimately linked. If home means space for us to find ourselves and flourish in, hospitality means creating space for others. When the loving father made space for his returning son and gave him a seat at the feast, he was doing what God did in creation, stepping back and giving space for creation to come into being and exist, and within it, for humanity to live in his image. Creation is always an act of love. Redemption in the parable means recognising how that movement of love belongs to the centre of all life where God is perpetually looking to mend our brokenness, heal our wounds, welcome us home, place us at his table, feed us at his banquet. This is the invitation we need to hear when we are beginning to find ourselves, so to speak, alienated and exiled by a virus that is instilling fear in the land we think of as home and a place of safety. If we are going to find God in this strange land of the Coronavirus, it is going to be in the acts of solidarity, kindness and care we offer to one another, and especially to those who are most vulnerable in our midst.
Are we capable of this kind of hospitality? The thing about love is that it doesn’t prescribe boundaries, draw up tests of worthiness. Only prejudice does that, precisely what the Pharisees and scribes were doing when they complained about how Jesus welcomed sinners and ate with them. The hardest truth about love is that it is a sea without a shore, a sun without a sphere, as all-present and all-pervasive as God himself. This is what the elder son in the parable could not bear. Love that is too generous, kindness that is too profligate, what kind of corrupt morality would that lead to!
There are some poems that have meant everything to me in my years of preaching. This is probably the last time I’ll have the opportunity to quote one of them. Perhaps it is George Herbert’s greatest. I think it was inspired by our parable. It speaks to me about coming home to God, coming home to others, coming home to myself.
Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lacked anything.
A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?
Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat.
So I did sit and eat.
Luke 15. 11-end