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Wow! What a story

It was great to be at Messy Church last Saturday, to plunge hands into the pigswill and to enact the story of the Prodigal Son with the Jackson Pollack pigs and the Party Poppers.

I wanted to offer to you, the adults, more background to the story. Found in Luke’s gospel chapter 15, verses 11-32, it has become very well known, a somewhat archetypal story. It speaks powerfully to deep human concerns about home, welcome, forgiveness, resentment, to name a few. To our modern minds, the story may also have overtones of a young man on a difficult journey to find himself. (I relate to that part of it!)

Most likely, it would not have been heard that way when Jesus first told it. The world of the 1st century was structured very differently to ours. In particular, individual identity was given by membership of a group. Group came first, individual came very much second. Membership of a family, a village and of the Jewish faith was everything. People did not go out to find themselves. Further, it was not a democratic society where everyone’s views mattered. To the contrary, it was hierarchical and each had obligations to those who were higher up the ladder.

The actions of the younger son, seen in this light, become very troubling. He betrayed his obligations to his father. As Nicola said on Saturday, it was as though he were asking his father to die in asking for the inheritance. In leaving the village, he left behind everything that made him human. And in working with the pigs, in a foreign country, he betrayed his religion. (Pigs were banned as ‘unclean’, a difficult concept to translate into our culture but Nicola’s image of eating a cockroach is apt.)

In the story, the son ‘kills’ himself at least three times, but more than that he brings disgrace upon his family.

In the story, at its lowest point, the younger son ‘comes to himself’ and prepares a little confession for his father. In that cultural world, he appropriately considered himself no longer fit to be called a son.

The father’s actions upon seeing his son return were extraordinary. They are the highlight of this parable. He ran to greet his son. Older men did not run; they were approached with appropriate deference, especially when they had been gravely dishonoured and offended. The father’s actions, in running, exposed him to shame. Further, the father did not let his son finish his prepared confession, but cut him off and announced a party!

Then, of course, the elder son took umbrage at his brother’s unexpected treatment. (The elder brother refused to acknowledge his younger brother as a brother. He referred to him as ‘this son of yours’. Ironically the elder brother treated the younger brother as he deserved.) The father went out into the field to entreat with his elder son, as well.

The father is an image of God, a wonderful yet somewhat unsettling image; extravagant and generous beyond measure, willing to expose himself to shame to restore relationship, unable to intervene to help his younger son when in trouble but constantly looking for his return, and a great party giver!
- Rev Michael Barnes, 12.2.15