Thinking Anew – God is beyond all words

The story of the Prodigal Son in our times

Letters of support written by children in Scotland to accompany a shipment of humanitarian aid for children in Ukraine. Photograph: Andrew Milligan/PA

I can still remember our teacher in fourth class telling us the story of the Prodigal Son. He told the story so well that I vividly recall the wayward young man return to his father’s farm and how his father was waiting for him at the gates. Our teacher had little or no time for the son who stayed behind, kept working and felt he had been hard done by his father.

In the intervening years, and there have been many of them, I’ve been thinking quite a lot about the son who stayed at home and worked hard while his younger brother went off gallivanting and enjoying himself. Like so many of the New Testament parables there is a wealth of nuance in this story. This Gospel reading is something like putting a mirror up to our lives and looking at so many aspects of how we progress through what some might call “a valley of tears”, an expression I often heard my mother use.

Watching footage from the war in Ukraine, language and words have almost lost their meaning for me. What must this war be costing and who will repay and repair the damage? It might sound strange that I mention money and damage to infrastructure before I refer to the cost to human life. This war that I am seeing on television every evening and reading about in the newspapers is actually beyond my sense of understanding. I simply can't imagine it. I can't imagine for one moment how I would respond if I were living in Mariupol or Kyiv or Lviv. It is simply beyond my comprehension. I am also dumbfounded by the bravery of the media people who are reporting the stories back to our homes. And nor can I begin to think what it must be like for the fighting soldiers, on both sides.

What must it be like in Ukraine? I cannot imagine. But one question I keep asking myself what's the difference between this evil and mayhem and what has gone on in Syria, Yemen, Ethiopia, Chechnya and indeed across much of Africa. I suppose this is closer and it's part of our nature that we are always more upset by what happens closer to home.


What must it be like to lose a limb, to be left blind and paralysed? I cannot imagine the anger and indeed the bitterness of the aggrieved people. What will the young Russian soldiers think when they hear the full story of what they have done?

Bitterness can so easily eat into us. It can destroy us and I imagine most of us have some sort of idea or glimpse of what it means to experience bitterness. I have.

In tomorrow’s Gospel reading (Luke 15; 1-3, 11-32), it’s understandable to see why the older son is annoyed and bitter. It’s farfetched to say that he should heed his father’s loving and wise words. It is farfetched but so is everything about God, at least from our vantage point. The war in Ukraine is farfetched and in the midst of all this mayhem and evil if only I could realise that God is with the people. How in God’s name can that be explained? There are no easy ways or easy words to do that and certainly pious platitudes don’t work, at least they don’t work for me. These days I keep saying to myself that God is beyond all words. And there is no harm saying that. That great school teacher, who explained the story of the Prodigal Son to us, saw one aspect to the story. But there is another side to it as well. It’s almost impossible for us to picture God and once we try to pigeonhole God we are into the world of idolatry.

The hope that I hear expressed by the people of Ukraine is almost beyond belief. The hope that the father offered his older son in tomorrow’s Gospel reading is difficult for the son to appreciate. Isn’t that more or less how most of us hang on to our faith. How many of us feel like the child who feels forgotten? Remember, none of us is forgotten. Are we like the elder brother in tomorrow’s Gospel, aghast and looking on at what’s happening?