Tomorrow’s Gospel, the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15: 1–3, 11–32) has an extraordinary amount of wisdom and good advice packed into it. Indeed, the more you read the Bible, both Old and New Testament, the more you realise how relevant its words are for contemporary times.
When we first read the story of the Prodigal Son we are charmed by how the wayward young man, after his years of wine, women and song, is welcomed back into his father’s arms. The story is so well told you can actually see his father’s jubilant excitement greeting his son as he makes his way home.
Instinctively we admire his dad. Our hearts go out to him for his spontaneous generosity in forgiving his errant son. If only more of us could find the heart and the courage to behave in such a manner. In many ways it’s the perfect fairytale to read to children.
But then you realise that the parable has deeper layers of meaning. Did the Prodigal Son only return home because he had nowhere else to go? Did he cynically decide it was time to go home and enjoy his father’s wealth once more? Perhaps he had no alternative but to come home if he wanted to save his own skin. Now the viewpoint changes and we see a clever opportunist and manipulative young man. Maybe not a nice person, after all.
And then there’s the dutiful stick-in-the-mud older son, who has spent his life doing all that has been asked of him. Doesn’t he have a right to be annoyed when he sees his father giving all his attention to his younger brother and forgetting about his years of loyal service?
Worse still, the fatted calf, which the older brother had reared, is now to be hijacked and used for the feast to celebrate the homecoming of his wayward brother.
Do we react like this in the 21st century? For example, we say we “allow” foreigners into our country, and no sooner have they landed at the airport, they are off to the nearest social welfare office to draw the dole. We have been working hard all our lives, paying our taxes and these foreigners arrive and the fatted calf is wheeled out for them.
And on it goes. Tomorrow’s Gospel provides a multilayered insight into the lives we live in the developed world today.
Of course, we can get sentimental and talk about how wonderful the father is to forgive his son. But shouldn’t we also ask ourselves how can we go on living in a world that allows a seventh of the population to starve, where the few have vast resources?
The parable of the Prodigal Son is a clarion call to all of us to realise that we have clichéd the message of Jesus out of existence, that we run a real risk of turning it into a cosy fireside tale, keeping us all content and smug in our ways.
It suits us all, church and state, me too, to praise the wonderful and forgiving father. But there is so much more to it.
Reading tomorrow’s Gospel it’s difficult to understand how some adherents to the Christian faith can be so smug. How can Christianity appeal in any way to people with far-right leanings? And yet the church attracts many such adherents, some of whom have yet to accept the true meaning of love, respect and humility. When critics presume to “correct” Pope Francis and accuse him of contradicting himself and preaching “heresy”, are they really trying to make our faith, our religion, into a “comfort blanket” of simple, pious answers?
It’s always dangerous to hijack one specific element of God’s message at the expense of the overall picture. God’s love, kindness and mercy are infinite. Once we try to find comfort in any one aspect of God’s message at the expense of another, we risk losing the very meaning of God’s perfect goodness.
This parable puts paid to the mushy sentimental ideas we have about forgiveness. Forgiveness makes demands of us which we – the faithful – may not ignore.
Yes, the parable of the Prodigal Son is a delightful story but it is also a challenging reminder to us of the importance of embracing all the many aspects of our relationship with God.