Some of the hardest passages to preach on in the Bible are the most familiar ones. Whatever can remain to be said about the parable of the Prodigal Son that has not been said before and probably rather well? When you know it’s going to be the Prodigal Son, most of might be tempted to turn off our hearing aids, or to think about something else that is pressing instead.
Perhaps the truth is that we have heard this story too often anyway to be unsettled by it anymore, to have any real sense of its scandal. It’s worth remembering that it would have really shaken those who first heard it. They would have thought it really stretched credulity to tell a story about a father who welcomes back with open arms a son who had been quite happy to act as though his father is dead so that he can have the property that he would have got after the will reading. They would have thought him justified in declaring that his son was now dead to him! The truth is that we need today to hear another story, in order really to hear this story that Jesus told as though for the first time.
So, I want to tell this story differently today. And it’s going to be a shocking story, a story with a surprise that will leave us wondering whether the end could possibly be right. I’m going to tell a shocking story, the kind of story that might even leave some people wanting to leave the room. Because that I think is the kind of story that Jesus told.
There was once a daughter whose father abused her terribly – in whatever way that fathers can abuse their daughters. Her mother somehow knew what was going on, but she did nothing. She loved her daughter, but she was somehow jealous of her too. She did nothing. After some time the daughter’s plight was noticed by teachers at school and she was eventually taken into care and then fostered, in a far distant place. She was looked after by kind people who gave her the warmest and most generous love. The father was convicted and sent to prison and was abused and beaten up by other prisoners. They even spat in his food, and he was reduced to eating the food scraps that the prison warders put in the box for the local farmer to give to his pigs. The daughter grew up, and, with such tender love as she received from a wise and kind foster mother, the wounds of her body and her mind began to mend a little. She found a way to live with her past, and the mothering she received from others began to heal the fathering that had so hurt her. Then one day, as she was about to have a child herself, she decided to go and look for her father. When she eventually found him, he was living alone in a bare and cheerless flat. He was drinking too much and he had aged beyond his years. He lived in the shadows, sometimes reflecting on what he had lost. He was astonished, when he opened the door to the stranger who turned out to be his daughter. He was amazed to find that she had searched for him. She told him that she wanted to be his daughter still if he would let her. And he wept with remorse and joy. But those who had mothered her through her wounded childhood were astonished and even hurt, given all that they had given her, that she could go to him after all that had happened. Hadn’t they given her so much, all those years of careful counselling, all those nights of listening to her tears, all that love offered over years? Were they not now enough for her? She did her best to tell them that she still loved them, and always would, and would never forget their love and kindness to her. But she wanted to celebrate that she had found her father again who was lost to her, and she hoped they could share that joy too. They said that they feared for her safety, that they didn’t think her father deserved her, that it would have been better if she just wrote to him or better had nothing at all to do with him again. But she said that she had to celebrate and rejoice, because she had found her father… And her own mother, still so hurt by all that happened, was just amazed that such love could be possible… that her daughter could have found a depth and quality of love that was deeper than her mother’s love.
Could it be true that the Kingdom of God is as scandalous and as amazing as that? I believe that is. You might want to say, especially if you have had a certain sort of experience, that it is beyond reason to expect a daughter to love a father like that, or to expect anyone to be willing to restore a relationship so broken. And you would be absolutely right. It is quite unreasonable, and I could not ask it of anyone. I could not, I think, even attempt it myself. But this, of course, is just the point.
It is so hard for us to grasp how deep and how truly amazing is the love of God. We call God ‘Father’ but the love of a human father, though often profound, is only a shadow of the love of God. We celebrate the love of mothers, and the love we are all called to give to our neighbours and even to our enemies, but the love of God is beyond the measure of our minds. The love of God is quite beyond what is reasonable or what could be expected. The grace of God is broader and deeper than we can imagine. The first hearers of Jesus’s story would certainly have thought it completely unreasonable for the father in the story, or even if he had one living his mother, to love the returning prodigal. He has treated his father as though he is dead – he deserves to be treated the same way. And the father’s welcome is completely unfair to the elder brother, who has loved his father devotedly. But that is precisely the point. The Kingdom of God is unfair – it is not justice, but grace. And such grace, such unreasonable grace, is offered to us too.
You see how it might make a difference even to a story if you include someone new – if you let another voice be heard. And just so does it make a difference to the church, to every community and to our understanding of the Gospel. God may be a father who can love a profligate son, but God is also a daughter who can love a foolish father, and a mother who will persist in love for the child we all of us are. All of us who are lost may be found again – all who have been forgotten or unnamed will find ourselves included within the love of God. Even in human institutions and movements fail us or forget us, God will embrace us and draw us in. This is the Gospel. Amen.