Thursday, 15 March 2007

Son or slave Luke 15 11-32

Sometimes the parables of Jesus are like cartoons: the characters, larger than life, sharply etched, strongly contrasted and sketchily fleshed out. Like these two sons: the one generous indeed rashly prodigal – the other tight-fisted and mean; the one adventurous and risk-taking, the other cautious and unambitious; the one lazy and sociable, the other hard-working and solitary. Yet they are both sons of the same father. Both carry his good qualities to such extremes that they become faults in opposite directions: his grace becomes wild spending, his careful management becomes obsessional graft.

There are many themes in this wonderfully complex, multi-layered story, but perhaps the most poignant is the way it highlights the contrast between son and slave. When the younger son decides to go back home it is as a slave (or at least hired hand) that he expects to be welcomed. By squandering his inheritance he believes he has squandered his sonship. It shows a total lack of understanding of the love bond of the father-son relationship. He is his father’s son not because of what he has done or not done: he might even be ritually unclean by working down the pig farm but to his father he will always be a son – living or even dead.

The other son reveals a similar failure to understand his relationship. He is, of course, bitter towards that younger son whom he even fails to acknowledge as a brother. But that bitterness extends to his father, too. In their sad conversation he says that he has “slaved his guts out” and never been adequately rewarded. This is the talk not of a son but of shop steward. His relationship with his father is contractual not filial.

The younger son repents : he accepts the totally unmerited generosity of his father. But then he has been even more irresponsibly generous himself in the past and it does not take him too long to swing into party mood. But the elder son’s bitterness is not melted so easily. It is not easy for him to forgive his layabout brother. His slavery is by now deeply ingrained. The “everything” that his father had given him had included a great deal of responsibility and hard work that his young brother should have been sharing.

The Bible bangs on all the time about how God adopted as his child a slave people suffering under Egyptian rule. But how they continually persisted in turning what God wanted to be a relationship of loving commitment back into the slavery that was easier to live with because it made fewer demands. Obeying orders is easier than taking responsibility. Working grudgingly and unwillingly for fixed hours is easier than open ended commitment out of love. And even the pain of the slave master’s whip might more easily be borne than trying to love the brother who squanders your livelihood.

So we routinely turn our love relationship with our Father into a master–slave contract. We treat home like a hotel, and charity becomes a drudge. Faith and works become opposites instead of organically connected like trees and fruit, prayer a shopping list, and worship a bribe. In the end we even refuse the generosity of God because we would prefer to earn our own salvation. In our consumer mindset that which money can’t buy must ultimately be worthless.

This story stands as a stark warning not just to those who have wandered off into far countries and need to return, but perhaps more poignantly, to the faithful who have never left the farm. They too have forgotten what it is to have the honour and responsibility of being a son not for what they do but for who they are.

No comments: