Lent 4 2016
Reading: Luke 15: 1-3, 11b-32 (and Genesis 27-35)
This is possibly the most famous of all the parables and every time I come to it I find something new. I think the phrase that has been touching me this week is that associated with the younger son in his poverty “… when he came to himself.” Behind that phrase I find in myself the question “who am I?” Where is my true self? What is it? Embedded in those questions is a great and deep sense of a continual question as one progresses through life – “Who am I becoming?” Who is the self that is emerging through the fears, the challenges, and all the rich and often troubling stuff of life?
I always come to this parable with a sense of recognition – I find in myself all the characters of this tale: the prodigal, the Father and the elder son. I suspect we all have some idea what it is to mess up like the prodigal; to love like the Father – and risk being indulgent (no tough love here!); and to feel what it is like to be unappreciated and treated unjustly, like the elder brother.
Maybe I also come to this parable with some irritation: there is part of me that wants to argue with the parable and, especially, argue with the Father; I think I want to suggest that he has some responsibility in this domestic shambles! Well – did he not know what his younger son was like? What did he think he was going to do with the inheritance? Even as I hear myself voicing the complaint, I know it is absurd – life is like this.
I also come to this parable with a sense that it echoes another and older story – the story of Jacob, his brother Esau and their father Isaac: a father and two sons! Jacob is the most disreputable of the patriarchs – he is a fraudster and when he tricks his father and gets the elder son’s birthright he runs from Esau’s wrath. Homeless, frightened and on the run something happens: he dreams of a ladder to heaven and of angels coming hither and thither – and God appears to him and promises him a future. In the morning he arises a changed man.
So it seems to me that this parable of the prodigal son is, like the story of Jacob, the story of Israel. Jesus tells his Jewish listeners their story: they are a people who have received grace and gifts from God but seem unwilling to extend that generosity to strangers and gentiles. In telling the story this way, Jesus opens up a more expansive view of God and calls Israel back to its true identity as the people of the promise.
To read this parable in Lent is to hear that call back to our true selves. We might have been estranged from our true selves for so long that we are confused at the thought of the truth about ourselves. We should not be. A moment’s glance at the confession we say in the liturgy should remind us of the failings we’d rather the world never heard about; and remind us that the highly edited version of ourselves that we present to the world is far from the whole story. So Lent is a time when, with the aid of this parable, we have a chance to review our journey of faith and, in the words of the parable, “come to ourselves”.
I hope most of us will remember moments in our lives when we have said ‘sorry’ just to ourselves or maybe to God. Just a moment when we have realised how selfish, foolish or unloving we have been and we are ashamed of ourselves. Those are the moments when we ‘come to ourselves’.
If this is something you would like to tackle in some depth and make some progress in – I commend to you the form of private confession on page 750 of the New Zealand Prayer Book. It is an ancient practice and most helpful to some, especially as we seek to ‘come to ourselves.’
In this same spirit is the observation by the Orthodox spiritual writer, the late Anthony Bloom:
“We must try to discover the real person we are, otherwise we cannot encounter the Lord in truth. From time to time something authentic shows through: in moments when we are carried away by such joy that we forget who might be looking at us … when we are unself-conscious in moments of extreme pain … or when we have a deep sense of sadness or wonder. At these moments we see something of the true person that we are. But no sooner have we seen than we often turn away because we do not want to confront this person face to face … Nevertheless this is the only real person there is in us.
-Anthony Bloom 1914-2003
Courage to Pray