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  • Writer's pictureRoss Moughtin

When the younger son cuts loose

“Dad, it would make my life much easier if you were dead!”

So begins his story of the two sons as Jesus responds to the grumblings of the Pharisees and teachers of the law for him welcoming tax collectors and sinners.

A devastating request from the younger son, abhorrent in any culture but especially here. “Father, I want right now what’s coming to me.” In effect he is saying that he can’t wait for his father to die.

Clearly there is some background here. Does he simply want the money itself?

Or does he want to escape the strictures of the family farm? We later find out he has a strained relationship with his older brother who dutifully stands by his father and takes his responsibilities to the family business seriously.

And the father acquiesces. “So he divided his property between them.” You wonder why he does not try and talk his younger son round. For whatever reason, he gives in – even though he knows his son is making an utterly foolish decision.

We later find out that the father is devastated by his wayward son’s request. It must have broken his heart but even so he allows him the freedom to fail.

No mother is mentioned in the story and given the seriousness of the situation we may assume she is no longer around, just the father and his two sons. It looks as if there is a back story here, maybe one of unresolved grief and even guilt.

It must have taken a while to realise the cash and complete the legalities. But as soon as he can, the younger son is off, heading for freedom in a distant country. There he can be himself, unconstrained from the rigidities of his own culture and the strictures of his family.

It was a freedom he couldn’t handle. “There, undisciplined and dissipated, he wasted everything he had.” We’re spared the details. Only later does his older brother make the allegation, no more, that he had squandered his father’s property with prostitutes. What we later discover is that he had made no friends, no one to stand by him should he need help.

So he hits a brick wall – and no one comes to his aid. Adrift and far from home, he is trapped,

To make matters worse, not only does his money run out but “there is a bad famine all through that country and he began to feel it.” He is simply running out of options and has no choice but simply to stay alive he needs to earn some money.

We’re told that he went as low as he could go. “He signed on with a citizen there who assigned him to his fields to slop the pigs.” Pigs! The original listeners to Jesus’ story would have been horrified.

And worse: ‘he was so hungry he would have eaten the corn-cobs in the pig slop, but no one would give him any.”

It’s often the case that when we hit rock bottom we see things differently. We begin to see what is important and what is just trivial. And for his younger son, despite everything (or because of everything), “that brought him to his senses.” He had made a total mess of his life.

So what does he do? This is a key moment in the story. He could stay in the pig sty, he could move on somewhere else, he could live on the streets. But he decides to return to his father’s house, humiliated and broken.

He can go home, despite all the hurt he has caused. Not as a son, of course: that would be asking too much. He rehearsed his speech to his father: “I don’t deserve to be called your son. Take me on as a hired hand.” He must have been dreading the encounter homecoming. “

Meanwhile, his father – as he often does – is scanning the horizon. For “when he was still a long way off, his father saw him.”

And then the father does the unthinkable: he runs. He runs in full public view. No one runs in their culture: too hot, and also demeaning. Running towards the same son who wanted him dead. “His heart pounding, he ran out, embraced him, and kissed him.”

Such is this welcome that his returning son isn’t able to complete his prepared speech. “But the father wasn’t listening.” He was calling to the servants to organise the home-coming celebrations.

Here we have an object lesson in how to forgive, how to welcome the prodigal home. “My son is here—given up for dead and now alive! Given up for lost and now found!” It’s not just that their relationship is restored but there’s a new depth, a deeper affection.

And the elder brother? Well, that’s the next chapter in the story which Jesus deliberately leaves unfinished. Does he join in with the celebrations or stay outside in an angry sulk? Does he have issues with his father which need to be addressed?

“Unlike a fairy tale” observes Henri Nouwen, “ this parable provides no happy ending. Instead, it leaves us face to face with one of life’s hardest spiritual choices: to trust or not to trust in God’s all-forgiving love.”

Restoring relationships when broken can be very hard. But God shows us how.

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