The Prodigal Son (Luke 15, 11-32) is one of the best loved of Jesus’s parables. Some theologians believe that if the entire New Testament was lost, apart from this parable, we would still have the whole Gospel.
But in Anglican churches that follow the Revised Common Lectionary, you are less and less likely to hear it read and preached on in a main act of worship. It is set for the 4th Sunday in Lent in Year C, which is Mothering Sunday. So, often this reading and the chance to preach on it is missed as we concentrate on the celebration of mothers and mothering.
Even when it is read, preachers tend to concentrate on the younger son, his fall from grace, his return, and his restoration. All of us have experienced a fall from grace, all of us know our need of forgiveness, all of us want to hear about the Father’s welcome and the restoration of the sinner. We all recognise ourselves in the prodigal son.
But the story should really be called the Parable of the Two Sons. The words and actions of the elder son are as important an element in the parable as those of the younger son. Yet few preachers spend much time on the elder son, except perhaps to imply that he represents those who adhere to the Old Covenant.
Are we more reluctant to recognise ourselves in the elder son? He will one day inherit the whole of his father’s remaining property; but he has not inherited his father’s generosity, nor his forgiving nature. He refuses to join in the feast to celebrate the return of the sinner; he refuses to accept the good news.
I was reminded of the parable, and particularly of the elder son, this morning, as I read some of the reactions to the names on the Queen’s New Year Honours List. There was general approval for honours given to stars of stage, screen and sports; but three names in particular brought a chorus of disapproval. Two were businessmen, given honours for services to charity and to the arts, as were many others. There was disapproval for these two, though, since one had been involved in the collapse of Northern Rock in the financial crisis of 2007, and the other had served a six month sentence in jail for fraud after the Guinness share manipulation scandal of the 1980s. In the eyes of some people, apparently, there should be no forgiveness and no restoration for these two.
Even sadder was the disapproval for the award of an OBE to Christopher Preddie, a young Londoner once involved with a criminal gang. Following the death of his own brother in a gangland killing, he determined to turn his life around, and devoted himself to work among the disadvantaged youth among whom he grew up, using his own gang background to gain a hearing, and to point out the tragedies that resulted from his former way of life. Unfortunately, Christopher Preddie was also a cousin of two people convicted of the murder of Damilola Taylor in 2000. So, in the opinion of those who condemned his award, guilt by association is a bar to being honoured, and there is no forgiveness for someone who has not only turned his own life around, but helped others to do so too?
Why do we as a society find it so hard to forgive?