Parent-child conflict is part of life and every parent’s dream is to be able to deal effectively and lovingly with children behaving badly, including adult or adolescent children. Unfailing forgiveness and arms open to welcome back wayward sons or daughters: that is the way proposed in today’s gospel story.
There is no room in the hearts of Jesus’ critics for such forgiveness: upright law-abiding people should exclude ‘sinners’ from their company. In a first-century Jewish context, it was easy enough to be a sinner. Whole groups of people, depending on their occupation, fell into that category simply because they failed to observe one or more of the 618 prescriptions of the law. Jesus’ response to his critics is the story of a parent who watches both his children lose their way for a time and at least one of them find his way back to the centre of family life and the support of the wider community.
We need to fill in the gaps in the story: there is another parent who shares the heartache of her husband when their younger son requests his one-third share of the estate. To make such a request in this context is unthinkable: it is tantamount to wishing one’s parents were dead. To accede to such a request is likewise unthinkable, even shameful in that society. The head of a patriarchal household who acts thus stands to lose honour, status, and authority. [It is important to note that the older brother is not disadvantaged: he is assured of a two-thirds share according to the law as well as the ongoing love and support of his family].
When things turn out disastrously in the distant country, the younger man shows no real interest in a restored relationship with family. Rather, he devises a plan that will put food in his empty belly-not a particularly lofty motive for returning home. He thinks up a speech about sharing the status of the family employees. Thanks to the expansive heart of an amazingly compassionate parent, he never has to deliver that speech, but is gathered into the heart of family and local community. That’s how it needs to be with us. It is certainly how it is with our God: we can abandon, even betray, and our motives for returning home can be very mixed, but our God will always be there for us.