Radical parables from Luke: 5. The runaway son
Somehow we must recover our sense of hope and learn to take risks on endings better than beginnings. By Terry Young
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You can read this parable here, or listen to it here (1:10 in)
Naming this parable (Luke 15:11-32) is hard because a title automatically focuses our attention on one character, most obviously the son who leaves. An option is the elder son who stays home but doesn’t come to the party.
Brett Wilson (parables of Luke intro, 20 minutes in) has a helpful approach to parables, with some fun material on how not to! As with John Carroll in the last blog, he notes how parables draw us in but also stresses the need to draw meaning out.
With whom do you most identify in this parable? The obvious choice is between the sons. Perhaps you had a journey away from God and back or experienced a weirder journey that didn’t go anywhere but, suddenly, in familiar surroundings you realised you were a long way from home.
There is plenty on-line and in bookstores if you want to study this parable from the perspective of either son but less if you want to see life through the eyes of their father. Let’s work on the basis that since there is less around, the most radical read for our generation may be to watch the father.
In the parables of the minas and the shrewd manager, a powerful figure gives and takes back resources. He sets challenges and commends those who do well, while scolding those who are selfish or lazy. If these were Luke’s only snapshots, we might conclude that Jesus was describing a distant God who intervenes occasionally and hopes for the best but is not hurt if things go wrong.
However, in the middle of his gospel, Luke tells a story – a long story – that throws this reading up in the air, so let’s ask what it feels like to be God. If you find this question irreverent, try searching how often Scripture tells to try to be like God.
So, how does the father in the parable feel? For the most part, he seems to have his emotions under control as he works through the distasteful business of dividing up assets for his younger son to liquidise. If he was outraged by the request or angry about anything, it doesn’t show.
This would have shocked the first listeners and even for us the fireworks we expect don’t come until later when they are evidence of affection, generosity, joy, and the sheer excitement of the reunion. Later still, he is patiently trying to talk his other son around.
Clearly, the heart of this father dances to different music. Where we would be angry, upset, or feel betrayed, he is calm. He does not see the disaster engulfing the family as anything more than a setback he can work through with patience and good humour. His reaction to his son’s return reflects how certain he is in his hope that the end would be better than the beginning.
I think this is what Paul is talking about in Romans 8:18-25. Here, Jesus makes that theological proposition concrete by showing how God hopes for better things, with a father whose son has decided to leave. How do you think he felt?Other parables, including that of the minas, have long delays as kings leave and return. Here, the father is left behind and nowhere is there a more poignant figure than this man who waits patiently for his son to discover what he really wants. Even the end of the story is left hanging and we never find out if the other son will change his mind and come to the party.
Maybe this reading excites you. Maybe you have been waiting: for a spouse, a parent, a child, or someone close to you to make up their mind. You feel helpless and can’t see how things will ever turn around. Maybe this parable now offers you clues about waiting in hope. Great!
Let’s look at two radical ways in which we might train ourselves to feel more like God does about things.
First, let’s be more joyful when good stuff happens. This is a real challenge to me. I stop and say thank you, of course, but I don’t splash out with the crazy abandon that characterises this father. We don’t do it at church either. There are at least two other versions of this lost-and-found story and both end in wild celebration. How can we learn to be extravagantly joyful? How are we to be joyful at all with singing off the agenda? Doing the joyful thing may be hard for some time, so let’s try harder.
Next, let’s learn not to be overwhelmed when things go wrong. The successful people in these parables do sensible things under outrageous circumstances: they trade, they look after strangers, and work their way out of nightmare sackings. This father is no different: he does what must be done because he, too, is confident that the story will end well.
For years now, our world has been drawn to disaster narratives, that everything is going wrong. Can we escape the viral pessimism and plan for good endings? Not only are the people in Luke’s parables good humoured under pressure but they cheerfully take risks. The father could have kept his estate intact and lost his son in the end. He risks a large slice of his wealth to get his son back: it takes confidence to act like that.
I am increasingly struck by the lack of joy in our churches and the sad, self-centred, songs we sing. Yes, we’ve had to wait without knowing how long; yes, terrible things have happened; and, yes, serious things are going down in society around us. But where is our quiet confidence that leads to abject joy in the end?
Somehow, we must recover our sense of hope and learn to take risks on endings better than beginnings. When they come, let’s hope by then that we have learned how to party.
Radical parables from Luke:
Professor Terry Young is an author and member of a Baptist church. He set up Datchet Consulting which combines his experience in industry and academia. This is the third in a series on the parables in Luke.
1. The minas
2. The rich fool
3. The good Samaritan
4. The shrewd manager
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