When we were still far off: a story and a prayer

The Parable of the Prodigal Son, Duke University, Margaret Adams Parker

This week’s lectionary blog takes as its focus the story of the Prodigal Son, Luke 15.1-32, which is the Gospel reading selected for Lent 4.

Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship


Much though I appreciate the desire to celebrate ‘Mothering Sunday’ it has its problems. It can be a very painful day for people who are involuntarily childless, or who are or have been caught up in painful family hostility. It also somehow disrupts the ‘flow’ of Lent: though in fact both of the alternative Gospel readings suggested by the lectionary do directly or indirectly provide a link to Jesus’ passion, that is rarely picked up in the festivities linked to Mothering Sunday.

The date of course was originally selected because in the BCP the Epistle for the Fourth Sunday of Lent from Galatians 4, includes a reference to ‘mother’, ’the other woman [Sarah] corresponds to the Jerusalem above; she is free, and she is our mother’ (Galatians 4.26). In fact I think the reading from Galatians probably intends to prioritise ‘Jerusalem’ over our earthly mothers, but that has been rather forgotten in the usual focus of Mothering Sunday.

It is a peculiarly English and Church of England custom to celebrate mothers in March: and I am not sure how well it works liturgically, with the possible exception of years (such as in fact this one) in which Mothering Sunday falls close enough to March 25 to be linked in some way to the Annunciation. In many of the countries in which our Diocese ministers, ‘Mothers’ are celebrated at some point in May, and on the whole I think that may work better.

One of my gripes however is that a focus on Mothering Sunday can displace biblical texts and themes that are important not to lose. One such reading is the Gospel offered this year for Lent 4 in the Common Worship lectionary, though it is intriguing that this reading, as well as the other Gospels suggested for Lent 4 in Years A and B, all do contain an oblique reference to parents (so in theory the link could be made).

However I certainly think it is a pity to forget about the Gospel for Lent 4 in this particular lectionary year, as it is Luke 15.10-32 the story of the Prodigal Son, which is one of the most beloved parables of Jesus – and which, if it is displaced by Mothering Sunday, does not get much of a look in the Sunday lectionary.

If you asked a cross section of people who self-identify as Christian which of Jesus’ parables they knew and cherished the most, there is a fair likelihood that a considerable majority of them would point to this one, generally known as the Parable of the Prodigal Son – though it equally could be called the Parable of the Forgiving Father (which allows for the oblique link to Mothering Sunday!)

It is cherished partly because it speaks so profoundly about God’s acceptance – as in fact does George Herbert’s wonderful poem ‘Love bade me welcome’ which often springs to my mind when I am reflecting on this parable. Years ago, when I lectured in Old Testament at the Near East School of Theology in Beirut, my colleague who taught New Testament in the N.E.S.T. was Kenneth Bailey who wrote a classic and still much loved book called The Cross and the Prodigal (well worth reading!). Ken’s book observed how, if one looked at the parable through Middle Eastern eyes, we can gain new insights that are not as obvious to western readers. 

One such insight was the scandalous behaviour of the father in running to welcome back his errant son. In the Middle East one still shows one’s dignity and importance by walking in a slow and measured fashion. That tradition used to get me into trouble in those years when Alan and I lived in Beirut. In those days I frequently ran – not necessarily because I was in a hurry, but as part of my personality and the joy of life. My running was noticed and disapproved of: first because I was supposed to behave like a learned professor at the theological seminary, and secondly because I was also a khouriye (priest’s wife) – married to the Anglican chaplain in the city. A ‘word’ was spoken to Alan about the need for him to ensure that his wife comported herself with more decorum than she was wont to do. There was even a salutary tale told of a minister in the local Lebanese Protestant church who had had a significant appointment rescinded because he too turned out to be a ‘runner’.  

A mark of how much this Gospel parable is loved is surely the way that it is alluded to in the post-Communion prayer, originally written by David Frost for Series 3, but which has continued to be used in Common Worship because of its beauty and the way that it ‘speaks’ to us. ‘Father of all, we give you thanks and praise, that when we were still far off, you met us in your Son and brought us home…’  I do not think that I am wrong to see in the words, ‘… we were still far off, you met us…’ a deliberate allusion to the meeting in the parable of the Father with his recalcitrant son.

It is interesting to reflect briefly on the three protagonists in the story: the father, and his two sons, the younger and the elder. I appreciate the portrayal of the three in the statue created by the Episcopalian artist Margaret Adams Parker at Duke University, USA which is used (with permission) as an illustration this week. I am ‘grabbed’ by the sense of vulnerability of the father it offers us. And what of the sons?

When I first undertook academic biblical studies in the 1970s, the views of Joachim Jeremias were all the rage. Jeremias’ key tenet was that the parables of Jesus were not allegorical, and that each had one key central point that was really all we should focus on. I have to say that as regards Jeremias I have been there, done that and rather come out the other side. For I do believe that without necessarily being full blown allegories, many of the parables of Jesus contain allusions and links that it is intended that we pick up and that unless we do our reading of the parable is impoverished. I particularly think that about the parables that are special to the Gospel of Luke, which of course includes the Parable of the Prodigal Son. So who is represented by the father, and who by each of the two sons?

I find David Frost’s prayer a helpful interpretive tool for this exploration. The link between the words of the prayer, ‘when we were still far off’  and the Gospel phrases, ‘but while he was still far off, his father saw him… ran and put his arms around him and kissed him’, encourages us to identify ourselves as the Prodigal, greeted by the heavenly Father and welcomed to a home-coming banquet (which of course we have just shared in through the Eucharist).

Yet that is not the whole of the story, nor even of the prayer. For after the words, ‘When we were still far off’ the next line of the prayer goes, ‘you met us in your Son and brought us home.’ The words slip off the tongue so easily that we forget just how daring they might be. For what are we saying about ‘your Son’? Where is the prayer positioning him? Perhaps like many powerful prayers there is a hint of mystery and ambiguity around. Is the Son accompanying his Father to this meeting with us, or is he travelling with us as we journey in to meet the Father? Linguistically the phrasing of the prayer allows for either possibility.

I suspect that many who say the prayer implicitly assume that the Son is standing alongside his Father ready to greet us, for that is theologically perhaps the more orthodox or safer option. It is probably what I myself originally thought when I first came across this prayer. But if you take seriously the way that the prayer is resonating with a biblical story which is telling of a meeting between a father and a son, then logically perhaps the Son needs to be seen alongside us, on our side of this crucial meeting, accompanying us as we make our prodigal return to our Father’s house. And if that is the case then the breath-taking conclusion is that in and through this prayer we are identifying Jesus the Son with the prodigal son of the parable. This is not a totally original interpretation: in his well known book, The Return of the Prodigal Son, the spiritual writer Henri Nouwen reflects, ‘the mystery [is] that Jesus himself became the prodigal son for our sake… the young man being embraced by the Father is no longer just one repentant sinner, but the whole of humanity returning to God.’i It is a stunning thought to bear in mind whenever we pray this prayer. It is probably the interpretation I myself would ultimately hold to.  

Rembrandt, The Return of the Prodigal

There is however perhaps one further possibility which I would like at least to tease out. For the biblical parable speaks of two sons – an elder and a younger. The pictures (the statue at Duke University and the famous painting by Rembrandt) that accompany this reflection incorporate this elder son within the story – though they also make clear his unreconciled distance. One of the reasons that the lack of reconciliation in the parable between the two brothers feels so very painful is that Luke seems to have intended us to ‘read’ the story bearing in mind a number of Old Testament tales of brothers, most of all the story of Jacob and Esau. By contrast with the parable of Luke, Jacob and Esau are eventually reconciled: indeed the words which speak of their encounter, ‘Esau kissed him and they wept’ (Genesis 33.4) are curiously similar to the description of the reconciliation of the father and the son in Luke. Is it not possible then that when we say the words, ‘Father… you met us in your Son and brought us home’, we could also identify Jesus with the elder son? And if so he has in this prayer taken a leap beyond the pain, hostility, envy and separation of the parable and has chosen to stand at his Father’s side, welcoming us, his younger prodigal siblings, back home to his Father’s house where there are so many dwelling places that he has even helped to prepare for us. (John 14.2) 

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