Two Lucan Parables: The Merciful Father

Wednesday 14th July 2021
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Midweek Service
Luke 15.11-32

As with last week's parable of the Good Samaritan, that of the Prodigal Son is so well known that we need only remind ourselves of the outline: a young man insults his father by asking for his portion of the family inheritance, he wastes it, becomes desperately poor and returns home to be forgiven by his father; but there is much more to it than that, notably the evidence that the son came home not out of moral penitence but because he saw no alternative; better, he thought, to be a servant at home than abroad. Now high moralists might say that his response to his plight was purely selfish, that he lacked feeling and that he took his poor father for granted; but accepting all this, it is not the point of the story which might better be called "The Merciful Father"; the point of the story is to illustrate not our feeble venality but God's unlimited love. Luke paints the worst possible picture that anyone could imagine and then shows that the son could not have done anything which would have impaired his father's love.

This is an awesome scenario which puts into perspective all the violent language about wrath and judgment because although we must not rule out wrath and judgment, they make no sense except in the context of merciful love. We are by no means to think that we might do anything we like because we will be forgiven but, rather, that in the final analysis, our offences might be described as offensive to God but more pertinently they are offences to ourselves for as we were made in love to love, to fail to love is to go against our created nature. Often this issue of human wrong-doing is framed in the context of the death of Jesus where the question is asked whether behaving well on the one hand or relying on the faithfulness of Jesus on the other is our means of salvation and while, theologically speaking, the answer is that we rely totally for our salvation on the faithfulness of Jesus that is not to say that human conduct does not matter. It matters because, as I said, to do wrong is to commit a sin against creation, against our natures. If we see the issue in these terms, we will get a better idea of what it means to be children of a father. The father who greeted his long-lost son was behaving in character where his son had behaved out of character; and the father's reaction contrasts sharply with that of the elder brother who was bound up in the ethics of contract: the younger son had behaved badly and should not be rewarded for his bad behaviour whereas he, who had stayed faithful, should take pride of place. In practical terms, the story tells us that the father granted that practical priority to his elder son, as justice demanded, but that did not stop him celebrating his morally weaker younger son in a gesture of uncontractual magnanimity. We might recognise God's merciful love, but our sense of human fairness pushes us towards sympathy with the elder brother. This may be theologically wrong, but it is also a gross error of pragmatism; we never know when we might flip, for whatever combination of causes, from being the elder to the younger brother.

Ultimately, the problem of human ethics, as opposed to divine mercy, is that it is usually the strong who define what those ethics are by which we must live with the added distortion that those who define behaviour may do so for the weak while thinking themselves exempt. Like history, ethics can be mercilessly self-serving based on a power dynamic rather than rules as objective as we can make them using the Golden rule or, in common speech, "practise what you preach". I need hardly go into recent political events to make the point; I might have mentioned the plutocracy in supposedly Communist China or corrupt dictatorships in impoverished Africa or the obvious absurdity of "We are all in it together". To an extent to which it is almost impossible to cite, Christianity has been blind to its own cultural assumptions, generally supporting the status quo against radicalism, confusing the necessity of order with the fallibility of the Law and unthinkingly making assumptions based on the differential between lucky winners and unlucky losers. The superficial case is the difference between the rich man who exploits his workers and the poor man who steals a loaf to feed his starving family; but go just a little bit deeper and you will find that much of what we count as evil - drug addiction, abortion, fecklessness - is the direct result of poverty we could ameliorate. Too often we want the symptoms wiped out while we will do nothing about the causes. We also tend to blame our children for the consequences of poor parenting such as anti-social behaviour, selfishness and wanton self-gratification. Taken as a whole, this leads us to separate theoretical ethics from personal conduct. I have often wondered how many venal and selfish parents have sent their children to "good Christian schools" so that they can be taught how to behave well. To this extent, we all have something to answer for.

We have spent far too much energy on theoretical ethics and far too little on developing in ourselves a default of loving mercy which is what we will all receive from our Father. It is one thing to indulge in the platitude that we are all sinners but quite another to adjust our conduct to others in the light of that truism, content, to parody George Orwell, with the nostrum that while we are all sinners, some are more sinful than others, an absurd proposition in view of the fact that each of us is dealt a different hand and plays it differently. We all recognise that it is more difficult for a poor person to behave well than for a rich person in conventional terms and yet we tend to be much more harsh on the minor infractions of the poor than the major moral failings of the rich: nobody in this country has been brought to justice for the Financial Crash of 2008-9 but nobody, we think, should be spared the full force of the Law when it comes to petty shoplifting.

There is a case, it seems to me, for spending more of our time examining our consciences and less examining the conduct of others; but, either way, we will all need God's mercy in the end