Today’s gospel, which we hear well into the season of Lent, is extremely familiar. To describe someone as a ‘prodigal’ or behaving just like the prodigal son has become almost proverbial, a way of speaking which does not depend on being a Christian. The familiar can of course lose its power, its capacity to startle us into repentance.
Because the parable is so well-known, in listening to it we probably knew what was coming next and could even race ahead while it was being read out. So let’s take step back, and then perhaps the parable will speak to us in a fresh way.
When we read the Bible, with its histories and its stories, do we basically think we are spectators looking out of a window at something that this happening out there to others? Or do we think of reading the Bible as more like looking into a mirror, when we too are very much in the picture?
If we look at the Bible as we do when we look out of the window, then we are at some distance from what is going on, we need not get involved if we do not want to, we can remain at a safe distance. The people ‘out there’ do not include us, and what they say and do is not aimed at us. But if we look at the Bible as we look into a mirror, then we are in the middle of what is going on, we are part of the picture. In the mirror we see ourselves as well as others; we are caught up and involved in the story.
In reading or hearing the parable of the prodigal son, as the story is usually even if not too accurately called, we should not remain spectators looking at the drama of someone else’s family. If we are directly involved then we will not just ask questions about what is going on, but are ourselves called into question. In fact, we are made to question ourselves.
We are meant to be ‘at home’ in God’s house, without rivalry or estrangements. There are to be no alienating distances between the children and their Father or between the children. Looking into today’s gospel as into a mirror, what should we look for? Clear-sighted honesty about how each of us stands, to begin with. We can distance ourselves in all kinds of ways. The prodigal son’s distancing of himself is brought out geographically in that he travels to a distant land, but also in his life-style and how he has to ‘return to himself’ as well as to his father. At one level the older brother is near to his father, but more deeply he is not close to him and he cuts himself off from being related to his younger brother: ‘this son of yours’, as he describes his brother. Especially in Lent, we should look and see if there are features of the prodigal in us as well as features of the older brother.
The gospel, however, is Good News as well as a way of gaining self-knowledge. If it contained only judgment then this might well increase our sense of alienation from God, from ourselves and from others. In the mirror of today’s parable, the generous and lavish welcome of the Father is the feature to concentrate on. Putting the focus on God will allow us to discover the truth about ourselves and at the same time not to think that is the whole picture, the end of the story. God makes change possible, more than we sometimes dare to hope for.
At this point, in a way the mirror scene turns out to be part of a film, a film in which each of us is one of the cast, and there is development and change. We have seen how the story unfolded so far, and in a dramatic manner the story finishes with the end of one estrangement and the risk of another. How will the older brother finally react? Will he accept and imitate the generosity of his father?
Where does each one of us stand in all this?