Then Jesus said, ‘There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’ ” So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate.
‘Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.” Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” Then the father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” ’
By Eva Walters, Children’s Worker at St Margaret’s Church.
As any child brought up in a church-going family, you come to know the Bible stories like the back of your hand. I remember feeling a deep sense of injustice at this story of the prodigal son as a young teenager. I have a very clever and capable sister who I sometimes felt could do no wrong in our elders’ sight and my teenage angst would often feel deeply for the brother who stayed at home.
And as a child brought up in a church-going family, I have also had to find different way of being able to listen anew to these stories. The Ignatian imaginative practice is one way that I learned a few years ago and that I find extremely helpful. So instead of focusing my righteous indignation on the father and the delinquent son, I want to turn my attention to the others in this story.
You see this was probably a very large household. The father in this parable had a decent amount of land and servants, with neighbours and friends nearby, and we might imagine that he had some status within his community. The shame that the younger son had brought on the family would have been discussed by the father’s kin, friends and servants. So, what did the community think when this son returned?
We hear from the passage that the servants took their master’s lead and sprang up into action, beginning to prepare for the celebrations of the return of the lost child. This child had meant something to this community. Had they wept with the father as he left? Had they felt anger at his apparent betrayal of the father? Had they stayed by their master and friend’s side when he looked to the road to see if his beloved child was coming home?
To me these verses now speak of a Father, perhaps in one of the most vivid depictions of what God is like, whose love overflows onto those around him. This community and belonging, cemented in the foundation of God’s love, is integral to the Church. When our church communities mirror our Heavenly Father’s love, our children and young people can feel a true sense of belonging and acceptance that is unusual in our world’s understanding, outside of their families. If a child or young person feels that the church is a place where God’s love is tangible, then there will always be an invisible string that can and will lead them back.
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