The Generous Father
by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
March 18, 2007
Scripture: 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3; 16b-32
“It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead and is alive; he was lost and is found.” –Luke 15:32
This parable was once, and perhaps still is, generally known as the parable of “The Prodigal Son.” Under that title the focus is on the son who wasted the inheritance his father prematurely gave him and then, having lost it all, came home penniless to ask for a job. Another protagonist in the story is the elder son who stayed at home and worked hard and is now sore because his father had never given him a party like the one he is giving for the loser-come-home. Between the two sons stands the father, whom I think is the center of the story. If we want to understand what Jesus intends us to learn from this parable we must, therefore, focus our attention on the father. Therefore I propose that we regard the parable as about “The Generous Father.” So we have three protagonists and their relationships to consider.
This focus on the father is appropriate not only for the internal arrangement of the story – two sons relating to a father- but also for the general purpose of the parables of Jesus, which is to teach us what God is like. So before we look at the details of the story it will be illuminating to ponder that Jesus presented much of his teaching about his Father in little stories that have no conclusive meanings but are open in such a way that whatever conclusions we draw from them are indefeasibly tentative. Clearly, God’s nature is in some way elusive like the meaning of the parable, and might strike different people differently. Jesus presents God his father as the meaning present in stories, and not as the sum of spiritual laws and insights, definitions and descriptions. Those means of revelation are at home with the idols of the pagans, who are always there and can be reliably approached using the codes of ritual, myth and laws. They can be had this way because they are not alive but dead and cannot move unless we carry them on our backs. If we are the ones who carry them we have them at our disposal when we know the keys that unlock the access, that is, the rituals, myths and observances. Religion in general is just this idolatry through gimmickry.
The God of Jesus, however, is living and therefore carries us rather than needing to be carried by us. He is living and therefore just like the living humans we know cannot be captured in descriptions, lists, statues, places, and things like that. When Jesus taught of God by word he told parables and other sayings many of which are also elusive, when he taught by deed he worked miracles and made the conduct of his life, especially his Passion and Resurrection, an ongoing disclosure of God and the efficacious work of God in the world. Therefore, we must read the meaning of his deeds and suffering as carefully as we try to read the parables and other sayings we have as the precious substance of our saving revelation.
In a parable Jesus says to us, “God is like this” and leaves it to us to figure out the substance of the simile. We are not alone in this task because there is a rich tradition of interpretation two millennia long that we can consult, nevertheless, we have to interpret the meaning of Jesus’ revelation of God in our own present circumstances, therefore it is convenient that there is no one and exclusionary significance, but a story about whose present meaning there can be honest debate. Thus in this regard God remains elusive, or if you prefer, transcendent, the lord rather than the subject of meaning. Earlier in this sermon I risked saying that for Jesus God is the meaning of these stories, so let us extend our risk and see what truth of God might give itself to us today.
Once again the pressure of time forces me to rush to the point when I should have preferred to lead you there gently following many byways that we might want to explore, relaxed and searching, the very mood that is best for receiving the self-disclosure of God. Whatever else the parable says, it also says that the father in the story is very generous. He does not hold grudges, is not mean, and does not stand on his rights. There is not one word of “I told you so” to the son who took his inheritance prematurely and wasted it away. That act was amongst other things an insult to the old man of the following kind, ” Since you don’t seem to be dying soon why don’t you just behave as if you were dead and give me the goods so I can get out of here.” I think that has an eternal ring to it; how many, many kids there are and have been who would like to get their hands on the money and clear out? How many who can’t bear to be in the same house as their parents and need only their money to clear out? “I want your money so I can be rid of you.” Then the kid comes home and asks for a job, and instead of “I told you so,” the father takes him in with tears of joy not as a servant but a son and throws a party in his honor. We probably would have kept it quiet that our loser son had slunk home after an embarrassing failure in the real world, but this father is genuinely overjoyed and doesn’t care what the neighbors might think or say. Is this father not the truly natural one? We know that in our good moments we would behave like that, whatever the situation. A son is a son and we are always on his side and he can always come home. We are like that in our better moments, and here is punch line, Jesus’ God is like that too.
The older son is a foil to the father of the opposite kind. While the wastrel insults the father’s generosity in one way, the duteous, hardworking stay-at-home son insults it in another. He believes that the father does him, the good son, harm by being generous and not mean like him, by celebrating the saving of the reckless one. He is unable to rejoice at his brother’s return, and can only kvetch at the father’s generosity. I find this good guy the less attractive of the two brothers, not because I favor wastrels and losers, but because I bridle at sanctimoniousness and hate smugness. This good son represents for me “religious folk.” I have just finished Graham Greene’s novel “The Heart of the Matter.” Greene was the premier Catholic novelist of our English generation and here he shows how the fastidiously Catholic wife metaphorically murders her hapless husband who tries to be too good to her and everyone else. He commits suicide and thus dies outside the range of Catholic grace in order to love as he sees love demand; and in the end we see how the wife has been manipulating things all along. It is immensely sad, this righteousness of the stay-at-home dutiful son, yet see how the father reacts. Does he chide the kvetchers for their meanness, not he reassures them of their reward and asks them for a little leniency towards the sinner; they shouldn’t be more righteous that God.
Well, now we must stop and I leave you where I think Jesus wants you to be, wondering about the God whose nature is presented through this story. One thing is clear, God is imperturbably generous; God is outrageously graceful; God wants all his children, the feckless and the faithful to prosper and succeed. That is a good starting conviction for a meditation on God from this parable that used to be called “The Prodigal Son” but is better named “The Generous Father.” Be sure to make that meditation; this sermon is barely a preface to an introduction to the way of the divine generosity.