Writings from the ministry team
for your refreshment
Luke 15: 1-3, 11-32
The Prodigal Son
This is probably, after the Good Samaritan, the best known of Jesus’ parables; it is the story that brought me back to faith in 1984.
I had been to a church near me and quite enjoyed myself; they were warm and welcoming and had big pillars near the back where I could sit and be hidden. I had not known Mike long and when he came to visit me, I took him along to the church as well. As our courtship developed, so we also continued with our church attendance. We got invited to a Billy Graham rally. If you remember the 1960s, Billy Graham was an American evangelist who came to Britain and famously converted Cliff Richard (note to children – he was a famous pop-star in those days).
He came again in 1984 and I confess right now I thought that, if I went to a rally, I might see Cliff Richard. I quite like Cliff, as you might guess.
We went, with others from our church, from Oxford station on a specially chartered train to Birmingham; and then walked round to Aston Villa football ground. The only time that I can remember, I have been in a football stadium, and probably the last time. We had heard about what would happen, a talk and an invitation to ‘come forward’ – which meant give ourselves to God. And Mike and I agreed, that under no circumstances would we ever go forward. Much, much too embarrassing. After all, going to church on occasional Sundays was enough, surely? We did not want to take all this too seriously, now did we?
We got separated in the crowd from others that we knew, but found two seats. We sang some hymns, so different to the ones I had sung in my childhood. They sounded so up to date. Remember this is 30 or more years ago, and in those days, I was very trendy. The music sounded like something I could identify with. I only remember one of the songs we sang – “Majesty”; it is still one of my favourites. If I’m honest, it blew me away with excitement. If this was modern Christianity – bring it on.
A big disappointment was waiting for me; Cliff Richard was not there. We got Big Daddy. If you are a certain age, you might remember him, he was massively popular as a wrestler! Hardly my scene (or even Mike’s). Eventually Billy Graham himself took the rostrum. We were seated so far back; he was just a tiny dot in the middle of the huge pitch. But in all that crowd, we felt he was talking just to us. He re-told this story of the prodigal son. The young man who turned his back on all that he had, lived with pigs and came home to be forgiven.
Billy Graham's message that day to us, was the same one I am giving you now. God … loves … us. God wants us to love him. We can run away, we can hide ourselves at the back of the church behind a pillar or even outside the door. God will always love us.
We can have done all sorts of things we would not like our friends and neighbours to know about, but as long as we are really, really sorry about it, as long as we try really, really hard to behave well in future; as long as we want to be forgiven – then God will forgive us.
Like the father in the parable, he will come running out to meet us half way.
Now, I don’t know how much you know about this story Jesus told. Jesus told lots of stories, some of them were sort of jokes and the crowd would have laughed as he told them. This story is not a joke. This story would have been totally shocking for his first listeners.
For a son to leave his father’s land was a dreadful thing to do. To take his inheritance and squander it was a blow to his family’s honour and status. These things cannot be too highly valued.
Then, having wasted his money, he ends up living with pigs. Even if you are not culturally disposed to loathe pigs, you must admit they are smelly creatures. There were no modern faming methods with hygienic concrete, cleaned regularly with water. Pigs, then, were kept in pens with earth floors and the smell and dirt must have been dreadful. Pigs are not always cute and cuddly, they can be aggressive (Agatha Christie used them as a murder weapon in one novel) and they smell dreadful (trust me - I have kept a pig, ugh).
For Jesus’ first listeners, this was the ultimate insult to them, suggesting anyone could be welcomed back into society after that.
But the young man’s father wants him home. God is like that with us. Whatever your story is, you can be forgiven.
You might be feeling sorry for the other brother; he often gets preached about, because he is a bit put out by all the attention his wastrel younger brother is getting. That’s normal.
Consider this. If you are the one who comes to church, who loves God, who reads the bible, says the prayers, gives generously to charity and help out pastorally, do you feel a bit peeved when someone who does none of those things is welcomed and treated like a long lost king? Of course you do, I do too. “Here I am God, doing what you ask of me, why don’t I get some praise?”
Well, going back to Billy Graham, Mike and I did ‘go forward’, we made the commitment to God and I guess you could say, “the rest is history”. We were the lost ones who returned; the sinners who repented. We were like the younger wastrel son. But that is not the end of the story. Because, we knew nothing about this wonderful faith that was available to us, a big learning curve was waiting.
So how did we learn?
It was the existing church members who helped us, who invited us to discussion groups, nurtured us and taught us. The ones who read their bibles, said their prayers, etc.. They were like the ‘big brother’ of the prodigal son story, but they did not complain. That ‘big brother’ has an important role to play in helping his young brother to rejoin the family.
I don’t know where you are in your journey (to use that modern phrase). You might be a new Christian – the younger son – in which case welcome and don’t be afraid to seek help. Or you might have been a Christian all your life and identify more with the older brother. In that case, you have an important job to do too. Encourage the new ones, help, teach and welcome them with open arms.
You are doing God’s work. Amen