The parable of the lost sons (Luke 15:11-32) is so rich and so regularly commented upon, that today I will note only a few things. We perhaps miss the extent of the insult that the younger son levels against his father when he asks for the share of the inheritance – not only is he wishing his father already dead, but he also shames the father in front of the whole local community, among whom the father will have to publicly and quickly sell a massive proportion of the family estate. Once the son has the cash, he heads off into the makran choran – which is often translated as a distant country, but literally evokes the vast empty lands in between places that you want to go. It is a great image of much of contemporary society – which seems so full and complete, and yet when push comes to shove, life is so empty. The emptiness of this land is what eventually provokes the change of heart and the discovery of being lost. The first readers would certainly have also heard echoes of the exile of the whole of the Jewish people into the makran choran of Babylon.
The search and welcome of the merciful and prodigal (wasteful) father is legendary. He holds nothing back. Not only is the son fully restored into the covenant of the household – not as a servant, but truly as a son – the robes, ring and sandals are all-powerful signs of this; but the return must be celebrated. For my son was lost, but now is found. The fatted calf becomes the defining symbol of the restoration. It seems that this is the thing that most annoys the older son. How could something so extravagant be chosen to celebrate the return of this ‘son of yours’? In the days before refrigeration, you needed a big party to justify killing a fatted calf. For although a scrawny goat is sufficient to feed a few friends – the best that the older son who sees the father (and thus God) as a slave master can imagine receiving, a fatted calf will feed hundreds of people in such a celebration. This is no small and token party – it is a sign of the abundance of God’s love. But for so many people, they still settle for the scrawny goat, and never imagine that we have been invited to celebrate with a fatted calf. But then, if you think you are already found, why would you need to celebrate in the first place? For the older son, the story ends with him still lost, still unaware of his need for mercy and reconciliation.
Recorded at St Mary’s, Leppington, 8am (11’30”)
Sunday 4, Season of Lent, Year C