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Hard work and belonging

Repentance and forgiveness in The prodigal son

© Andrew Knock

An extract from The meaning of Jesus’ obedience (1997), first given as a series of talks in St Andrews for Good Friday, 1994


Work and purpose

Many of the pressures, which pull people in so many different directions at once, have to do with work and labour, and also with our attempts to avoid it.  The ethic of work – "hard work gives purpose to our lives" – which dominates much of our culture has come to mean that life is not very playful. 

Even play – health and sport – has become hard work and big business for our culture, and only a few are rich enough to play all the time.  The luxury the rich enjoy is certainly not a desirable Eden in the world, either, because it is won at the cost of so much exploitation of others. 

However, if play is more earnest today than in previous eras, the dominant ethic of work is not new.  This was the verdict God pronounced on Adam:

By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food, until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are, and to dust you will return. (Genesis 3.19)

We serve masters.  We have to labour to get anywhere.  That seems to be the human lot. Yet, remarkably, Jesus gave great emphasis to celebration and feasting. 


Parables of celebration

Let’s consider one of Jesus’ most loved parables, the parable of the Lost or Prodigal Son.   Luke places this parable with two others about lost items lost sheep and lost coins – and all three climax with the word ‘celebration’.

The parable of the Lost Son is often read as a story of repentance at a dramatic moment of conversion, as the younger son, when reduced to feeding pigs and without food for himself:

came to his senses and said, ‘My father’s hired labourers have food and to spare. I will go back to my Father and say: "Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your servants."’ (Luke 15.17-18)

However, contemporary discussions of evangelism have tended to view conversion more as a process of transformation than a single event. There will be:

  • a change of mind, heart and direction – metanoia – several or many times
  • a new direction and attitude – epistrepho – to be decided for several or many times
  • a new birth which, while often focussed on one personal experience, involves continually identifying oneself as a child of God, with a new identity (being born is not in our own control).

This certainly applies to the son in Jesus’ parable.  We need to realise that the younger son is not fully converted when he decides to come back.  Why is this?    Because he thinks of himself as a servant, part of the ethic of work, of labouring for some reward from Daddy.  So, strikingly, he is as yet not different from his older brother, who scowls at the end of the story and says:

‘Father! All these years I have worked for you as a servant and never disobeyed your orders. But you never gave me even a goat so that I could celebrate with my friends.’ (Luke 15.29)

In his subtle exploration of the parable, The return of the prodigal son, Henri Nouwen wrote:

While God wants to restore me to the full dignity of sonship, I keep insisting that I will settle for being a hired servant ... As a hired servant, I can still keep my distance, still revolt, reject, run away, or complain about my pay. (p 53)


Servants rather than children

Both sons have managed, by different routes, to think of themselves as servants of their Father.  Sadly, this notion of ‘serving God’, which stems from the ethic of work, is still the prevalent attitude in most Western churches today: God’s in his heaven, and we will serve him here on earth, doing our best to honour his name. (Actually, if you listen to our prayers, many of us are concerned to serve God, but only in an advisory capacity!) 

This attitude of serving God (and other masters) has had a profound effect on how we handle guilt, on our sense of needing to work free by our own efforts.  Jesus makes clear that the Father has a different kind of relationship in mind for his children:

‘My son, you are with me, and everything I have is yours.’ (Luke 15.31)

The younger son (to paraphrase Lesslie Newbigin in Foolishness to the Greeks, p 124) wanted privilege but no responsibility, play but no work.  The older son stuck to work, and no fun, responsibility without any sense of privilege.  The younger son returned, thinking he had to eat humble pie and work, even without any fun. 

The most dramatic moment of conversion comes – if indeed it does come, because the parable implies but doesn’t actually tell us – when the sons hear their Father saying:

‘The real fun, the celebration, is that we are together, both when we work and when we relax. You have been looking only to what you do in your own individual lives, but the real joy lies in being a family, in all we do.’


Born again

Joy is a matter of being, of discovering and celebrating who you are, far more than what you do.  In this narrative, restoration is unconditional.   It is very striking that the father does not even seem to be forgiving his son(s), because it is as if he never even viewed their excesses as wrong – though perhaps it is better to say he forgives them immediately and constantly.  

The parable, like the Lost Sheep and Lost Coin which preface it, is about being found – found as members of a family, found by a Daddy who never stops giving all he has to his children.  Henri Nouwen saw this clearly:

I am tempted to be so impressed by the obvious sadness of the human condition that I no longer claim the joy manifesting itself in many small but very real ways.  Living among people with mental disabilities has convinced me of that.  Once you choose to claim the joy hidden in the midst of all suffering, life becomes celebration.

When Jesus speaks about the world, he is very realistic ... wars, revolutions, earthquakes, persecution and imprisonment ... There is no suggestion at all that these signs of the world’s darkness will ever be absent.  But still, God’s joy can be ours in the midst of it all.  It is the joy of belonging to the household of God. (op cit p 116)

And both sons have yet to be ‘born again’ into that family. n

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