Posted by: mikebackup | March 10, 2013

Life is like a box of chocolates

Luke 15.1-3
15 Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. 2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

3 Then Jesus told them this parable:

Luke 15:11-32

The Parable of the Lost Son

11 Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.

13 “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.

17 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father.

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.

21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.

25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’

28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’

31 “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”

This is one of those heard it a thousand times before stories – but it always disrupts us. It shows us the true heart and challenge of the Gospel. Let’s first acknowledge the pink elephant – this is a slightly odd reading for Mothering Sunday! Why is the story about three male characters?  Part of the reason is because traditionally the western church has not used female imagery to speak of God but it is worth noting the female imagery in the Bible. In Isaiah the image of a mother is used to describe God. Jesus, when looking over Jerusalem uses a very female picture (a hen gathering her chicks) to describe his desire to care for Israel. He also, a little further on in Luke 15, tells the parable of a woman who searches for the lost coin. In the story of the prodigal son Jesus probably decided on using this imagery as it would work best with his original audience

We must remember whatever human imagery we use for God, we use it knowing it exemplifies the best we know – the best father, the best mother. Even though we have a father here, the character points beyond human qualities and into the inner reality of God.

What does prodigal mean?

prodigal [ˈprɒdɪgəl]


1. recklessly wasteful or extravagant, as in disposing of goods or money
2. lavish in giving or yielding prodigal of compliments
a person who spends lavishly or squanders money
[from Medieval Latin prōdigālis wasteful, from Latin prōdigus lavish, from prōdigere to squander, from pro-1 + agere to drive]

It’s helpful for us to have versions of this story that work in our time and place. Firstly I have a fictional one that Lisa and I cried through Friday night. Forest Gump is a modern classic and even if you’ve seen it many times watch it again but from the perspective of the prodigal son. If you’ve never seen it you must, it is a significantly spiritual film. I first saw it in February 1996 on video in Georgia in all places. It was long before I met Lisa or became Christian but I remember the experience in crystal clarity. It was an important moment in my journey. Seeing it again on Friday brought that back, and in the context of the prodigal son, the character of Forest Gump you see a life lived with the qualities we see in the father. All the amazing things he does are genuinely incidental to him. What was important were the people that were part of his life and those he lost along the way. At the centre was his lifelong sweetheart of Jennny. She doesn’t just leave him to be reckless once, but many times. She treats him badly but his character is so beautiful in the way he just extends grace and love to her every time. When she truly and finally comes home to him she is a Mother and so needs that rock of love.

Here’s the moment, she comes home to him:

Forest experiences so many difficulties and loss but his approach to life makes him for me one of the two most inspirational characters ever brought to life. My other is Andy Dufrane from The Shawshank Redemption, which incidentally I also saw for the first time the same week in February 1996.

That’s fictional – there are plenty of people who in reality and in the face of apparently impossibly painful situations can come to forgive the seemingly unforgiveable and flood the situation with grace.

A truly wonderful website called speaks of such true stories. The stories on it are so moving that they provide a humbling perspective that will lift you no matter how bad you think things are for you right now. Stories like this:

In May 2009, at the age of 24, Adam Rogers moved back to his parents’ home in Blackburn. One Saturday evening, just after his parents had left for a two week holiday in Malta, Adam got punched in the head protecting his friend from a random attack. He died in intensive care the following day. Just over two years later Adam’s father, David Rogers, met Billy – the 16-year-old who had killed his son.

It was six o’clock in the morning when the phone went in Malta. It was Adam’s younger brother Jamie calling from the hospital telling us Adam had been attacked and was very seriously injured. We managed to get the only flight back, and were at the hospital by lunchtime. Adam was in critical care, and looked so peaceful, as if he could wake up at any moment. It was very hard.

The medical staff had waited for us to get back to do any final tests. When they’d done the tests they told us there was no brain activity, and that he was just being kept alive by machines.

We knew immediately we were in a very dark place and that we had to do something positive, or this would destroy us. The first thing that happened was that the doctors asked us if we would speak to the transplant team, and I remembered Adam filling in his first application for a drivers license and saying he would want to be a donor. It was our first chance to ensure that something good came from Adam’s death.

Over the next few days we started to think of ways to channel our anger and grief into something that could do some good. We felt it was important to try and get a message across to young people that incidents like the one that led to Adam’s death are senseless and avoidable. We decided that we would use Adam’s story as the basis of an education package and we called our campaign ‘Every Action Has Consequences’.

More or less at the same time I came to a very personal decision. Straight after Adam died I told the Police that I wanted to meet the boy – Billy – who had hit him. I needed to confront Adam’s attacker. I wanted him to know how angry I was at the way he had behaved that night. I also wanted him to know the added pain he had caused us by pleading not guilty and painting a picture of Adam that wasn’t true.

While Billy had admitted straight away he’d punched Adam, he also said Adam had threatened him. In Court he denied it was manslaughter, and claimed he acted in self-defence. This only added to our anger and grief, because everyone who knew Adam knew he had never been in a fight in his life.

When I first asked to meet Billy I didn’t hold out much hope that he’d agree. But as the news began to filter through about the progress he was making in prison, I learned that he now wanted to meet me in order to apologise. I wrote to him before we met, and he wrote back saying he was willing to answer any questions I had. This was important to me because as well as confronting him, there were questions I wanted to ask about things that hadn’t come out at the trial. I wanted to understand why anyone could ever feel threatened by Adam.

The restorative justice meeting took place in the prison while Billy was still serving his sentence and it gave me the opportunity to confront Billy with the impact his actions had had not only on all the family but also on Adam’s friends, especially those who were with him that night. I think that surprised him, as he hadn’t thought about the wider consequences.

It was very important to me that Billy knew who Adam was, because that hadn’t really come out at the trial. So I took photographs along and told him about how Adam had lived his life. After the meeting, I felt I understood much more about what exactly had happened that night which was very helpful in that it diffused the anger. I can now think about Billy without getting angry, and that makes a difference.

Someone once said to me: to understand everything is to forgive everything and I do believe understanding is very important. I think we are beholden to try to understand as much as we can because you can’t make a proper judgment about anything unless you do.

There are some people who find it hard to understand why I wanted to meet Billy. There is still a lot of anger around among friends and family, but everyone, whatever their personal views, agrees that Adam would have wanted me to do this. Adam always looked for the best in people.

I hope the meeting has had a positive effect on Billy. I hope it’s helped him to face up to his responsibility in what happened, and to put his life back together. My wife and I both said after the trial, Adam’s life is gone, but we don’t want to see another life ruined.

There’s a raw love in that story that so represents the heart of God. Every inch of most people’s body says no I couldn’t do that if I were in that situation. For as long as anyone stays saying that they are like the Brother in the prodigal son. The Gospel says that love wins even when the pain is searing, even when nails are driven into hands and feet. We are called to be like the Father in the Prodigal son. For most of us it will take us a lifetime of journeying to get anywhere near. On days like today, when we celebrate Mothers it gives us an opportunity to reflect and remember all those who have nurtured us on our journey male and female. When you think of those people you will find your memories reflect the grace and forgiveness found in this Gospel story. What more do you need to know that God’s love embraces you with the greatest hug and then asks you to do the same.

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