The Elder Son

As part of my placement with St Clements and the Dock Café, I sat in on the Mission planning meeting with the bishop some weeks ago. It was exciting and thought-provoking to be with a congregation thinking about the future, and I was inspired by the presentations about a vision for reaching the community with God’s love. (And, because I am training for ordination, I took down a lot of notes and ideas – which I hope you won’t mind me using someday). So thank you to Chris and all of you for inviting me to sit in on the meeting.

The mission meeting at St Clements also set me thinking. About how easy or difficult it is for us in the church to welcome people in? To associate with people from various backgrounds, with various histories, with those that our society considers outcasts and sinners?Jesus always had run-ins with Pharisees and Scribes. Some were friends he had meals with. But many were more like today’s tabloid media that hover around celebrities and public figures, waiting for them to trip up, trying to catch them doing something they disapprove of, waiting to condemn them. The Pharisees were uncomfortable with what Jesus said and did. His association with sinners and outcasts was becoming a really sore point with them. So when the ‘tax collectors and sinners drew near to listen’, the Pharisees and scribes began to grumble saying: ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them’.

‘So… Jesus told them this parable.’ The parable of the two sons, or as we call it, the Prodigal Son.

The three parables – of the lost coin, lost sheep and prodigal son – all talk about something that is ‘lost’ and ‘found’, and about ‘rejoicing’ when it is found. The two we left out today are told by Jesus to set the scene for the third. Jesus concludes the first two by saying there will be celebrations and more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety nine righteous persons who need no repentance’.

Imagine the scene. The listening tax collectors and sinners would have heard that God sought and loved them. They heard about heaven rejoicing over a single sinner being found and felt valued and been filled with hope. But imagine the Pharisees when Jesus talked about there being ‘more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, than the ninety-nine righteous’. They would have bristled because after all they are the 99 ‘righteous’ sheep, safely in the pen.

Rembrandt's painting of the Return of the Prodigal

The Return of the Prodigal Son

The story we read was titled “The Prodigal Son” by translators, even though Jesus tells a story about two sons. The younger son, who goes away to live a self-centred and dissolute life, and comes back repentant. And the elder, who stays on faithfully, but is judgemental and harsh.

It is a well-known story. It has inspired paintings and books through the centuries. Rembrandt’s famous painting has the scene of the Father welcoming his younger son, with the elder son looking on in disapproval. This painting inspired Henri Nouwen to write a book in which he identified himself with the younger son who was seeking forgiveness and the disapproving elder son.

I recently realised that the story is not just, as I had thought, about the forgiving love of God for sinners – It is about something far more challenging. I realised that Henri Nouwen was right – I was both the younger son seeking forgiveness and the disapproving elder son.

At the beginning of the story we meet the straying younger son, who later repents.

Repentance means a change of mind and heart accompanied by regret and a change of behaviour. This is what happened when the younger son came to his senses, and returned to his father. The words that the younger son wants to say to his father are very similar to prayers of repentance we pray on Sundays: at communion: “We do not presume to come to this Thy table… we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table… You are the same Lord, whose nature is to always have mercy”. Or, we pray “we have sinned in thought word and deed… through our own grievous fault… we are truly sorry and we humbly repent”.

Although we pray this, we feel that the younger son is a real sinner, not like us. He is wild and extreme. Immoral. Scandalous. Yet fundamentally this is a young man who has chosen a self-centred life, instead of a life of loyalty to his father – or as we are supposed to understand it, a life loyal to God. Is this really so very different from us?

I began to wonder whether we have lost sight of what sin and repentance is really about. We see sin as old-fashioned and outdated because we misunderstand it. We feel that sin is about living a really terrible life. Like the people “out there”. Not us in here. Most of us essentially try to live good and decent lives. We may slip up from time to time, but most of us are not out there thieving, taking drugs, rioting on the streets, or committing atrocious crimes like murder, invading Crimea, bombing the innocent, covering up child abuse, sabotaging cakes on the Great British Bakeoff, or running Banks and destroying the Economy.

But sin is not primarily about what we do. It is about recognising that we often stray and our lives are outside His will and His Kingdom. Like the younger son did. Sin is about choosing to live our way, not God’s way. The younger son choose to live by the principle “My will be done”, not “Thy will be done”. Like we often do. I have grown aware that I am like the younger son and like him I need to learn repentance.

The other two parables conclude with the rejoicing when the lost coin and sheep are found. But unlike those, the story of the two sons does not end when the younger son returns. As the story gets happier with forgiveness and reconciliation between younger son and father, with rejoicing and celebration, there is someone who gets unhappier and angrier.


At first glance the Elder Son seems superfluous to the stories about God’s love for the lost and a sinner repenting. Up to this point, the story of the lost son connected strongly with the lost coin and lost sheep. But suddenly here is someone who does not rejoice, but grumbles and is angry.

Enter the Elder Son.

So why is the Elder Son in the story? He is there to represent and challenge the Pharisees. Jesus told the three parables in response to their grumbling comments about him spending time with outcasts and sinners. Suddenly everything came into focus. They could not have missed Jesus’ point.

Like the Pharisees and scribes, the Elder Son had been obedient and had served his father dutifully. Like him, they didn’t consider themselves ‘lost’ or deep in sin. Like him, they were angry at Jesus’ association and acceptance of sinners – people that they, the righteous, fastidiously avoided. They would have instantly recognised the Elder Son’s resentment and refusal to celebrate and rejoice, as his younger brother was welcomed back. The story ends with the Father asking his Elder Son: “Will you not join the celebrations?” A direct invitation to the moaning Pharisees!

The parable of the two sons turns its attention to Pharisees, the people of the establishment. Today we – the Church – are the establishment. I was intrigued when I discovered the range of people in Jesus’ time who were considered sinners and outcasts by the Pharisees. It wasn’t just tax collectors (collaborating with the occupying Roman army) or the immoral. It was the poor, the sick, the lame and lepers. It included those who had brought calamity upon themselves because of their sin, or their parents’ failure.

I began to wonder who we would welcome in our churches today. Who would we not? What would a modern list of “sinners and outcasts” look like? Perhaps the poor would still be on the list? Or those of a different class? Perhaps those who had brought calamity on themselves and others through lifestyles and actions – like addicts? Or juvenile delinquents? Or former loyalist or republican paramilitaries? Ex-terrorists? What about those with a past criminal record?

You see, the Pharisees had no trouble welcoming repentant and ritually purified sinner into their midst. They were indignant and angry because Jesus accepted and associated closely and extensively with sinners who were still on that journey – who had not yet repented. They were angry because he treated them like people, not outcasts.

We find it hard to have the extravagant love that Jesus showed to the people around him. For us, church often becomes about bringing in people of our kind and backgrounds. About those who are like us. Are we not like Goldilocks in the fairy tale, searching through the Bears’ House in the Woods – looking for people who not too rich, not too poor – not too Godless, not too Fanatical – for people who are “just right”? People who will fit in? People like us?

We are like Elder son. We are often as judgemental and exclusive as the Pharisees were. Too often, we think we are right with God, and look down at others we consider worse than ourselves. Like the elder son did. Like the Pharisees did. We would rarely associate with certain kinds of people. Jesus was called a glutton, a drunkard, and a friend of sinners and accused of hanging out with “outcasts”. I suspect very few of us have had this accusation made – and if it were, we would probably be try to prove otherwise.

In the three parables, Jesus describes God’s extravagant love for those who are lost in various ways. In telling the parables, Jesus described his own ministry – He was seeking the outcasts and sinners and spending time with them. We often forget that Jesus met the needs of those around: he talked to, taught, healed, fed, responded, and touched people who never eventually followed him. Although He fed five thousand, those who followed him were few. In bringing the Kingdom of God, Jesus brought the lavish love and generosity and care of God. I find the Dock Café –where I am doing part of my placement – a powerful reflection of this love and generosity of God. The visitor reviews of it on Trip Advisor show that those who go there sense this, and are aware of something different. In a world where profit is valued it speaks of what one writer refers to as a different economy of grace.

It wasn’t easy for the Elder Son to accept his wastrel brother back into the family, and it wasn’t easy for the Pharisees to accept people they had spent their lives rejecting. It isn’t easy for us. Recently, someone we know – who works with the youth fellowship in his church – called to talk about a crisis. There were some kids coming in off the street, interested in the activities of the youth fellowship there. They swore, and smoked… and did all the things that churches and Christians frown on. His church leadership and congregation were alarmed. This was not the kind of messy kids they wanted in their church. They were not happy about the state of things. Some in the congregation wondered if they could relocate this group somewhere else so that the general congregation and Christian youth didn’t have to associate with them. I thought to myself, shouldn’t the church be rejoicing?

Like the younger son, we need to often return to God from our self-centred lives. Like the elder son we need to bring God’s love to the “outcasts and sinners” in our time. May God give us grace to do so.