Below is my Thought for the Day broadcast on BBC Radio Kent today, 10th March
Today is the fourth Sunday in the season of Lent, Mothering Sunday, and it is a day when many Christians mark a spiritual half way point on their journey to Easter.
The story from the gospels offered to us today is that of the Prodigal Son. A son of a rich man behaves extraordinarily badly: he demands his inheritance up front, abandons his family home and his father whose money he has acquired, blows it all irresponsibly, and then falls on hard times. Eventually he has no choice but to return to his father, cap in hand, even to get fed properly. Instead of being disillusioned or angry with him, possibly even turning away the wayward son, the father instead pulls out all the stops and welcomes him home unconditionally. Meanwhile the older brother, who has stayed at home, worked hard, and responsibly looked after his father, is not best pleased at this extravagant treatment for his errant younger brother. But his father will have none of it: it is only right that we should celebrate, he says; your brother was lost and is found.
At one level, this is a story of unconditional parental love, which anyone who has lived through the frustrations and joys of parenthood will recognise. At a deeper level, it is an illustration of what God is like: however much we neglect and abuse God, we will always be welcomed and cherished when we turn back.
The Prodigal Son is also parable about what it is to be truly and fully human: we belong together and we find our true fulfilment not through rejecting those who put themselves outside our expectations, but by including and welcoming them, continually forgiving them their failings. The reminder the father gives to the older son could be addressed to any of us who complains about favourable treatment being given to people who we don’t think deserve it. (We might think of the issue the bishops of the Church of England have today pointed out in their joint letter http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/9919844/Archbishop-of-Canterbury-attacks-Government-welfare-reforms.html ).
We still have significant progress to make as a society in our journey towards a fully inclusive and welcoming attitude towards our fellow humans, but in the age of Jesus the notion that we should embrace and forgive the outsider, the marginalised, or those who had gone against their family, was revolutionary. At that time clans and tribes and cultures were very much turned inwards and regarded those outside with suspicion. Misfortune was often regarded as a just punishment from God. God is not like that, and God does not want us to be like that. To align ourselves unconditionally with the wider human family, including the most unfortunate or marginalised or errant, is to be both closer to God and more fully human.