Skip to content

A Cover Version of The Parable of the Prodigal Son: The Fourth Sunday in Lent

March 31, 2019:
Joshua 5:9-12
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

This Sunday we had three readers perform a retelling of the famous parable of the prodigal son written by parishioner Peter Mansell.

It was another dusty Friday afternoon. You could measure the confusion in the temple by the angle of the sun. Everywhere, priests were running back and forth, carefully carrying pots and freshly sharpened blades, carefully trying to keep their shining white vestments clean, carefully watching the sun descend toward the western wall of the city. At sunset, the Sabbath would begin, and everything must be ready and correct. Back and forth along the great stone walkway they moved, high up on the stairs where there was no dust, where no one else was allowed to walk, high up near to God.

Some of the crowd in the Court of the Gentiles stood watching them, admiring these pure white guardians of the inner rooms. These priests were making ready to serve their Lord, to do their proper duty to God. And, as the orange sun wavered in the dusty Jerusalem afternoon, their movements spoke of the fear of being unclean, of being unworthy, of greeting the Sabbath unprepared, of not living up to the commandments of a rather stern God.

Across the city, amid the sounds of bleating animals and cries of jangling metal, amid the clash of camel bells and the constant waves of human and cattle voices, the groaning pace increased, now faster as the red sun stretched nearer and nearer toward the hilltops.

At the bottom of the steps, far below the frenzy of the coming feast, down where the dust and dirt were thick upon the steps, the priests spied a young storyteller. The dust and sweat of a long day told in the smudges and lines of his face and clothing. He was sitting with his sleeves rolled up to the elbows, leaning forward, smiling, and trying to hear what someone had just said to him. He seemed completely unconcerned with the approaching Sabbath, as if its great tradition had no meaning for him — at least that’s what his unhurried demeanour betrayed. He seemed quite content to listen and talk on into the night with the small knot of rabble that had collected around him. Most of them were diseased and unclean anyway – certainly not the types to honour the Lord’s Day with any kind of respect. In the last minutes before the sun touched the western hills, this group stood out like a rude stain or rip on a ceremonial robe.

Perhaps it was this obvious slap in the face of propriety, and at the very foot of the sacred steps, which caused a few of the scribes and Pharisees to descend and glare hotly down upon this troublemaker and his vile audience.

“How can you speak to these disgusting vermin? Don’t you know that they are sinners? Touching even their clothes makes you unclean. And with the Sabbath upon us too! You call yourself Rabbi, and yet you eat with these subhumans?!”

“You claim to be close to God, but you have no respect for God’s ways! Can’t you see that we’re trying to make this place great again? You’re not helping!”

“Yeah. If you did, you would honour the Lord’s Sabbath by being clean for it. At least you could tear yourself away from these pigs! Why do you squat here in the muck every day, feeding them those ridiculous scraps of stories? Do you think that this kind of thing actually pleases God?”

And they stood waiting to hear the comeback of this pathetic “preacher” with the bad rural accent.

The storyteller slowly turned his head and faced these white-clad pillars of faith. His eyes searched their faces for some sign of an opening, some hint of vulnerability, some possibility of contact, some shred of humanity. He saw only a solid wall of smug self-importance.

He wondered: “What can I say to such rage?”

Quickly, he looked about him, trying to find a link, a hook, something, anything that would make a bridge into their darkness. Turning north toward the Sheep Gate, he spotted the temple flocks and had an idea. He began with a question. “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep, and losing one…” and went on to tell a story about a caring shepherd who takes risks to bring back a beloved single sheep — and leaving the ninety-nine to do so. But nothing — not one of the priests moved an eyelash or relaxed their twisted mouth or uncrossed their arms.

He had another thought: “Money! Maybe they’ll connect with the idea of money. After all, the last thing city priests knows is sheep.

So he pressed on: Or think of it this way: what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbours, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’”

But the lost coin story got nowhere either. These holy people didn’t seem to understand the virtue of every-day struggle. Now the pressure was on. He had to get through, but how? Quickly the storyteller cast about in his mind for an image. And as his heart began to reach out to these jaded critics, a voice from somewhere deep in his spirit asked him, “What is it we share in common that even these priests will know when I speak it?” Then he had it, the one set of memories every Jew carries with them, whether he priestly or poor – the relationship with one’s parents; the need for blessing and approval, and the struggle to grow up.

The storyteller created his first image and he began … “Did I ever tell you the one about two sons…” Suddenly, everyone leaned closer to listen. He had them! Even the priests got caught up in the story in spite of themselves. And, like all storytellers everywhere, he began to pile up images. The hate of the priests was soon focused on the youngest son. And what a disgusting, obnoxious little ingrate he was!

The storyteller painted him as short-sighted and as selfish as he possibly could. Here was a kid, saying to this generous, loving father: “I can hardly wait until you die so I can get my share of your money.” This boy knew that his older brother stood to inherit the whole estate, and there was no love lost between them. There was no way his brother would share with him, he thought, so the only chance he had to lay claim to his father’s wealth was to demand it from the poor old man and break his heart in the process. The father was a soft touch anyway. He’d never said no to anything before – always gave them what they needed, and this was no exception.

Now the father had always felt that the best way to raise kids was to give them free choice from an early age, so they could learn from consequences, rather than strict rules, but here he was, caught in his own ways. As the selfish child walked away down the road, he didn’t even turn back to see the tears welling in his father’s eyes. The young man was rich, and free, and gone.

Understanding these priests as he did, the storyteller touched on every crime that their judging minds could lay on this boy. He had broken all the inheritance rules. He dishonoured his father, and brother and God. He had walked out on the land the Lord had given to Israel. He had renounced his Jewish traditions and heritage. Their disgust of the son had reached a peak, but the storyteller pushed the boy into more shame.

Alone, in a strange land, he headed into a depraved and debauched life. He loitered and drank in wretched hives of scum and villainy. He bought friends who fawned over him, keeping company with prostitutes, pimps, and drug dealers. The money that his family had sweated for in the fields of his father’s farm was now being thrown away on the roll of dice, and the faster the better. He loved it! He just loved having no one over him to tell him what to do or what not to do, and it felt so good after all those years of having to be the obedient little child. He felt that he could live like this forever and forever…

But then his money ran out.

The audience smiled smugly at each other to hear this “justice” pronounced upon the young punk. Righteous condemnation almost dripped from their eyes as the storyteller recounted the famine and the poverty and the sudden disappearance of friends. And like the neighbours of Job, they knew that this was surely God’s wrath and judgement.

The storyteller’s magic words drew pictures of a pigsty and a tub of rotten vegetable pods. Of all the foul and unclean jobs a young Jewish kid could do, this was indeed the lowest, pork being the forbidden food. And here he was, seated among pigs, watching them standing in their own dung as the half-chewed pods dropped from their open mouths, only to be trampled into the mud and filth below. The ache of hunger tore at him until, at a moment of pure envy, he was on his knees in the muck, pushing and fighting with one hand, while the other stuffed the green scraps down his own throat.

In this moment of total degradation, in this final despairing act, with no pride left, with spirit broken, and emptiness too real to bear, an image appeared. For this boy it was the image of the family table. Lying in the stink and slime of his wasted life, he imagined a banquet. He saw his father asking a blessing over the lamb and the wine, and serving it out to the guests and even to the servants. For a brief second he thought ‘Abba’ – a child’s cry to his ‘Daddy’ – then a plan emerged.

“If I go home, I can at least get a better deal than this. My father treats his slaves better than this, so if I play my cards right, I can get what I want from the old man, even after all this time. Let me see … I’ll say something really sincere like ‘Father, I have sinned against you and am no longer worthy to be called your son. Please let me stay here as a servant and I will do your will.’ Smiling confidently at his scheme, he turned his steps toward home.

Every priest on the steps knew exactly what he would do. Every one was convinced that the father, in the true tradition of the community, would bring harsh and painful punishment upon this wayward son. He deserved it. The law demanded it. The father had every right to execute it. It was expected of him. It was the way to deal with riffraff. The storyteller paused, for now he had his audience exactly where he wanted them.

But the storyteller took his story on a breathtaking and radical twist. The boy was spotted coming toward the farm. The father, who had every right to wait until the son came crawling step by step to him past the whole community, began running down the road. A dignified Jewish elder hoisted up the skirts of his robe and ran, past all the neighbours, past all the friends, all the workers — running without a care how he looked to anyone. He ran weeping, with his arms wide open and his white hair flying in the wind. And he threw his arms around the boy and held him close, just held him, weeping in the middle of the road for all to see.

The son began his rehearsed little speech. “Father, I have sinned against you and am no longer worthy…” But the father put his fingertips on the lips of the boy and silenced him. And the boy noticed his father’s tears, and he wept too. The father called a servant to bring the great robe for the boy. This robe would be the most expensive item in the house, the kind of robe you would save for visiting royalty. This was the robe of honour, the robe of the chosen one, as Joseph’s coat was when his father honoured him. And he put it on the boy and placed on his finger the ring — the family crest ring, which was the sign of inheritance. And he ordered that the prize calf be prepared and roasted – the best feast ever to be held on the estate. This selfish, disobedient child, now humbled by his father’s love, was being treated like a king, like a great prince of high nobility. And his father meant every gesture and word from his heart’s core.

Meanwhile, in the fields, the eldest son heard the sounds of music and laughter and wandered in to find out what was going on. Well, when he heard the story, and realized that the party had begun without any thought of him, he simply refused to go in. Moreover, he couldn’t believe that this fuss was over his idiot brother. Now, the father could have left him outside in his stubborn pride, but that was not his way. He went out to the oldest son, pleading: “Come in and celebrate with us!”

The good son retorted: “What has gotten into you, old man? This son of yours has taken your money and wasted it. He’s nothing but a disgusting worm — a sinner!

“Son…” began the ever-patient parent. But he was cut off.

“I have worked for you all my life,” said the son. All my life I have done your will, and I have never once given you cause for shame. And not once did you give me a dinner — not even a goat! And, and you… you… you gave that stinking selfish scoundrel in there my ring. MY RING for God’s sake. How could you treat me like this?”

“Son, you know that everything I have is yours. It always has been, don’t you know that? But let your anger go, for your brother has returned. Don’t you understand me? He let himself be dead to us, but has come home to us, and now he is alive again. Alive again, and home. He was lost, but now he is found, and we are a whole family again. Can’t you bring yourself to share my joy with me? Don’t you find your constant anger and disgust to be a burden on your soul? It doesn’t matter what he has done, don’t you see. It only matters that he has come home to those who love him, who have always loved him, even when he was away. Come, share that joy with me.”

But the eldest son just glared at his father through cold eyes, and brushing the dust off his robe, he turned on his heel and walked obediently toward the house. His duty, as usual, was perfect, but it was as empty as his heart.

And the priests listening to this story, they brushed the dust from their robes, and with a last look of disgust, turned on their heels and bustled off into the temple to do their proper duty to their God and the approaching Sabbath. The last rays of the setting sun caught their white robes and made them look like flames of fire just before the shadows of the inner court swallowed them up.

But out in the crowd, several worn and scab-filled faces ran with tears of shame and sorrow, and hope, and finally, a sense of welcome. At least some people had heard the storyteller.

© Peter Mansell