11 – Sons
“There was a man who had two sons.”
(Apology: in the following section I will focus on the words “father,” “son” and “brother” – all very male terms. But the insights are equally applicable if we used the term mother, daughter and sister. David Brown[i] reminds us that “in Liverpool’s Anglican cathedral, there is displayed a painting in which artist Christopher Le Brun has the father running to meet and embrace a prodigal daughter while her elder sister protests and remonstrates nearby.”)
As this story is told there is another word that is almost as frequent as the word “father”. It is the word “son”. We never hear the names of the two young men, only the words “son” and “brother.” Both are words of relationship. Both are words of identity.
For the past half-century people have been using the phrase, “I’m trying to find myself.” They have been asking the question “Who am I?” Adolescents may ask it, as they try to differentiate themselves from other family members and acquaintances. Wives may ask it when they sense that in the dropping of their maiden name and adopting another, their identity is being swallowed up by husband or by their children. Employees may ask it when they sense themselves being transmuted into cogs in the corporate machine. Senior citizens may ask it when their “useful” days are over and they find they have lost their identity in the loss of work and the loss of income.
But the question that is asked may not be capable of being answered in the way that we want. To that question, I can answer “I am a person” which is true of a several billion others. I can answer “I am a male human being” and still feel undifferentiated from billions of other men. I can say, “I am an older male person, who is overweight and balding” and still feel part of a mass, but now not feeling particularly good about myself. I can say, trying to explicate my uniqueness against all others humans and be more complimentary, that “I am a retired pastor and professor of Theology” but know immediately that describes more what positions I held and what I did, rather than who I am.
Could it be that “who am I?” is the wrong question. Perhaps it should read “Whose am I?” Because if the truth be known, we only ever find ourselves when we self-identify ourselves in relationship with others. I am one of God’s creatures, a son of my parents, a brother to 9 siblings, a husband of one wife, a father of three daughters, a grandfather to six grandchildren, friend of those with whom I drink far too much coffee, a colleague of people with whom I work, etc. These are all words of relationship. Those things are what I am, and it is those relationships that give meaning to my life.
And so it is with the two young men of this parable. They are described as the sons of a father and brothers to each other. Listen to the play on the words. The younger son returns, saying twice, “I am no longer worthy to be called your son….” Worthy or not, the father wants nothing to do with that presumption. “Welcome home, son!” is his acted out response. Later in the day, when the servant boy meets the older son coming in from the field, he says, “Your brother has returned…” But that sparks immediate rage in the older son. So when the father comes out to talk with him, he retorts, “when this son of yours came back….” denying any brotherhood with such a scoundrel. The father catches the hostility in his older son’s words and adds his soft correction, “This brother of yours was dead and has come to life!”
But the play on words continues, perhaps to our surprise. The father responds to the angry young man, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours….” Even the older son, in the middle of his petulant tantrum, is still named “son.”
All of that to say this; that when the younger son goes wandering God does not say “Fine! Have it your way. You are no son of mine.” Oh, no! The father has a son who is astray. He has a son who has gone wrong. He has another son out on the back forty that he may not particularly like, but cannot help but love. They are his sons, and the father cannot surrender that thought as he gazes out on the highway and over at the barn, day after day. These sinners are still his sons, and the father will not give up on either of them.
Ian MacLaren[ii] tells the story of Lachlan Campbell and his daughter Flora. When Flora left home heading off to far-off London, she was angry with her father, and her father’s harsh faith. He in turn was angry at her abdication of her faith and the church, and so he had stricken her name from the family Bible. When the neighbors inquired about how his daughter was doing in the big city, he would retort, “I have no daughter!” Phil Collins[iii] sings a similar song about a father who says “I have no son!” I cannot imagine God ever saying such a thing. Can you?
Earlier in this century there was a great debate about who should be considered sons and daughters of God. Are all people the children of God, or only those who had been reborn or adopted into God’s family? A lot of ink was poured out on that debate. Conservative churches said, “Only those who have been born again are the children of God.” Liberal churches said, “Every person, Christian or not, are the children of our heavenly father.” They asserted that “the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of men” was foundational in the teaching of Jesus. Of course each side fired their favorite “Bible bullets” using and abusing passages of scripture as the war of words was joined.
It is obvious that each side in this debate has chosen to define the words “father, sons, and brothers” from a different perspective. One side of the debate uses a more restrictive definition, and the other side gives the words a more inclusive significance. Each side leans towards the evidence that best fits their own preferred conclusion. One of my close friends advises: Find out what the other side is “against” if you want to understand them. One side may be so afraid of “Universalism” (All will eventually get to heaven) that they head for the opposite ditch. The other side may be so afraid of “Particularism” (only the very few will be safe) they want to avoid all restrictions.
If you were to ask my preference I would say, let us keep both definitions in mind. On the one hand, “God’s Spirit bears witness with our spirits that WE are the children of God,” (Romans 8:16) referring to those who have come to Christ. But on the other hand, as God looks down upon the human race, his love never flags for any part of creation. His Fatherly heart never ceases to consider us his children, even though we end our days in the pigpen or make our beds in hell.
The wanderer is called “son” from start to finish, even as the older brother is. They are sons who carry the image and imprint of their father all their lives, whether or not they demonstrate his likeness in their characters, and whether or not they end up at home. We can add adjectives to the word “son” if we feel compelled to differentiate between sons and sons. We can say some of us are still “lost sons” and some have been found. We can use the terms “close to God” and “away from God”, but to demonize or ostracize the wayward will rarely pave the way for them to come home.
Within conservative circles there was also an internal debate that offered a variant slant on lost sons. Some would insist that this story does not infer that all the sons of Adam or daughters of Eve are the children of God. This is a story about backsliders, not outsiders. These two young men, were already the sons of the father, but who sinned, each in his own way. But “once a son, always a son. Once saved, always saved.” So the conclusion was drawn by some that this story is about God’s love for the backslider. God is unwilling to let any who are truly converted go, and so will, one way or another, “chase them down the nights and down the days” until they return home. So, they conclude, it is not about the unconverted. They are the sons of the devil, not sons of God. God has many children who are not well behaved, but they are still his children, and God will deal with each as needed.
But others sense in Jesus’ and Luke’s theology a wider concern to reach all who are lost. So in his two volumes he tells us of the desire of Jesus and the ancient church to reach out to Samaritans, Gentiles, and all the rejects of society which included prostitutes, publicans, the medically and morally unclean, demoniacs and the criminals. They do not sense in this particular story that it was meant to be restrictive in any way. Some have suggested that Luke passes on this story to his audience some decades later to underscore that those from the more conservative Jewish culture (the older son) and those from the more profligate Gentile culture (the younger son) need to understand and welcome each other in the new community of the Kingdom of God.
Nonetheless there are sons and there are sons. There are those who live in the privileges and share in the responsibilities of the children of their heavenly Father, and they experience the greater intimacy of being sons and daughters indeed. They hear the words of God ringing in their hearts, “You are my beloved child, with you I am well pleased.” And on the other hand, there are others who never know the joy of that relationship and never feel at home with God and His people. And that is sad! And to such we say, “if you would draw nearer to God, he will draw nearer to you” and in the process you might find yourself.