It might be autumn but the sounds of summer are echoing up and down our little dirt road. Somewhere there is a swimming pool and I can hear the breaking voices of teenage boys accompanying great splashing sounds. Across the road two little girls are shrieking as their father plays the hose on them as they tumble and jump on the trampoline.
One day these youngsters will be all grown up and their parents will wonder where the years went. I know very little about the families who live around me, but I suspect they are like my family of origin and the family my husband and I made together – not perfect, but definitely unique and occasionally a little dysfunctional.
When Jesus told the parable of the father and two sons he was talking from the lived experience of being part of a family. (Lk 15: 1-3, 11-31) He described his characters in detail – the po-faced elder son, jealous of the younger brother who seemed to have the lion’s share of attractive personality traits. The younger son adventurous, careless, his motive for returning home, self- preservation, not love. The two don’t come across as being particularly close – and how often that happens in families! These days we call it sibling rivalry and sometimes we never outgrow it.
Then there’s the father. Like my dad said when he was in his 90s; “It doesn’t matter how old your children are, they are still your children.” The dad in the story is loving, non-judgmental, forgiving, able to leave his elderly dignity at the door and run to greet the son coming back home with his tail between his legs.
Jesus addressed the story to the Scribes and Pharisees, those religious professionals with a legalistic image of God, something like the older son’s perception of his father. I’ll do this for you God and in return you’ll look after me. Jesus was trying to tell them that they’ve got it all wrong. God is like the father in the story, running down the road with outstretched arms shouting, “You’re back!”
Not all fathers are forgiving and non-judgmental, and fathers and sons fall out for lots of reasons. Sometimes that fall-out is never healed. But I’m old enough to know that in every family there is a ‘loving father’ figure, a peace-maker, someone big enough and loving enough to extend healing and forgiveness when and where it is asked for.