Finally Pilate handed [Jesus] over to them to be crucified. So the soldiers took charge of Jesus. Carrying his own cross, he went out to the place of the Skull (which in Aramaic is called Golgotha). There they crucified him, and with him two others—one on each side and Jesus in the middle.
– John 19.16-18
I’ve said before that the story of the Prodigal Son is a Gospel metaphor. That is, it provides a picture, a scene in which we can see the themes of love and redemption which we encounter in the living reality of the presence of the Holy Spirit of the risen Lord Jesus Christ.
However, I’ve also shown on several occasions that the purpose of the story is not to be an analogy for the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. The purpose was first to invite the Pharisee and the teachers of the law in to eat with Jesus as he eats with Sinners; and secondly, to invite us to share in the same!
So, what relevance does the story of the Prodigal Son have for reflecting on the events of Good Friday?
The Prodigal Son, a sinner himself, represents all sinners who hear the story. It shows the separation of the younger son from his family, representing the separation of his life from the Jewish traditions, from the Jewish Law, and, ultimately, from the Jewish God. The older brother, who has always obeyed his father, represents those who live in obedience to all the commands of the Jewish Law. Both, however, are confronted with the reality that obedience or rebellion isn’t the defining characteristic. What defines both sons is not their faithfulness to their father, but their being embraced by him in love. The same is true for us. Whether we were sinners who became Christians at a definable moment, or whether we have always grown up in the Christian tradition, we are not for a moment defined by how ‘good’ we are – though we are called to be good.
We are defined first and foremost by the love of our heavenly Father, made known to us by his Son Jesus through the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
That’s a neat, theologically pleasant statement.
But what does it mean?
It means that the Lord God who, by speaking, flung the very stars into space while moulding the creatures of the land, sea and skies out of dust and breathing into them life, is the Lord who lives and rules over his creation. This is the one who pledged himself to Abraham and his descendants, the one who led his people out of Egypt by holding the sea at bay and guiding them with columns of cloud and fire. This God, who led small groups and individuals to victory in battle against giants, and armies of fifty, hundreds, and thousands, is the God who spoke through prophets, who burned the soaking wet sacrifice for Elijah whilst not burning the three thrown into the flames, who shut the mouths of the lions while Daniel was in their den, is the one who says to us that we will be his people, and he will be our God. It is this God of creation, this Lord for his people, who has always been and will always be; who stepped down into our world, our historical, spatial, physical existence. This Lord God was greeted by the obedience of a young woman, who would become the mother of God, himself a human baby. This baby was as fragile and dependent as any other baby. Sustained and kept alive by the love of his mother and adoptive father who provided for him, this baby grew into the boy who would astound the religious leaders in the temple. This boy grew into the Galilean man who would have worked in construction along side other men. This man was the one whose best friends were fishermen and tax collectors. He had a knack for telling stories and where ever he went, the crowds followed – desperate to hear what he would say, desperate to see what would happen because when he turned up… stuff happened. Stuff like telling lame beggars they had known for years to stand up and walk, and they did. Stuff like walking on water, or providing food for thousands like God did for Moses and the Israelites in the desert. When people touched him, they were cured of skin diseases that made them outcasts, the blind were able to see again and the demons fled from his presence. He brought a girl who had died back to life as easily as waking her up. He called for his friend Lazarus, dead and buried for four days, and he walked out (in need of a shower!). This man who did these things was challenged and baited in public by the experts, and each time his answer left them no where to go, no way to come back at him. He would quote their laws, their scriptures and say ‘You have heard it said…’, ‘You have heard that it is written…’, ‘but I say to you…’ and in doing so he would claim the scriptures for his own. He is the one who declared that ‘I AM the way, the truth and the life’, alluding to the I AM who spoke to Moses. He is the one who claimed that God was his Father, and that what he was doing he did because it was the work that God was doing. This baby who grew into the boy who became this man, is the one who had to hide from the people who wanted to force him to be king, who spoke in public at the temple in such a way that the religious leaders wanted to kill him.
And they did.
The man who ate with sinners and told the story of the prodigal son is the God who made everything.
The God who became a human, like the Pharisee, like the sinners, like us… died.
Beaten. Crucified. Speared. Dead.
Taken down. Wrapped in grave cloths. Placed in a tomb, sealed by a boulder.
The man was defeated. His claims disputed, denied.
Our heavenly Father, though, had other plans. He had breathed his Spirit into dust when he brought humanity to life in the beginning, and in the cold tomb enveloped by the shadows of death the corpse of his Son Jesus lay broken and still until the Father breathed out his Spirit once again. Life began coursing through Jesus’ flesh. Wounds began to knit back together. His heart started pumping. With a gasp, as one who had been drowning, Jesus took his first breath the other side of death and lives! The stone was rolled away, and Jesus appeared to some women, to some disciples walking along the road to Emmaus before meeting with his chosen 11 in a locked room. A few days later he was eating BBQ’d fish on the beach with his friends before ascending into heaven, to be at the right hand of God the Father and sending his Holy Spirit of life to be a guide, a helper, and a power in the lives of his disciples. Disciples who went out, teaching and preaching and performing signs like Jesus had. Disciples who would found communities and churches which would spread, through the surrounding lands and the whole world; and through history, reaching us here today.
The man-who-is-God, Jesus came back to life and still lives today.
The God-who-is-man, Jesus was victorious. His claims maintained, confirmed.
These claims are that he is our God and we are his people, that he is the Resurrection and the Life, and that through repenting and believing in him we – like the Prodigal Son returning home to his Father’s loving embrace – can receive the Holy Spirit of Love who brings us into the presence of Jesus and our Heavenly Father to be declared the beloved Children of God.