Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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The Foolish Father

Luke 15.31-32 
 You are always here with me , and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be happy because your brother was dead and now he is alive.

The parable of the Prodigal Son has a long and checkered history. For most of the time since it was first interpreted by the author of Luke's Gospel, it has been seen as a call by Jesus for repentance from a sinful lifestyle (the younger son). He contrasts with wicked people who refuse the Good News (the older son).

Many now think that a better interpretation is to see a forgiving God in the father. We will always be welcomed home (the Church) if we turn our backs on loose living (the younger son). There are those who angrily think the whole Christian thing epitomises blind error (the older son).

The truth is much more dramatic.

Many in the 21st century are unable to hear this parable as Jesus first told it because their culture is too different from that of the first century. There are those in the older world who stand a better chance because their cultures haven't changed that much in the last two millennia.

The first hearers of this parable would have been shocked at the father's behaviour. Their culture, based on tradition and the Hebrew scriptures, warned specifically against any man giving away his inheritance while still alive. The elder son would inherit two-thirds of his estate. The younger son or sons would split the remaining third. Women got nothing. These rules were in place not to benefit the sons but to protect the family. No sound father in Jesus' time would have accepted the insulting tone of the older brother. He would have forced his son to capitulate and come to the party. Instead, in the parable it is the father who capitulates. He demeans himself intolerably when he pleads with his son instead of disciplining him.

 The younger son was a scoundrel, the elder an upstart, and the father a fool. All three put at risk the extended family. Life in those times was precarious enough without such self-centred nonsense. Worse still, this was a relatively wealthy family. How could the father jeopardise its security by being so soft?

Those listening to Jesus would have been forcibly struck by the parable. They would have asked themselves what Jesus was getting at. What would have happened when the father died, for instance?

Every preacher at this point is tempted to take a next step by asking, "What is the point of the parable?" That Jesus intended his listeners to reflect on themselves and their situations in the light of the parable is, I think, without doubt. But it's highly questionable that he intended to make a specific point.

What does the wastrel son say to you? Which of the three characters do you see yourself as? Should you be more pliable in your life? Or are you called on to get tough with others?

The foolish father asks questions of each of us. He supplies no answers. Parables cannot be interpreted, only reflected upon.

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