Is Jesus’ ministry (un)like that of the prodigal’s father in Luke 15?

This Sunday’s lectionary reading is the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15, though it is perhaps as well called the parable of the loving father, or the parable of the father and the two sons. (I realise that many will be focussing on Mothering Sunday, but it would be a shame to miss out on preaching on this passage if you follow the lectionary in your preaching.) It’s a passage I have known well for a long time, and can still remember quite vividly listening to the late Michael Green teaching on it during a student mission when I was an undergraduate. But I have recently come across two quite different readings of the parable which highlight some important issues in how we interpret it.

The first was in Jane Williams’ Lent book for this year The Merciful Humility of God. In her introductory chapter, she takes three of the short pages to explore the parable, and rather than seeing it as an exposition of Jesus’ ministry, she sees it as a notable contrast:

Judgement and disaster in Luke 13

There is a very deep-seated human tendency to see disasters that befall others as somehow indicating a moral judgement of the victims. At a personal and petty level, we find it in the language of ‘Serves them right!’ and ‘They got what is coming to them!’ The converse of that is the way that we somehow grant those who have prospered a moral status which allows them a platform from which to tell us how we should be living our lives. After all, if they have got on in life, then surely they have something important, useful—perhaps even moral?—to tell us. We find it immensely difficult to get our heads round the reality that, very often, these things appear to happen by chance—that either someone was just in the wrong place at the wrong time for no particular fault of their own, or conversely that someone else happened to be in the right place at the right time. I have been struck by how often those who are very well off came by their good fortune because they just happened to come across an opportunity at the right moment.