It’s been fascinating reflecting and musing on the story of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15.
However, it can be very tempting to just think of it as a story. To enjoy wondering about the reaction of the audience; of the sinners laughing as Jesus gets one up on the Pharisees, of the Pharisees heading back to their synagogue and debating with one another angrily about how the story doesn’t make sense or isn’t consistent.
This story, and many of the other stories Jesus told, isn’t just a story or a witty demonstration of a rhetorical point. It’s also the story of real people.
Hear me out, I’m not saying that this story happened in real life. But… this story happens in real life.
On Mondays I often go to my local pub with a couple of friends because it’s Real Ale Night, and so there’s good beer at cheaper than normal prices. We talk about anything and everything from theology through to politics, music and studies etc. etc.
Last Monday, though, we were sat at a table in the corner having a drink and a guy appeared who I’ve met at the Pub a few times and had some genuinely fantastic conversations with about faith and life. I’d previously shared with him that I’m pursing the possibility of getting ordained in the Church of England. He came over to ask if he’d remembered that correctly, and when I answered in the affirmative he asked if he could speak to me on a pastoral level.
I then stepped outside with him while my friends started praying for me and the conversation I was about to have.
I won’t go into the details but the situation he found himself in was startlingly similar to the story of the Prodigal Son. I was able to spend some time listening to his story and he asked for my perspective as a Christian he respects. I then had the opportunity to talk about the story of the Prodigal Son, to offer him some encouragement and my perspective on the situation. It was not necessarily an opinion he wanted to hear, but he valued the opportunity to receive a different perspective from outside of his own.
A while later he had to leave, but before he left we shook hands and I blessed him and told him I’d be praying for him. He in return blessed me and said he would let me know how everything pans out next time I see him.
I’ve not seen him yet, I don’t know what he’s going to do in his situation. However, throughout the whole encounter I was amazed at the opportunity God had given me to reflect on the story of the Prodigal Son, an opportunity to realise once again that whilst faith and theology are wonderful cerebral concepts which are great to think about, they are also fundamentally rooted in the real world and apply to real people’s real lives.
The story of the Prodigal Son has many literary, rhetorical and theological layers. It’s also a story told by our incarnate Lord to real people and about real life situations which can and do happen. That’s amazing!
UPDATE: I went to the pub on Monday 4th April and bumped into this man again. We had a great conversation about all sorts of things, ranging from the ‘missing’20 years between Jesus when he was twelve at the temple and when he actually started his ministry, to the ins and outs of the EU referendum, among other things. After a while he brought up the situation which we had discussed above. Whilst my advice had not been what he had wanted to hear at the time, he actually went into his situation and applied my advice and after a couple of tough days everything worked out better than he had hoped!
I’m convinced that this is not evidence that I am a great person who is good at advice, but rather that through this conversation he was presented with the Gospel in a way which was not just a ‘pie in the sky’ ideal, but which was thoroughly practical. The Gospel is not just about the Cross and Resurrection, but about the life which is encountered through the Cross and Resurrection in the person of Jesus Christ.
More than this, because the advice worked he was then interested to know what I actually believe about Jesus; not just what my reading and thinking about doctrine says about Jesus but what do I – Samuel – believe about Jesus?
I was then able to share my testimony with him.
He was fascinated and said that while he wasn’t about to become a Christian (yet?) he really respected both my faith, my willingness to talk about it and that I wasn’t using it to shy away from the realities of life but to bring it face to face with the situations people face in real life.
Again, this has very little to do with me personally and everything to do with witnessing to the one who makes himself present in our witnessing – namely, Jesus Christ.
My encouragement to you would be this – don’t ‘worry’ about the ‘right answers’ when you encounter people who want to hear from you because of your faith.
Pray (and if possible, have friends praying while you talk)
and be real with the person you’re with.
Through your presence and your words, hopefully there will be a chance for the person to catch a glimpse of that something different about you. You never know where that glimpse of faith will lead that person, during your conversation and even a long time after it.
Maybe it will lead them, like the prodigal son, back home to their heavenly Father who loves them as he does us; through Jesus Christ, who died on the cross and rose again so that through the presence of the Holy Spirit we might have real life.