Fraser Hosford: God & the Cultures of Modern Ireland – Luke 15

On Saturday 4 November, Evangelical Alliance Ireland’s 2017 National Forum will focus on ‘Faith That Transforms Communities’.  You can view the Forum programme here: EAI 2017 National Forum Programme and can find more information, discover discounts, buy tickets, get a map for the venue etc. here: EAI Forum Eventbrite Page

In preparation for the National Forum, we asked several thinkers to contribute articles that help us see the big picture against which all our ministry activities are taking place. Today’s article, from Fraser Hosford, Pastor of Dublin West Community Church, ties Ireland’s current cultural divide in with the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

Prodigal

Ireland has changed enormously as a country over the last three decades. We have become a wealthy country, notwithstanding the recent economic crisis, and also an increasingly secular country with the Catholic Church losing its hegemony over society. These changes are not just tangential details about Ireland but defining issues that have dramatically changed the culture of Ireland, how life is lived, the values that are held and how the country feels. And while these changes are clear they have not been absolute and it can be said that there are two Irelands today, the old Ireland with its religious feel and a new Ireland more secular and notably materialistic. Furthermore, the sand is shifting as one culture continues to replace another one over time. Many people stand with a foot in either culture or would disassociate themselves from both and, of course, different subcultures exist within the broader culture providing its layers, subtleties and tensions. But two cultures do co-exist albeit not peacefully as demonstrated by the recurring culture wars over social issues like marriage, divorce and abortion. Neither culture is perfect, each containing its own blind spots. What is key from a faith perspective is that God continues to love people of both of these, and other, cultures, and that God has got good news for both of these cultures.

One of the favourite stories of Jesus is the story of the Prodigal Son recorded in Luke 15. It is better titled the parable of the two sons as it contains a message for both the parties which the sons represent. Intriguingly the two sons mirror the two Irelands outlined above, with the old Ireland similar to the older son and the new Ireland similar to the younger son.

The Older Son

While traditionally the focus is placed on the younger son, the prodigal, this story really is about the older son. Luke 15 begins with the grumbling of the religious leaders at Jesus’ interaction with those deemed sinners. Jesus’s three parables are told in response, and so the Pharisees are the intended audience.

The older son is presented as a religious person, religious in the bad sense of the word. He comes across as stern, anti-fun, and puritanical in terms of focus on behaviour. We are told that he was angry and refused to join in the celebrations. His attitude to his younger brother is judgmental, he has squandered the father’s property and that is not forgotten despite his return. This attitude is clearly portrayed as negative in Jesus’ story.

What is revealing is that his words to his father concentrate more on himself than his brother. His words evoke a tone of resentment as he focuses on his own work on the estate and his lack of reward, “not even a young goat”. His case is overstated because as the oldest son he would have been entitled to his inheritance and thus was ultimately working for himself, in a longer term perspective. The culture of the time was that he would receive two thirds of the estate, with the younger son having already taken one third as his “share”, hence why the father points out that “everything I have is yours”. This overstatement shows a self- righteousness where the older brother’s emotional reaction is driven by his own sense of deserving more. This is the brother who stayed with the father yet he too is far away despite his geographical proximity, distant relationally as his association with the father is characterised by “slaving” and “never disobeying”. When talking to his father he doesn’t call him by name or even by title, just by the impersonal pronoun “you”. Here is a son who does things for his father, rather than enjoying being with his father and sharing in his joy, such as at the party that is being thrown.

This view of himself and his work is presented in contrast to the profligacy of his younger brother. His work centred life distances him from both his brother and father. There is no fraternal excitement or hug, by not entering the party there isn’t even a personal reunion. He is called “this son of yours” almost eschewing all direct connection with his brother, they merely share the same father. This is contrasted with the attitude of the father who was searching for the son, even though his leaving was a more personal betrayal to the father than to the brother. Surely the eldest son should have been involved in the pursuit of his younger brother.

There is much of the old Ireland in the older son. The Irish state that evolved post- independence was an overtly religious nation. The 1937 constitution included a special place for the Catholic Church. The vast majority of the country belonged to this one religious tradition and mass going rates were amongst the highest in the world. This religiosity continued for well over half a century with the Pope’s visit to Ireland in 1979 attracting over 1,250,000 people, over one third of the population of the Republic of Ireland. Ireland’s nature as a religious nation was not just shown in spiritual observance but also in political power. The Catholic Church wielded unmatched influence over moral and social policy. This was best evidenced in the infamous ‘Mother and Child Scheme’ of 1951. The Catholic hierarchy opposed the introduction of the scheme for moral reasons and philosophical reasons, fearing it increased the power of the state too much. They wrote to the Taoiseach John A. Costello and, together with the support of the medical profession, succeeded in having the scheme abandoned and the minister responsible, Dr Noel Browne, resigned. In the 1980s as the culture wars developed the Catholic Church were the prime opponents against referendums to liberalise the laws on divorce and abortion.

The culture associated with this religious practice also has shades of the older brother and the Pharisees. The caricature of faith in the old Ireland fits with that of the older son: working for God became slaving, and living for God became obeying. With faith so embedded in the culture it was inevitable that people’s experience of faith was through ritual. Similarly, with faith so dominant numerically it was natural that its morality became a cultural norm. And so faith tended to focus on ones adherence to religious rituals and requirements rather than on the person of God. Anecdotally many Irish people’s dissatisfaction with faith, across denominations, revolves around an experience of law-keeping, and a theme of the culture wars is the danger of religion telling us what to do. Furthermore, only such an outward based faith, as opposed to an inward heart faith, could explain the dramatic falls in mass attendance in one generation.

Alongside this, many would testify to a sense of the judgementalism of the old Ireland with regard to the moral expression of faith. It is seen in the sad and dark parts of our history where those who didn’t live up to the standards of the church, the younger sons who broke the rules, were punished and hidden from society. In fact these tended to be our younger daughters, as young unmarried mothers were sent in great numbers to mother and baby homes, not allowed to keep and rear their own children in full view of the broader society. The 2009 Ryan Report detailed the lives of disadvantaged, neglected and abandoned children who were again hidden, sent to industrial and reformatory schools where they suffered neglect and physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. These events continue to cast a long shadow over the Irish church today.

The Younger Son 

The younger son lends his name to the traditional title of the story, the parable of the prodigal son. He is the first character in the story we meet properly, and we are introduced to him with his opening demand “Father, give me my share of the estate”. He asks for and receives his share of the family property and heads off far from home. It is this leaving of the Father, the God character in the story, that resembles the new Ireland. One of, if not the, key distinctive between the old and the new Ireland is the attitude to faith and religion. It seems that Ireland has abandoned God just as the younger son abandoned his father in the story of Jesus.

Ireland in the last few decades has gone quite far down the path of secularisation. This is seen most clearly in religious observance with mass attendance having decreased by two thirds. As recently as the 1970s, mass attendance in Ireland was above 90%. Recent research suggests that only 30% of Irish Catholics attend mass on a weekly basis. And in Dublin this figure has dropped to below 20%, according to Archbishop Diarmuid Martin.ii Census data shows that those who identify as Catholic has dropped form 94% in 1971 to 78% in 2016.

But in Ireland this secularisation is not just a drift away from the church, but a revolt against it. Nearly half of people view the Catholic Church in an (mostly or very) unfavourable light; and only amongst the over 55s does the church have a strong ‘favourable’ ranking. While these statistics don’t translate into a full rejection of the church, as it receives more favourable ratings on its teachings, it is still a dramatic change from the Ireland of old. These views are largely driven by the scandals, including child abuse, that have engulfed the church since the turn of the century.

Returning to Luke 15, it is clear that money plays a large part in the story. The younger son’s initial demand is for his share of the father’s wealth. Enjoying the lifestyle money brings was clearly part of the plan as He leaves when he receives the money, and squanders the wealth. The cultural background to this part of the story is very interesting. Ken Bailey shows us that in a Middle Eastern culture where an inheritance was only received on the death of a father, and elders were honoured and respected, asking to receive an inheritance now was akin to wishing that your father was dead.

This juxtaposition of the father and property makes clear that the son wanted wealth more than his relationship with father. And a large part of the secularisation of Ireland occurred alongside a ground-breaking decade of increasing prosperity. Ireland in the late 1990s and early 2000s became known globally as the Celtic Tiger as soaring economic growth helped it catch up with the income levels of Western Europe. This led to a great surge of materialism as what was once out of reach was now accessible. And coinciding with the loss of religious observance and trust in the church, the offer of prosperity, comfort and career success was on hand to fill the spiritual and moral gap that had emerged in many Irish hearts.

These Tiger years of course ended in an infamous property crash that brought a large scale recession to the country. Does this mirror the famine experienced by the younger son? That seems to be stretching the parallels too far. If anything the devastation of the crash years continued the focus on money, albeit with making ends meet as unemployment soared, wages were cut and taxes were increased.

The Father 

The final character in this story is the father who represented God to the original audience and still does today. And he paints a picture of a truly loving and graceful God.

This father assents to the wish of the younger son for his inheritance and so divides up his property; an act that grants freedom to the person of His son. Then after the son leaves we see a father who actively seeks for his lost son. We are told that “while he was still a long way off his father saw him” which speaks of a father who was out looking, scanning the horizon trying to find his son. Not only was there a longing for the son to return, but it was an active longing. The American preacher Tony Campolo uses the example of a parent who carries a picture in their wallet of their child to convey the heart of this father who misses his son.

Joy is the emotion which shines through this father. He acted in joyful abandon when he finally saw his lost son, “filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son …”. The word translated compassion here means ‘innards’ or insides and is telling us that the emotion the father experienced was uncontainable, it just rose up within him, instantaneously and he just had to run to his son. This run of the father went against what was culturally acceptable for a man in his position: to literally ‘race’ meant he had to hold up his gown at the front exposing his legs which was considered humiliating. But this father didn’t care, he wasn’t self-conscious in front of the rest of the village, he just wanted to be with his son. He was simply excited to see his son again and ran to him, hugged him, kissed him and threw a party for him. It evokes images of parents with their younger children where the joy and fun of the toddler years makes parents throw caution to the wind. I think of holding up my own little boy above my head and spinning him around when he was about 18 months, it was a dangerous game as the drool flowed freely but it was all worth it just to see his smile and his giggle.

This joy is expressed again when the father cuts short the son’s speech as he tries to apologise, in a desire just to get the party started. It is an extraordinary welcome. There is a kiss of reconciliation, which prevents the son from kissing the father’s hand or feet. The son is fully welcomed back in as a son given status and authority with a ring and a special robe, and a party is thrown for him. This would all be in stark contrast to the slander that the local village would have thrown at him (Bailey).

The importance of joy is further emphasized when we consider the three stories in Luke 15 together. In each story there is joy when the lost treasures are found; all three stories end in rejoicing; and the joy is over the individual in each story, there is one lost sheep, one lostcoin, and one lost son.

This joy is in the person of the son, simply in the fact that he returns and he is present. As such it overlooks his actions and indeed his betrayal in the past. The theological term for this is grace, a love and mercy that is undeserved, that the father seeks the son and then rejoices in the son despite his actions. The son only returns out of self-interest because there will be food to spare at home and he is starving to death. He is clearly aware of the manner in which he left and has a speech rehearsed and intends to work for his keep. But the father welcomes home back as a son and doesn’t even let him finish the speech, his joy overflows even before the apology can be finished. A full apology is not necessary for the son to experience the joy of the father.

Implications for Ireland

So where does this leave the church in Ireland today? Are people rejecting the older son, when it should have been the father who is on offer? Are they turning away from religion, and not necessarily the God of grace presented in this story? The contrast between the two is dramatic within the story, they represent entirely different types of faith and indeed different types of God.

If this parallel is true, or true for significant sections of society, then it changes the simple western narrative of a religious nation losing its faith as it modernises and becomes more progressive. First, it defines the nature of the initial faith and highlights its flaws. The older son in the parable didn’t have a right relationship with the father either. Second, it suggests another reason for the loss of faith: it was an inevitable reaction to a self-righteous expression of religion. A faith based on rules and the rituals is a faith based on human elements making it inherently unstable. It is no wonder that the new Ireland departed from the God that was presented by the old Ireland. A God interested in the external only can never capture the heart. Just as a baby smiles when their parent smiles at them, so an experience of heart faith has to be rooted in a God of the heart.

The good news for Ireland is that a loss of faith is never final, the father of this story continues to seek out the younger lost son. Grace means that the longing the father has for the son overrides the son’s leaving, and he will be welcomed back in with joy. The rest of the scriptures show us that God uses his church to reach those who are lost. And so the Irish church will be used to help find those who have moved away from faith, but the Irish church needs to move from the attitude of the older son to that of the father. Integrity will be paramount after the scandals of recent years; humility will be necessary in recognition of the this past; a non-judgemental attitude will be required and this will be sorely tested with a new abortion referendum on the horizon, but grace after all is about a disposition of love no matter how emotive our disagreement is with people. It will be costly, love always is: witness how the freedom the Father allowed the son led to huge loss for him. But the joy eventually came.

So a revival of faith in this country will not signal a return to the past, as the father’s conversation with the older son makes clear. Rather the nature of faith needs to change. This change cannot happen simply as a matter of how we present the faith, it has to be a genuine inward change. The contrast between the father and the older son is one of emotional reactions that flow from the heart.

 

Critically, the grace that flows from the father is on offer to us too. The father doesn’t rebuke the older son for the humiliation of not entering the party; instead of punishing him for his insolence, the father leaves the party to plead with him outside. He is still a son and one the father longs to join the celebration. It is sinners after all that Jesus welcomes and this parable shows that the religious son is as much a sinner as the irreligious son. For us, both Irelands are lost but God still loves and seeks out both Irelands.

And here the story ends unfinished with the listeners left hanging awaiting the older son’s response to his father’s words. And the readers of the Gospel are left wondering what the response of the Pharisees will ultimately be to the ministry of Jesus. And the story of Ireland remains unfinished for us today too. The door remains ajar, that is in the nature of grace.

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