Hank Palmer returns home for his mother’s funeral. But he receives no prodigal’s welcome, no new clothes or fattened calf waiting for him. He and his father have history and it’s writ large across the old man’s features. It will take a whole lot of revelations, bust-ups, arguments and explanations, before the two begin to be united.
Jesus’s story of the wayward prodigal returning home must surely top the ‘favourite parables’ chart. It plays out again and again in sermons across the world. And it plays out repeatedly in lives across the globe too. Hank was always the rebel in the Palmer family and his father, Judge Joseph, had hoped to keep him in the fold, but the son ran off and made it big in the city as a razor-sharp, cut-throat lawyer. Jesus’s runaway boy does nothing of the sort. He runs off into a life of excess and waste, only limping home when he is broken and starving.
Jesus models his story on the ancient tale of Jacob and Esau, but with a few shocking changes. Jacob returned filthy rich, the son in Jesus’s story just comes back filthy. Imagine a retelling of the 2012 Olympics in which no one bothered to support it and the UK won no gold medals. It just sounds wrong.
But Jesus’s father is different too. He is not like judge Joseph, tough and brittle, this father is patiently waiting, looking out at the gate, scouring the horizon for his lost family. (Another twist on the original Jacob story as father Isaac had grown blind by this time.) Jesus’s father dumps his dignity and runs to protect and welcome his son. The stinking boy cannot deliver his set speech because the old man’s embrace stifles his words. The boy had his plan b, a scheme to work for his dad and avoid the responsibilities of sonship, but his dad’s thoughts were not his. The son is resurrected, and when the story ends, a new life, with all its twist and turns, is about to begin.