Empty chairs and empty tables


The story of the Prodigal Son comes up in the lectionary readings this Sunday. People who know me will be aware that I believe this short story to be a better piece of work than anything from Narnia, the Lord of the Rings, Roald Dahl or even Captain Underpants (the last two reveal something of my son’s bedtime reading demands at present).

When we look at the three stories of Luke 15 together we often  focus on the ‘one’ that is missing. The walkabout sheep. The missing coin. The runaway son. But there is more going on here. In the background is the Hebraic idea of shalom, which is often translated ‘peace’ but brings with it all kinds of ideas of completion, wholeness and things-in-their-right-place-ness. Scholars think that the ten coins were probably part of a necklace. Think about that. The necklace is no good while a part of it is missing. You can’t wear it. Each part is diminished by the lack of that one coin.

I wonder if you’ve ever sat around your kitchen table and someone hasn’t been there. Someone who normally is. Maybe they’ve been away for the weekend and missed the family meal. Maybe they were away for good. Have you noticed what that gathering feels like, what goes on in your mind when you look at the seat they used to fill. Its hard to enjoy yourself completely when there is someone missing. I think these stories are pointing to the truth that we are ALL diminished when someone is missing. We are relational creatures, woven into this life together – not existing merely alongside each other. There is a part of me that isn’t seen when you’re not here to see it.

So these stories are also about a flock that is less than whole, a necklace that is missing something precious, a family circle that is incomplete. Therefore salvation is not just about bringing the lost one home for its own benefit, but because something of all of us is found when they are brought back. That’s why the whole community is invited to celebrate, because everyone is a winner!

We see that the older brother needs the Prodigal to come home so he can be confronted with his own slavery, masquerading as sonship, and see the Father’s lavish welcome of his runaway brother. The older brother needs to receive the Prodigal home in order to be delivered from his own bigotry and prejudice, which have bricked him into a tiny, impoverished way of being. The older brother is poorer without his little brother.

Perhaps this is why there has been no celebrating in this family for so long. We find out from the older brother that, ‘you never even gave me a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.’ Perhaps the Father was saying, how could we celebrate when we were not all here. This life is not about any one of us, but about all of us. And I’m waiting here looking to the horizon as long as there is light in the sky, and life in my veins, so we can be complete once more. The tragedy of the story being that no sooner does the Father get his lost son back, than he loses the other one. The family is again incomplete, there is another empty seat at the table. This will not do. The Father goes out after his other lost son…

This is a God who is not content with salvation by majority. 50% is not enough according to the third story (two sons and one is lost). 90% is not enough according to the second (10 coins and one is lost). Not even 99% is enough according to the first story (100 sheep and one is missing). This is a God who is committed to the wholeness of life. That means the margins matter. That means the crumbs get gathered up after the wilderness banquets. That means no one is insignificant, because we can’t be complete without you! This is a God who is bold enough, brave enough and shameless enough to go after and wait out every lost soul, wayward heart and offended bigot in the universe. My friend Adrian recast the conversation between the Father and the older brother in our book, ‘LUKE: The Illustrated Gospel Project’ – the conversation finishes with these words,

‘My son, you belong with me and all this is yours too. Do you still not get it? This is your real inheritance. Now you see why we must rejoice. For the one who was nothing to you is waiting for your word of peace; the one who was lost to you has come home. Here is your brother – receive him.’

I wrote a song, ‘How can we be at home?’ which picks up these ideas.

Have a rich time in this beautiful story.

  • Dale

    Love love and love

    March 4, 2016
  • Rae

    A very moving song Malcolm
    My heart joins with God’s heart and weeps for family who don’t know Jesus yet.
    He hears our prayers for them. May they be seated at His table with us!

    March 16, 2016

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