s156g98 Lent 4 Somerton Park 22/3/98
"Then (the elder son) became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him." Luke 15:28.
The story of the Prodigal Son is one of the best loved in the Bible. It can of course be equally named the story of the Prodigal Father. The younger son spent the proceeds of his father's estate unwisely, "squandering his property in dissolute living" among people who were out to get all that they could from him. Similarly the father lavishes his love unwisely on both of his sons, who are really only interested in what they can get out of him.
So the first message I would say today is that God is well aware of life as we live it, and not the religious facade that we might think will please him.
The second message is to realise that this parable is the final one of a trilogy of parables about things lost which Jesus says in response to a particular question put to him by the Pharisees and the scribes, who were grumbling. We heard about grumbling last week from St Paul. I suspect this happens far more often than sexual immorality, and is practised by far many more people. The subject of their grumbling will not be unfamiliar to you. We are told in verse 3 of chapter 15: "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them."
The three parables in response to this grumble are, in order, the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin, and finally the parable of the lost sons.
I find it interesting, the literary devise that Jesus (or Luke, or the Holy Spirit - depending on your theological stance) employs to highlight the message, by putting together similar parables with differences. But it is more than just a literary devise. There are indeed many possible interpretations of each of the parables Jesus uses. If we do not look at the context in which they are put, we have no other standard of interpretation except our own individual preconceptions which we all bring to the Bible. If we do not realise that the parable of the lost son is in response to the grumbling of the scribes and Pharisees, we will focus on the activities of the younger of the sons (because we all like the spicy bits) and fail to see that the real purpose of the parable is the attitude of the elder son and the father's pleading.
The parable is about why Jesus was sitting down and eating with sinners and why the religious authorities were grumbling, grumbling enough to eventually have him murdered.
So, looking at some of the similarities and some of the differences. The first two begin with the equivalent statements "Which of you ... losing (a sheep) ... does not leave the ninety nine ..." and "what woman (losing a coin) ... does not ... search ..." These things are precious to their owners - even though they are but things that pass away. So each of the sons is infinitely more precious to the father. We are bidden to see that we are far more precious to our heavenly Father than all the sheep and all the coins. Interestingly, the third of the trilogy does not begin: "Now which father among you, having two sons ...?" For what is true of the sheep or the coin is not necessarily true in our human relationships. Indeed few ordinary fathers would act in such a prodigal way, allowing themselves to be persuaded, to be used ... But this is no ordinary father ...
Of course the sheep and the coin are lost through inadvertence or chance, but the younger son is lost through choice, his own choice. The owners of the sheep and the coin have no idea where they might be, and so they have to search. Neither the sheep or the coin will return themselves. But the son is well able to decide to return home - or not. The father in the parable is probably well aware where the boy might be found. A search is hardly necessary, indeed it would have been a waste of time. The father would have noted the direction in which the son went. The "red light" districts of most localities are well known or easily found out.
In the end the father has to let the son go, has to let the son live out his fantasies. If the father wanted to stop the son, he could have done it right at the beginning. There is no point searching for him. He can only wait for the son to return, if the son ever chooses to do so.
So too God doesn't spend time chasing after people who want to avoid God doing their own thing.
There is some discernment needed here. In Genesis 3.8 we are told that the man and his wife "heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and (they) hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden. But the LORD God called to the man, and said to him, "Where are you?" God looks for the man and the woman in their confusion about their nakedness. It is not that they want no part of God, but they have suddenly found that they are naked before him. God can reach out to fix that confusion.
The incarnation of Jesus is another example of God saying to humanity: "Where are you?" The religious authorities, in crucifying Jesus, are saying they want no part of God's plan, and in the end God cannot bridge that gap.
God, like the father, knows when he is not wanted, and is ready to allow to leave, to allow the son to inflict upon himself the consequences of his actions.
I started with the picture of the father begging the elder son to join in the celebrations for the other son. It is the answer to the grumbling of the Pharisees and the scribes. This is another gap which the father cannot bridge. Years of resentments, real or pretended, mean that the son wants nothing to do with the father or the celebration. He can only be left to enjoy his solitary existence, if at all possible. He is in a foreign land, little different from the one his brother visited, equally as self-destructive, if less pleasurable.
This tells us that the religious question that faces us is not as is so often assumed - how we can reach those sinners, all those nasty people who refuse to come to Church, to become Christians, or to worship God. The eternal religious question is how we get ourselves, the religious people to accept the others, the ones that Jesus' sat down and ate with, the sinners.
It is precisely the same message as the end of last week's gospel: "How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you." (Luke 13:34-35).
And it is the same message today. When I use the terms scribes and Pharisees and the religious authorities of Jesus' day - I am never having a shot at the ancient people, the people of the Jews. Every time we look at the Church's task or the Rector's task to convert all those nasty people who refuse to come to Church, to become Christians, or to worship God - we have precisely the same outlook as the scribes and the Pharisees. We may not crucify Jesus, but we are failing to see the answer in the very distinctive thing that Jesus did, when he sat down and ate with sinners.
I was indebted to a sermon on the Internet on last week's sermon, which pointed out that the scribes and Pharisees came to warn Jesus of Herod's desire to kill Jesus. They were not the villains we so often assume. Indeed they were particularly active in evangelism - Jesus tells us "they traverse sea and land to make a single proselyte" (Matt 23.15).
For the fact that Jesus sat down and ate with sinners is the only hope that we have - it is the very foundation of our faith. In amidst all the squabbles and jealousies, the self - serving motives that drive as much myself as anyone else - I can only hope that Jesus will sit down and eat with me - to accept my contribution as well as everyone else's contribution.
One of the greatest things I find in the parable of the lost sons is that the father in the story is not interested in the slightest in the confession of the younger son. The father saw him while he was still afar off and rushed to meet him, putting his arms around him and kissed him - before ever the confession or apology was proffered. This is again a rebuke to us religious people when we think God is interested in our sins or the sins of others. God is interested, not in our repentance, but in our presence. We, like our ancient ancestors, Adam and Eve, find the fact that God sees and accepts us as we really are - naked as it were - confusing and disconcerting - yet that is what God does.
And we are here, with God, despite what we may have done or what we may not have done, as with everyone else who are in no different boat from us. This is God's celebration, and it is God's wish for none to be excluded.
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