Sermon - 31st March 2019
Lost and Found
[An audio version of this sermon, in mp3 format, is available via the link at our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
The story in today’s gospel is commonly known as the parable of the Prodigal Son. It’s an unhelpful name: we only ever use the word “prodigal” in modern English when we’re referring to this story!
“Prodigal” means “extravagant, squandering or deliberately wasteful”. So, by calling the story by that name we immediately focus on one of the characters in the story and on just one aspect of his behaviour.
Not helpful: this is a ‘big’ story with three main characters and they each have their own characteristics. In fact, some scholars prefer to call this story ‘The Parable of the Waiting Father’ because they feel this is a better expression of the story’s true focus.
So, is it a story about undeserved reward for bad behaviour? Or is it about a devoted child who is ignored and unfairly treated by his father? Or is it about infinite patience and ready forgiveness?
Because it is such a ‘big’ story, we can look at it on many levels. Firstly, we can try to see what Luke is saying to us by being the only gospel-writer to include it in his gospel. Then we need to consider what the story itself is saying to us. And ultimately we need to decide what Jesus is saying to us through the story.
Sometimes, Jesus explained the meaning of his teachings, but Luke records no explanation of this parable by Jesus; the disciples and other hearers were left to consider all the motives and actions described in the story and to take from it whatever they could.
There is a big clue, however, at the beginning of this chapter in Luke about why Jesus told this story in the first place.
We hear that tax collectors and sinners were all crowding round Jesus to hear his teaching. Some Pharisees and scribes complained about the fact that Jesus welcomed the sinners and ate with them. And Luke says that this is specifically why Jesus tells three parables, one after another, which deal with God’s mercy and forgiveness.
The first two are very short: one is about leaving a flock of sheep safely in the desert while going off to look for the one that is lost.
The second is about sweeping out a house and lighting all the lamps until a single lost coin is found.
Each of these has an explanation at the end along the lines of: “In the same way, I tell you, there will be rejoicing in heaven over one repentant sinner”.
And then the third is this long and very human story of the father and his two sons.
Luke would have known that stories about two brothers were a successful and familiar formula for storytelling. The usual outcome was for the younger brother to triumph over the older brother.
Luke’s readers would have brought to mind the stories of Esau and Jacob in Genesis chapter 27 (where Jacob impersonates Esau at a meal with his father Isaac who was almost blind); and they would have remembered Joseph and his brothers in Genesis chapter 37 (where Joseph was hated by his brothers because he was the favourite of their father and had been given the splendid robe of many colours).
So, by using the formula of the father and two sons, Luke’s readers – and Jesus’s listeners – will have settled in for a good dramatic story in which the younger brother should win the day.
One of Luke’s principal themes throughout his gospel is that Jesus sweeps away the old, exclusive, legalistic approaches of God’s relationship with humanity, and replaces it – through Jesus - with a new, inclusive relationship founded on love.
And part of this new inclusion is the ability to turn away from sin and be welcomed back into God’s love. So, a story which depicts a parent allowing a child to make mistakes, learn from them, ask for forgiveness and be welcomed back, would have been very close to Luke’s view of Jesus’s message.
Also we should remember that many of Jesus’s examples in his teaching were based on the daily things of life in his own time - sheep and shepherds, madness caused by unclean spirits, people afflicted with leprosy, the punishment of those who breached moral codes, and so on. But this story of the father and his sons seems particularly timeless. We don’t need to update any of the elements in this story to make it speak to us today. Just look at the personalities:
- a restless younger child, believing that he will always live in the shadow of the elder brother, his father’s natural successor;
- an elder son, brought up from birth to carry on the family business, burdened with the responsibilities of succeeding to the family’s interests, trying desperately to be as good as his father - whom he probably worships - yet feeling rather under-valued;
- the worry and anxiety around a child leaving home for the first time, heading for the great unknown;
- the temptations of the big city to a youngster with money in his pocket and a healthy appetite for things he’s never been able to try before;
- the challenge of trying to survive on your wits when all your money has gone, and looking longingly at others who have enough to eat and enough security and shelter to get by;
- the realisation that it takes courage to turn to those who love you, and to find the humility to ask for help, not knowing what to expect;
- the response from some that “it was of your own making; you had your chance; I never had what you’ve had; why should we make any effort for you now?”
- and the response from the loving parent: “I’m so glad you’re back; whatever you’ve done you’re still my child and I will always love you and be there for you. Welcome home.”
You can see those personalities and situations in endless numbers of dramas, soap operas, novels, almost every kind of work of human imagination.
The challenging, and perhaps frightening, thing is - we have probably been, at some time in our lives, all three of those characters:
- haven’t we occasionally launched off into something entirely for our own satisfaction, against the wishes of those closest to us, and without too much thought for their feelings? And when we’ve fallen flat on our faces haven’t we squirmed and struggled with our pride until eventually we’ve had to go back and say ‘sorry, please help’?
- Or haven’t we sometimes observed a friend or colleague follow a completely crackpot and self-centred path, get into difficulties, and pronounce our judgment that she is getting what she deserves, she’s made her bed, now let her lie in it?
- And haven’t we at least once said to someone we love “Yes you’ve been a fool, but I love you too much to leave you at rock bottom. You’re welcome to come back?”
Yes, I do think the emotions and the tensions and the personalities in the story are very much with us today - they reflect how human beings regularly respond to each other in families, communities, and society generally.
But, if the story, as Luke says, is about God’s mercy, then perhaps we need to consider how, as disciples of Jesus today, we might apply this understanding of human nature to our own relationships.
I have never believed that God requires the impossible from us. If we recognise the father in the story as symbolising God, the parent who forgives unconditionally and who will always welcome us back into a loving relationship, we need to recognise that we will only rarely have the capacity within ourselves to come close to offering such unconditional love to others.
We are human: we will often behave like the self-centred children not the infinitely patient parent in the story. Our challenge is steadily, following the teaching of Jesus, to lose our inclination towards self-centred judgment, and to grow in love, forgiveness and acceptance.
Perhaps a lesson learnt by the younger son was that someone who really loves you will do whatever they can to rescue you from destruction.
Maybe the lesson learnt by the elder son was that love can and should set aside human interpretations of justice, duty and fairness when we are able to save someone from destruction.
The father knows in his deepest being that the love required to give someone freedom costs a great deal, and such love is frequently misinterpreted by those closest to you; yet love is the only thing that will rescue someone from destruction.
The choices offered to us in response to God’s love are many and varied. Continuing to worship, study and enjoy fellowship together, in communion with God, as the people God made us to be, is one of those choices, and brings us much grace and healing. It changes lives and saves lives.
Reaching out through our communities and our personal relationships with love to those who need that grace and healing, is another of those choices. And there will be many other choices and challenges for us as we continue to build this church and ourselves into a true expression of God’s inclusive love.
So: how long will it be before we can be left safely in the pasture while the shepherd goes in search of the ones who are missing?
Or, as we continue here as dutiful children attending to the family business, when shall we overcome our jealousy of the new face, the outsider, the lost soul, or the long-lost sister or brother who is met with great rejoicing?
Whenever that is, then perhaps we shall truly be a refuge for the lost, the rejected, and those who are facing destruction.
Perhaps then we shall be reaching out to today’s equivalents of the tax collectors and sinners to whom Jesus ministered: the outcasts, the excluded, and those on the margins, among whom this story of mercy, infinite patience and ready forgiveness was first told.