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The Prodigal Son

Fourth Sunday in Lent, 18 March, 2007
Brother Christopher John SSF
Preached at St Peter's, Eastern Hill

I bring greetings from the brothers SSF, especially Bruce-Paul in Stroud and Thomas and Stephen in the Solomon Islands, and thank you for your welcome. It's been great to be part of this parish again.

Just when we'd got used to the gloom and doom of Lent along comes a party. We were all determined to be miserable, but there's a party for the missing son. Joy does keep breaking in, no matter how much we try to keep it out.

First, let's notice the context of this passage. If we look immediately previously in Luke 15 we find that Jesus is talking to the tax-gatherers and other sinners. The Pharisees and scribes (teachers of the law) are grumbling that, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them." Luke then relates the story of the shepherd who had lost one of his one hundred sheep and who abandoned the ninety-nine in search of the lost one; and then the story of the woman who had lost one of her ten silver coins. Having found what was lost, they called their friends to rejoice with them in joy that what had been lost was now found. Surely the shepherd might have thought it expedient to lose one sheep for the sake of the other ninety-nine who would be in danger while he went away. But Jesus rejects the way of exclusion, of making victims and scapegoats. He shows that the dispensable one has become indispensable in God's eyes.

This is not just a matter of showing that God's goodness and mercy are greater than ours. Human society often maintains its collective identity by excluding those who are different and making victims of them. Jesus by taking on in himself for all time the role of victim, of outsider, has by pure love triumphed over evil. In Christ there is no outsider, no one is excluded. The ways of exclusion are a sham. And when the lost is found, that's reason enough for a party.

And now Luke continues with the parable we heard in today's Gospel reading. "There was a man who had two sons." He also had substantial property. What does the younger son demand? A share of the property which will come to him.

Let's look at the two words which have been translated as property in this story. They are not the usual words used in the New Testament. The first word is in the son's request in verse 12. What he asks for is his share of the father's ousia. This word means substance or being. The same word is used in verse 13 when the younger son squanders his ousia in that foreign land. The father generously gives of his "substance" to his son; a love and generosity which is boundless. The younger son squanders his substance in a foreign land–he loses himself. The other word used for property is bios, which means "life", and that is in verse 12, when the father divides his bios among his sons and again in verse 30 when the elder brother complains that the younger one has devoured his father's bios. This parable is more than a story about a father giving away his property. Something much deeper is going on, something which touches on our identity as God's beloved children and sharers in God's life.

The younger son has demanded his share of what he would normally inherit. When would he normally expect to receive that? Of course, it would be after his father's death. That younger son is saying to his father, "you are as good as dead". In the culture of that day, and in the ears of the first hearers of the story, everyone would be scandalised. Old age and parents were to be respected and obeyed. The father agrees, rather than rebuke his son, and this too is surely profoundly shocking. He divides up the property. Notice something here – we are so much used to think about the younger son that we often miss this – the property is divided up "among them". The older son gets his share too.

And so we follow the familiar trajectory of the story. The younger son and his life of wild living. His eventual poverty and loneliness, his going out to feed the pigs (and what a shudder of horror that would have brought to those who first heard the story), his decision to return back to his father and his carefully rehearsed speech. His father watching and waiting for his son's return, and then running out to greet him. Yet more scandal. Respectable gentlemen, rich landowners, those who wear long robes, don't go out running to greet someone who has publicly insulted them. Ordinary decent folk might have given the son a thin-lipped, "quick, come inside and hope the neighbours haven't seen you", but this father is no ordinary parent. The son is restored to full family membership; the robe reserved for honoured guests and great occasions; the ring which is the sign of authority; and the shoes on his feet because slaves don't wear shoes.

And as for this party the father throws? This is not going to be a quiet family-only dinner. It's a grand gesture and once again we are stepping over the bounds of decent behaviour. The party is for everyone, neighbours, the whole village. It's about the restoration of a lost relationship.

But now it's another one who is lost and the shadowy elder brother steps onto the stage. Suspicious of the party, rather than entering, he calls a servant to ask what's going on. He gets angry, and fuming outside the party, lost in his own rage, it's now up to the father once again to take the initiative and go out in search of the lost, pleading with him. What proper, dignified and authoritarian father would be reduced to pleading? Why can't he order? This father seems powerless against his elder son who has now become the rude, disrespectful one. Look at the way he heaps insult on insult. He says he's always been working for his father like a slave, and that his father never gave him anything good. He can't bring himself to call his brother by the word, "brother" but as, "this son of yours".

This parable is in some ways deeply troubling for the church and for theologians. Is the younger son really sorry for his sins? Some have said that he is not. They say he is sorry that he's hungry, and he's really just trying to bargain his way back into getting a more regular supply of food. But he doesn't express proper sorrow for his sin as sin. This is, as I said, deeply troubling for some theologians. They say that this young man is not a good example for us of how to go about repentance.

I think that their point is precisely the reason why this parable is for us. It's real and it reflects human reality. In the words of the American Episcopalian priest, preacher and teacher, the Rev. Dr. Barbara Brown Taylor:

Those of us who have done unforgivable things in our lives–who have broken solemn vows, betrayed sacred trusts, who have hurt the people we love so badly that we have knocked the wind right out of them–we know what it is like to watch those people struggle for breath, while we wait for the words we so richly deserve: "Damn you to hell forever." When those words do not come, however, when the people who have suffered because of us rise up on one elbow and say, "I'm forgiving you for that"–well, that is when true repentance usually begins–not before the pardon but after it.

In other words grace goes before repentance. Or rather, in the context of this parable, grace begins when we "come to our senses" and start to make the journey home. We haven't got everything sorted out. Perhaps we're not sure what really it is we're sorry for. All we know is that we are seeking healing. People who are broken by sin and despair can't be expected to express themselves in theological clarity. They know something is wrong, and they want to get things right again. That is the important point because it is then that grace begins the long work of casting God's light into their lives, exposing what is broken and opening it for healing. Forgiveness is not something to be purchased, but a gift from a generous God.

In other words atonement is about reconciliation, it's not a transaction.

There is so much more in this parable for our reflection. Let me suggest something, based on Henri Nouwen's book, The Return of the Prodigal Son: a story of homecoming. (And available from the St Peter's Book Room!) He said that he first saw himself as the younger son, the one who had sinned and who returned to the father, back in his own home and held in the warm embrace of the father's loving hands. He delighted in knowing those hands holding him firmly, and at the same time caressing him in a warm embrace. Next he came to see himself as the older son. Righteous, obedient, hardworking, reliable–but also lost to human spontaneity, and more than a little jealous of those who seemed to be having all the fun. This son needed also to come to the father's loving embrace to be healed. Finally, and to his surprise, he came to see that the task of his life was to become like the father: generous, loving and a sign of God's mercy. This was the real and final challenge for him–to be like that father who, having giving away his "substance", had nothing left of himself to lose.

I suggest you do as Nouwen did and in reflecting on the parable see yourself in each of the sons. Recognise the need each of the sons has for healing and for knowing forgiveness. Then see yourself as the father–for we are all called to be signs of God's love. And in considering the father, remember the words we heard in today's epistle, "we are ambassadors for Christ". An ambassador goes out on behalf of another, and so too do we; we are the ones who go out on behalf of Christ. If people will come to know Christ's love and welcome and forgiveness in this place, it will be through our own words and actions.

To the glory of God almighty:
the Father who searches for us
the Son who travels with us even to far-off lands
and the Spirit who is the life of our home-coming.


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