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Prodigal Father

 4 Lent, March 27, 2022   Grace to you and peace, from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen. I love this parable. I have always loved this parable. It is, for my money, one of the most compelling stories Jesus told. Many who have been a parent or a stepparent or a grandparent can understand the deep, overwhelming love of this Father. He would do anything — even make a public fool of himself — to have his son back. Many of us who are honest about our own childhood can identify with this younger son, who makes some remarkably poor decisions, and puts himself in an incredibly dangerous situation, because he is too inexperienced and self-absorbed to know better; to do what makes more sense. Many of us who have been in positions of responsibility have felt like this older son: committed to doing what is right, giving it everything you have, and frustrated because others aren’t holding up their end of the bargain. And what’s worse: they are getting away with it! This story is one of the best, one of the most engaging stories in our Bible. And that’s the problem, really. This story is so compelling, so engaging, that it is easy to lose sight of what it is all about. It is widely known as The Parable of the Prodigal Son, as if the story is about the younger son. When we give it this title, our hearing of the story is prejudiced. We look for what lies at the core of this younger son’s experience, and of course it is the experience of receiving the father’s grace. If our definition of grace is “a gift received and not deserved” the story, from this angle, hits the nail on the head. The son doesn’t deserve the welcome he receives from the father. And because we know this about God, that we don’t deserve the grace we receive, it is easy to conclude that this parable is all about the reception the son receives from the father. But that’s not what this story is about. Recently, some Bible scholars have come to think of this parable as The Parable of the Prodigal Father. A person who is prodigious is one who acts in ways that are extraordinary and excessive. That’s why a young person who demonstrates amazing ability at playing a musical instrument is called a child prodigy. The son is thought of as being the Prodigal Son because his misbehavior is extraordinary and excessive. But the father is as extraordinary and as excessive in loving as the son is in misbehaving. It makes sense to think of him as the Prodigal Father. And as the parables of Jesus are more likely to be about God than about us, it makes sense to think that this story is about the father. Again, because we know this about God, that God’s love is extraordinary and excessive, it is easy to conclude that this parable is all about the magnitude of the father’s love.  But that’s not what this story is about. The story is neither about the father or the younger son, and we discover this when we view the parable in its proper context. Did you hear how this morning’s text begins? Let me read it for you again. Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable… Of course, he didn’t tell them just this parable. We skip seven and a half verses, during which Jesus tells two other parables. One is about a shepherd who tells everybody he knows how happy he is, because he found one of his sheep — the one who had become lost. The other one is about a woman who tells everybody she knows how happy she is, because she found one of her coins — the one that had become lost. In both parables, the invitation extended by the main character is the same: “Rejoice with me, for I have found [what I was looking for].” The point of these parables is that the shepherd and the woman are so happy to have found what was lost, that they invite every one of their friends to join them in their delight. Jesus is speaking, here, about the joy of recovering what was lost; the joy of restoring what was broken. And to whom is he speaking? The Pharisees and the scribes [who] were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Just to ram the point home, he ends each of these parables with the same conclusion: Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” Remembering the context, we see that this parable may speak to the grace the younger son received, but that is not what it is about. This parable may speak to the remarkable love of the father, but that is not what it is about. This parable is about the incredible joy that the father experiences. A joy that is shared with almost everyone in the household, because this one who was dead is alive again. This one who was lost is now found. There is music and dancing and feasting and hearts that are full, because one who was formerly estranged from the father and the family has been restored. The question at the heart of this parable has little to do with the father or the younger son. The question is, “Will (or will not) the older son join the party?” Likewise, the question at the heart of the 15th chapter of St. Luke has little to do with God, or the sinners and tax collectors who find a place at the table with Jesus. The question is, “Will (or will not) these Pharisees and scribes join the party?” Will they continue to view tax collectors with spite and disgust? Will they continue to despise Jesus for spending time with these kinds of people? Will they continue to fear that the inclusion of these marginal characters will soil the reputation of the church? Or will they join Jesus in rejoicing, whenever one of them is welcomed into the family of faith? When we understand this to be the central point of the parable we become aware that, although this story speaks to the love of God, and to the gift it is for us to have been redeemed by this love, the question is: will we (or won’t we) share our Saviour’s joy and passion for helping others, no matter who they are, to experience the prodigious, reconciling, full to the brim love of God? A love that is extraordinary and excessive? A love that knows no bounds? And here’s the catch: a love that fully welcomes even those whom we might find ourselves reluctant to include? There is a story I heard many years ago about a congregation’s Shrove Tuesday Pancake supper where an invitation was extended to those in the neighbourhood to attend.  Well, it turned out that 5 or 6 people from the neighbourhood did come to the supper. The visitors sat at a table near the back of the hall and the only people who sat and chatted with them was a visitor who had come with a church family and a retired pastor. As one of the visitors was leaving, they said to the pastor, “When you have another meal I’ll come to it because I’m hungry, but I won’t expect to be welcomed or invited to stay.”  I know that it is difficult for many of us to feel comfortable with those who are different from us in a variety of ways, but we are called by the One who welcomed those who were considered sinners and ate with them to share the same Grace and Love and Forgiveness with which we have been welcomed into, and back into, the family of God, the God who runs out to greet us and prepares a feast for the one who was lost and now is found. There is as much division between people in our society today, as there was between good religious people and despised sinners in the first century. Jesus describes God as delighted and overjoyed when those divisions are torn down, and the people of this world are reunited in love. You and I are here this morning, only because the extraordinary, excessive love of God has made room for us in the family of faith. We are called, today, to reach out with joy and passion as we help others to have the same experience. Like the shepherd whose heart is full because his has found his lost sheep; like the woman who tells everyone who will listen about her delight in finding that lost coin; like the father who puts on the party of the year because his son is back; we are invited to respond with joy whenever the divisions that exists between people are torn down, and we are all united in God’s love. This, in fact, is the heart of our faith. So let me finish with a couple of questions:  • Who has been instrumental in helping you experience this extraordinary and excessive love of God? • When have you shared God’s joy, as you witnessed someone experiencing God’s love for the very first time?  • Where is God stretching your boundaries today, to expand your vision for who God might be calling you to touch? Some pretty good Lent questions. Some pretty good faith questions. I’d love to hear how you answer them. Let it be so. Amen.