Grace for the Prodigal Sons - Lent 4c
Heavenly Father, in the word that I am about to share, may it be of your will and speak of your ways for your people – I pray in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit
Charles Dickens, the great English author, has called it “the greatest story ever told.”
Some say it is the finest short story in literature.
Another poet, Robert Bridges, has judged it as a “flawless piece of art.” 
I am speaking of the Parable that Jesus told that we know as ‘The Prodigal Son’
As a story in the bible it is the best known of all and in fact it has become a piece of the wider culture – people with no Christian faith or experience at all are familiar with this wonderful story
Why is it so important – why does it transcends cultures and time
Why does it still speak to us 2000 years later, from a time and place so different from where Jesus spoke this great parable?
The first thing that I want to say is that it carries with it a simple message that is universal, regardless of the culture – it speaks of the human condition so clearly
A secondly is speaks powerfully and profoundly of God
Many biblical scholars feel that in this one short story – the entire Gospel message is expressed
Let’s dig into it, in the short time that we have and see why it is so important
First off, it is a parable, a story made up by Jesus to teach us a bigger message
The parable itself is not the point but a means or technique to reveal a great truth
For those that believe the bible to be the fully inspired text by God, written of course by human hands, with differing personalities shaping the presentation, yet all the while inspired by God for God’s people through-out the ages… as I do,
It may challenge a complete literary interpretation
You see Jesus tells us that this is a made up story – this never happened literary – but Jesus spoke this story to teach a message
Scripture comes to us as history, narrative, instruction, poetry, prophecy – not all is prophecy, not all is instruction, not all poetry, not all is narrative and certainly not all is history
This Parable never historically occurred but Jesus told it a tool to teach us the truth behind it which is vitally important
So what was the context in which Jesus tells this story
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” …..So he told them this parable (Luke 15:1-3)
So… Pharisees and scribes were complaining about Jesus and his choice of friends
The reason for Jesus telling this parable is to respond to their complaints
Don’t lose sight of this important fact
Also when we think of the Pharisees we often have painted a wrong picture of them
Because of their zealous behaviour scripture records them as often the target of much attention
From John the Baptist to Jesus, the Pharisees were the focus of many comments as they are today
These people, the Pharisees, we have learned to think of them as the bad guys, the villains, but they weren't really.
The Pharisees were loyal in worship and people of prayer.
They were generous people, good people, who knew they had a responsibility to give their money to the poor and to feed the hungry.
They honored the Scripture and studied it. They didn't make cheap compromises with the culture. They were people of strong faith.
Someone has observed that our churches would probably be a lot stronger if we had some more Pharisees in them.
Nevertheless our parable is directed as a response to their complaints
Actually the response begins with two other parables – there is the parable of the lost sheep and the parable of the lost coins – each of which are for another day – however they are part of the context
Each involves recovery or reclamation followed by celebration. The first two (15:4-10) declare that finding a lost thing legitimately results in rejoicing.
They also equate finding and recovery with repentance, an idea that was central in last Sunday's Gospel reading.
When the Pharisees don’t seem to draw the connection between Jesus eating and associating with the ‘sinners’ – and with the two parables of celebrating what was lost and then is found – Jesus continues on with the Parable we call ‘the prodigal son’
There are three main characters – Father and his two sons
The youngest son is not happy with life as it is
The youngest son sees the grass greener on the other side and want to go there
In an act that can culturally be seen as wishing his father dead, he asks for his inheritance now
The father showing no signs of the offence his son has done gives the son his inheritance - and a few days later he is gone
Life is a party for a while as we are told that he “traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living”
But then a four-fold series of events hits the youngest son
* He spent everything
* Famine hits the lands
* He is reduced to working for a Gentile feeding the pigs (something that no self- respecting Hebrew would do) – being amidst unclean animals
* And all his party friends left him – as “no one gave him anything”
But… when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ (Luke 15:17-19)
The son, in the deepest valley imaginable, sees a light out – see a possibility for a better life, if only as a slave of his Father
Here is one of the main reasons that so many people connect with this story – here is the reason this parable is called ‘the prodigal son’ and not something like ‘the father & two sons’
The broader interpretation is this: we as human beings, we take the inheritance that God has given to us.
We take the money, the brains, the personality, the health, the resources;
we take the inheritance that God has given to us.
We say, “God, I don’t want to have anything to do with you anymore.
I am going to go and live my life as if you never existed.”
And so we take our God-given inheritance and we go and live as if God didn’t exist or remotely exists. 
That’s why this story connects with some many of us
Many of us have known what it is like to be lost from God
Many of us have been given talents and abilities and then lost sight of who is the source of all good gifts – and we know we haven’t used them always for the right reasons
We know what it is like to live for self and selfish desires
We know how empty that cycle is
…Then, we also know what it is like to finally come to our senses and to turn away from those ways and turn towards God
Many of us have felt that guilt and know the strength and relief when we turn and make the journey home to God.
If the story were to end there, that would be enough… – that would tell a wonderful story of one that lost their way and started the return journey home
For many that journey homeward to reconciliation is a momentous journey, a process – it is life defining – it is a journey towards restoration – it is, at it’s core, our human role in the drama that we know as the good news – the gospel
But, of course the story does not end there, as we all know, the gospel is not merely a story of coming home, beaten by the world, and coming home a loser to be a slave for the rest of our life
The image that we get next, is maybe my favourite image in the whole bible
We Get the Father: waiting… and watching… and when he sees his lost child, sees that familiar gait from far off, a gait that could only be his child… he comes running…
Now a dignified man of that culture, with land and many working for him would never run – but Jesus tells us that the Father is waiting and watching and when we are even still far off, but, on the journey home – the Father comes running
The child is greeted by the Father, not with hands on hips waiting for some accounting of all his miss deeds, but… “he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him” (Luke 15:20c)
The son’s attempt to declare his sins against heaven and his father, that he is not worthy to be called a son is quickly overpowered by the love of the father as he says both to the son in the parable… to the slow to understand Pharisees… and to each one of us
‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. (Luke 15:22-24)
For each one of us that in some way has been lost, has miss-used the gifts and abilities that God has given us
For each one of us, that has returned home to God – The father is declaring us restored!
That we are worthy to be called a child of God
That it is time to celebrate!
I would like to share with you part of an essay that I found in a sermon from The Rev. Dr. Thomas Long that I believe illustrates this part of the parable beautifully
[it is an] essay in which a woman was reminiscing about her father. She said that when she was young, she was very close to her father. The time she experienced this closeness the most was when they would have big family gatherings with all the aunts and uncles and cousins. At some point, someone would pull out the old record player and put on polka records, and the family would dance. Eventually, someone would put on the "Beer Barrel Polka;" and when the music of the "Beer Barrel Polka" played, her father would come up to her, tap her on the shoulder and say, "I believe this is our dance," and they would dance. One time, though, when she was a teenager and in one of those teenaged moods and the "Beer Barrel Polka" began to play and when her father tapped her on the shoulder and said, "I believe this is our dance," she snapped at him, "Don't touch me! Leave me alone!" And her father turned away and never asked her to dance again.
"Our relationship was difficult all through my teen years," she wrote. "When I would come home late from a date, my father would be sitting there in his chair, half asleep, wearing an old bathrobe, and I would snarl at him, "What do you think you're doing?" He would look at me with sad eyes and say, "I was just waiting on you."
"When I went away to college," the woman wrote, "I was so glad to get out of his house and away from him and for years I never communicated with him, but as I grew older, I began to miss him.
One day I decided to go to the next family gathering, and when I was there, somebody put on the “Beer Barrel Polka." I drew a deep breath, walked over to my father, tapped him on the shoulder and said, "I believe this is our dance." He turned toward me and said, "I've been waiting on you.”
Believe it or not – the parable is only half over
There is still more lesson to be shared … and maybe now we are getting to the immediate target of the parable – remember I said that our parable is directed as a response to the complaints of the Pharisees and scribes
Maybe the elder brother is meant to represent the Pharisees and the scribes
Here Jesus is bringing the lessons on God’s heart for the lost to a close - and in doing so he is trying to open their eyes to how they might be acting and how God is calling them to act
You see the Pharisees were the keepers of the law – they were pious, they knew their scripture and they did was the law told them to do
They remained faithful while the younger went off and got lost
Notice he does not enter the house. He does not address his father as "Father" and speaks to him about "this son of yours" instead of "my brother." His refusal to celebrate stems from his deep resentment.
His deep resentment is clearly the mark of someone that doesn’t understand what the father is doing – one that cannot let go of sacred canons and grudges
It is not all that hard to understand, really
Once you have been part of some system, some system where there is a code of conduct and where you have tried hard to be faithful to it – it is easy to understand resentment against someone that has totally flaunted that system
I would like to share with you some of my own experience
As you know I am still in my rookie year here at Farringdon and previous to this I was serving at an Anglican church
What you may or may not know is that the Anglican Church is in the process of a major schism – it is a deeply divided church
There are many explanations of this, but, as briefly as I can I will say that it is about change
On one side, in North American, the majority believes that they are part of a new wind of change – that scripture, as we have understood it for nearly 2000 years, is out dated, not up with our modern understanding of the world and so things need to change
One the other side, the majority of the Anglican world – just not the western world, there is a belief that scripture is timeless, that God calls us to righteousness towards God’s teachings found in scripture – hard as it might be in some areas – well impossible really to fully live righteously – but strive to that goal is what we are called to and baptised into… and in fact for those in ordained ministry it is what we vow to do
It is the latter camp that I found myself in, and so I think at times I know what the Pharisees felt
I often found myself saying or thinking – ‘why is the church moving in this direction and why are others changing the rules’ and building in me was deep resentment at what others were doing and claiming
When this happens one needs to be careful not to get caught up in the notion of ‘Our dirt is a little bit cleaner than “their” dirt. – as the psalmist says ‘we all fall short of the glory of God’
This story of the older brother can represent the unattractive goodness of so many self-righteous Christians who are blind to their own faults
We need to always be on our guard not to become the Pharisees that missed the point of their faithfulness
We need this parable as a reminder that God is reconciling all – the younger and the elder
Also important – the father didn’t declare the elder son’s faithfulness as wrong
And in fact, declared that his very faithfulness was rewarded, he says
‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.’ (Luke 15:31b)
We are reminded in the parable that God wants the faithful to see Him alongside us… and … to celebrate when those that were lost have come home
Some of us are like the younger brother, people who have wasted some of our lives,
And some of us are like the older brother, people who have worked hard and who smolder with resentment because things are hard and responsibilities are heavy, and life is not fair.
But the fact is, both can be on the outside, both the younger son and the older son are found on the outside, and it is God who invites us both into the place of joy.
And in that place of joy, God wants to celebrate with us both
Let us pray - We give thanks, O God, that you are waiting for us in your house of love, waiting with the feast and the dance and the song and the great joy. Let us put away our shame and put aside our resentment and put on the festive garments of those who are glad when they are told, "Let us go into the house of the Lord." In Jesus' name. Amen.