Here we go…the sermon I’m preaching today.
READINGS: Joshua 5:9-12; Psalm 32; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 (The Prodigal Son)
I wonder how many of you, once you realised what today’s Gospel reading was, thought “Oh, I know this one”, and stopped listening? I know that when I was preparing this sermon, that’s almost what I thought! I know this one. I know how it ends.
I have to admit that it’s actually these well known texts that are often the most difficult to preach on – because it’s all been said before, and you’ve probably heard it all before. So, all I can do is remind you of what other preachers before me have most likely said to you before…
The first thing that so many preachers concentrate on – quite rightly – is the enormity of the love that the Father showed in the story. The father that is, so often, seen to be a picture of God and his abundant, all-encompassing love. In fact, I have heard this story renamed “The Prodigal Father” as the word “prodigal” means extravagant to the point of wastefulness – and this is how he welcomes back the lost son. No thought of the loss of dignity as he runs down the road to greet his son, no thought of cost as he throws a lavish party, killing oxen and inviting the neighbours, no thought of what the lost son did to hurt him, but just an outpouring of joy that he has, at last, come home.
And this, we are so often reminded, is how God reacts when we return to his arms. One commentator writes “The Father is truly the Prodigal – one who loves extravagantly and does not withdraw love in the face of the disrespect, greed, resentfulness and surliness shown by his sons. The God we see mirrored in the prodigious welcome of the father is, in fact, the same God we saw in the extra care offered to the barren fig tree by the gardener”
There are no strings attached to God’s love: all he needs us to do is to take the first step. Ernest Hemingway’s short story “The Capital of the World” tells how a father, estranged from his son during the Spanish Civil War, puts a notice in the paper “Paco,” it read. “Meet me on Tuesday at noon in front of the Hotel Montana. All is forgiven. Papa” When the father went to the rendezvous, there were 800 young men all named Paco, all yearning to be reconciled with a father who wrote “All is forgiven.” Not “All will be forgiven if…” but “All IS forgiven”. No strings attached. I love you. Welcome home.
So, if that is the message you need to hear today from this story, then take it. Remember the love that God is boundless; it comes with no strings attached. God is waiting for you. All is forgiven.
But…maybe you’re thinking well, we know this, don’t we? We are reminded every Sunday when we take communion.
And so, another side to the story that preachers often focus on is asking Which of the two sons are you? Are you the Son who has turned his back on all that his father has to offer him, and gone to live a profligate life in another country? Are you that son, who needs to recognise all that he has lost and needs to come back to the family fold? Or are you the other son – the one that struggles to welcome back the younger son because he feels hard done by. He feels that there is all this rejoicing over the sinner, when he, the one that didn’t go away, the one who stayed and slogged through the daily routine, doesn’t get anything – not even a pesky goat to share with his friends.
And isn’t this often the case – that our desire for a God of “fairness” (or at least, what we see as “fair”) instead of a God of mercy aligns us with the older son, the one who refuses to go to the party, and instead stands outside grumbling about how unfairly he has been treated by his father. It reminds me a little of the story of the workers in the vineyard – those who started later in the day received the same payment as those who had been working all day, and the second group of workers, who had been out in the sun the entire day were not happy about it! We like the fact that God is merciful and just – but it needs to be what we see as justice! We want to make God like us; we want what we see as justice to be his justice – when it should be the other way around.
Often too, in our complaining that “life isn’t fair” we forget to recognise how blessed we actually are. I don’t particularly like the hymn “Count your blessings,” but I do recognise the truth of the lyrics: Count your many blessings, name them one by one, And it will surprise you what the Lord has done. If we can do this, if we can pause and recognise the many things that God has done, does, and will do, if only we ask, then we too will see and experience our father’s bounty.
And so, sometimes preachers will ask you to think about how you respond to the abundant love of God – like the younger son, who throws himself humbly on his father’s mercy, and receives a welcome like no other, or like the older son, who grumbles and complains, and doesn’t actually recognise that had he only asked his father for that goat to share with his friends, his father would have probably thrown in a case of wine to make the party go with a swing!
But another commentator made a startling suggestion: what if we think of God not as the father in the story, but as the younger son. The son who comes over the horizon, bruised and hurting, filthy and unwelcomed. The son who needs to be welcomed. The son who needs to be washed, and loved, and made to feel human again? The son who needs to be fed, clothed, invited in…
Then the question becomes: who are you? Are you the father who does not see the filth, who does not worry about a loss of dignity, but who opens his arms, and treats this bruised and hurting person as royalty? Or are you the older son, who hangs back and mutters about it not being fair, this person is taking away from me what should be mine…
We are asked this question every day when we see refugees or migrants desperate for support; we are asked this question when we pass by a homeless person, or turn away when someone asks for help; we are asked this question when we don’t say anything as our colleagues talk about scroungers taking what isn’t rightly theirs, or when people are insulted for being Muslim or Jewish. We are asked this question every day: do you see beyond the dirt and the need to a human being needing respect and dignity, or do you see no further than the headlines in the tabloids?
David Henson, the commentator who asks this startling question writes: What if God is the God who comes to us in the disguise of those we despise, those who have hated and killed us, rejected us and abandoned us, those who annoy and frustrate us most, those who are excluded? And if God comes to us like this, how do we respond? As the Father does, subverting social norms and opening his life to the chaos that the Prodigal brings? Or as the brother does, maintaining society’s values, but closing off his life to loving the other?
If we think about the part of the narrative that comes before the story of the Lost Son, we hear the religious leaders of the day, chastising Jesus, complaining that he ate with sinners and prostitutes. This wasn’t a matter of simply transgressing social norms. To the people of the time, the fellowship you kept, who you dined with, determined who you were. To the people of the time, because Jesus supped with the unclean, the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the worst of the worst, Jesus, too, was the unclean, the tax collector, the prostitute, the worst of the worst.
Jesus is the prodigal.
He asks us whether we will accept him, even if he reeks of what we think is unwashed sin.
He asks us whether we will embrace him, unclean and unsavoury to our tastes, with the lavish grace of a banquet.
He asks us whether we will run out to meet him when we see him lost, alone, bedraggled, and abused; whether we will be eager and expectant to do the irresponsible thing of living out the Good News.
He asks us whether we, like the father in the story, have the generosity to accept him as he appears; or whether we, like the brother, will demand that God not be so irresponsible and insist that God come to us only in the ways we find acceptable.
And I ask you – and I ask myself – what will you do? How will you respond?