Saturday, March 26, 2022

The Fourth Sunday of Lent

Here is the transcript of the podcast version of my sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Lent.

The Fourth Sunday of Lent

Reading: Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

Our Gospel reading this week begins:

‘Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him [Jesus]. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”’ (Luke 15:1-2)

This is becoming something of a theme in St Luke’s Gospel. Back in chapter 5, St Luke describes how Jesus is getting his team of disciples together and recruits, Levi, a tax-collector (Luke 5:27-28). St Luke tells how even then the Pharisees and their scribes were already complaining about how Jesus was associating with people who had a bad reputation (Luke 5:30). This was not just an occasional occurrence on Jesus’ part. Jesus regularly associated with those who were considered by many religious people to be morally disreputable.

St Luke tells us that so common was this accusation against him that Jesus even refers to it himself. Contrasting his own style of ministry with that of John the Baptist, Jesus says:

‘For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, “He has a demon”; the Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!”’ (Luke 7:33-34)

Now, later in his ministry, the accusation is made explicitly again. Jesus responds to it with three much loved and well-known parables: the Parable of the Lost Sheep (Luke 15:3-7), the Parable of the Lost Coin (Luke 15:8-10), and what is commonly known as the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32).

The parable of the ‘Prodigal Son’ is the main focus of our Gospel reading. It is probably the most famous of Jesus’ parables, but it is also frequently misunderstood. If you ask most people what it means, their reply will be that it is about how God forgives us or about how we should forgive people. We understand the emphasis of the parable to be on forgiveness, and that’s right as far as it goes. In the past, when people thought about this parable, they concentrated on the welcome the younger son receives from the father, and this is reflected in the art and literature that has been inspired by the parable.

There is now, however, a greater realization that Jesus’ message and purpose in telling the parable lies in his description of the behaviour of the elder son. What the parable says about the younger son and the father’s forgiveness is important, but the parable builds up to the elder son and his reaction to the father’s forgiveness of the younger son. Jesus is saying to the Pharisees and scribes that the way they are reacting to his welcome of sinners is like the elder son’s reaction to the father’s welcome of the younger son. Jesus forgives the sinners he eats with and is glad to welcome them, so too, the parable suggests, the Pharisees and scribes should join in welcoming them.

So far so good. And it is good that nowadays preachers and commentators remember the point of the parable, and don’t only focus on the prodigal younger son. We like the Father’s forgiveness of the younger son and we like the idea of a party to celebrate his return. We rejoice at what we see as the condemnation of the mean-minded religious types who disapprove of having a good time. We are personally reassured that we don’t have too much to worry about if we go wrong. We know God will forgive us. At the same time, we like having our attitudes to stuffy religious types confirmed and reinforced. This is our sort of parable and, of course, we conveniently forget some of the other parables that have for us a less congenial message. This is the parable we want to hear.

Or do we?

Let’s hear it then. By hear it, I mean hear it as Jesus means it to be understood and not as we want to understand it.

The parable begins with the younger son doing something that even today would be frowned on, but which, in Jesus’ day, would be completely unforgiveable. The younger son basically tells his father he wishes his father was dead and that he wants his inheritance now. Somewhat surprisingly, the father agrees, and divides his property between his two sons.

The younger son can’t wait to get away. He wants to enjoy life and to travel, so that’s what he does, spending what he has been given by his father on what Jesus describes as ‘dissolute living’. It is important to note that there is no suggestion in the parable that what the younger son does is anything other than wrong. There is no attempt to explain or to excuse his behaviour.

When you go on spending money, it will eventually run out; and when it’s gone, it’s gone. To make matters worse for the younger son in the story, disaster hits the part of the world where the younger son is now living. There’s a famine, and for the first time in his life the younger son ‘began to be in need’. So bad does the situation get that he has to hire himself out, and the work he is given is with the pigs. Jesus puts this into the story to indicate that the younger son’s situation is about as bad it gets. Jews and pigs don’t go together. Worse still, he is so hungry that he would happily have eaten the pig’s food. He is utterly alone with no-one to help him.

In verse 17, Jesus describes how he comes to himself. He is working as a hired hand, and still he is dying of hunger. His father’s hired hands have food enough and to spare! This moment of enlightenment, however, is not just about his situation; it’s about himself and the seriousness of what he has done: he has sinned against God and his father; he is no longer worthy to be called a son; he needs to be treated like a hired hand. To be allowed to live is the most he can hope for. He turns and returns.

He is still ‘far off’ when his father sees him coming. When he sees his son, his father is filled with compassion. The father runs to him and hugs and kisses him. The son, however, is genuinely very much aware of the wrong he has done, and still says what he had planned to say. He has sinned against God and his father; he is no longer worthy to be called his son.

The father, however, orders his slaves to bring a robe, a ring, and sandals all symbols of forgiveness and acceptance. But not only that the father orders a celebration: the fatted calf is to be killed. The father explains the reason for this welcome and celebration:

‘… for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ (Luke 15:24)

In the past there has been the temptation to stop here. Quite rightly, we now realize there is still some way to go in the story. The elder son has been out working in the field. He is naturally puzzled by the sound of music and dancing when he comes home. Perfectly reasonably, he asks one of the slaves what is going on. Understandably, he is not exactly pleased when he is told his brother has returned.

He refuses to go in to the house. As the father ran to his younger son, so now the father goes out to his elder son. The elder son’s complaint is a fair one. He has been faithful in working for his father; he has obeyed his commands; and, in all this time, there has been no party for him. Now his brother has returned, ‘having devoured his father’s property with prostitutes’, there is a lavish celebration for him. The elder son refuses to acknowledge the younger son as his brother, describing him to his father as ‘this son of yours’.

There is no question that what the younger son has done is seriously wrong and there is no disagreement between the father and the elder son about how wrong it was. Both when the younger son returns and when talking with the elder son, the father says that the younger son:

‘… was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ (Luke 15:24, 32)

The question the parable addresses is what should be the reaction when someone who has done great wrong acknowledges that wrong, is sorry for it, and turns from it.

Jesus thought the sinners turning from the wrong they had done and turning to God should be celebrated. The Pharisees, however, thought that the wrong the tax-collectors and sinners had done could not be so simply and easily forgotten.

We, of course, side with the father in the story and with Jesus in his attitude to the Pharisees and scribes as we are supposed to. But what if the younger son had been a rapist, a people trafficker, a drug dealer, or all three before returning home, should there still have been a party to welcome him? Would we still side against the elder son for refusing to join in the singing and dancing? Tax-collectors and sinners included some pretty horrible people. We should perhaps try a little harder to understand why the Pharisees and scribes behaved like the elder son. The familiarity of the story means it has largely lost its impact on us, which is sad. What Jesus asks of the Pharisees and scribes - and of us - is scandalous and shocking!

Worse still, however, we use it to excuse our own sin and wrongdoing and fail to see how the parable challenges us both about our sin and our attitude to other people who have sinned. The parable does not teach that we needn’t worry about sin because God will always forgive it. The seriousness of the younger son’s sin is not minimized in the story in any way nor is it simply assumed that the father would forgive the younger son and welcome him home. Those hearing the parable for the first time would have no idea how the father in the story was going to react when the son returns.

The younger son’s behaviour was so bad that the only way of describing him was as dead, lost, and worthless. It is this that makes the father’s welcome home so amazing and the elder son’s reaction so understandable. What Jesus is asking of the Pharisees is right, but it is not always easy. It’s easier when you don’t take sin seriously, and it is easier with some sins more than others, but for those who care about right and wrong and the harm that evil does to people, then welcoming, for example, the repentant racist, rapist, and wrongdoer and partying with them is not easy. But this is exactly what Jesus is asking us to do.

I want to look at what we can learn from this story using four words: wrath, repentance, reconciliation, and rejoicing.

1. Wrath

St Paul, in his letter to the Church at Rome, introduces the theme of his letter by telling the Roman believers that he is not ashamed of the Gospel because it is the power of God for salvation for everyone who has faith, the Jew first, but also the Greek (Romans 1:16-17). Immediately after telling them this, St Paul writes:

‘For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth.’ (Romans 1:18)

In other words, as St Paul will go on to explain in some detail, we all need saving because we are all under the judgement of God and facing his wrath. St Paul is expressing to the Roman believers what, as we saw in our Gospel reading last week, Jesus said to the crowds. He warned them:

‘… unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.’ (Luke 13:3, 5)

Jesus told many parables on the theme of judgement, although these are not nearly so popular for some reason as our parable this week! Nevertheless, while not the main point of the parable about the two sons, Jesus’ message of repent or perish is a necessary part of the background to it. It is only because the younger son realizes he is perishing and that he is quite literally dying from hunger, that the younger son comes to his senses and returns to his father.

I talked about this theme at some length last week, so I won’t dwell on it again this week, except to say the parable makes no sense without it. (The sermon can still be heard or read online for those who are interested!)

Like the younger son, we need to realize that our choices, actions, and lifestyle what the Bible calls sin, have landed us in real trouble, and we too will perish unless something is done.

2. Repentance

The something that needs to be done is for us to repent. Jesus’ description of the younger son shows us what this involves. First of all, it means realizing the mess we are in. Living in a pigsty is no fun. It is only when he realizes how desperate his situation is and how badly he has behaved that the younger son comes to his senses.

The criticism is often made of those who follow Christ that our faith is not rational and that faith is somehow contrary to reality. The truth is that we are not in a rational state of mind before we come to faith and we cannot think rationally without it. St Paul writes of the consequences when humans first left their Father for another country. St Paul writes:

‘… for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened.’ (Romans 1:21)

Again as I have said in previous sermons, the big thing in our day is to be true to yourself, to believe in yourself, and to follow your dreams. It was precisely this philosophy of life that got the younger son into the mess he found himself in. He thought that by asserting himself, he would find freedom. By following a path he thought would lead to freedom, he instead ended up lost, and it is only when he ‘comes to himself’ and admits his failure and sin that he is able to take the steps he needs to make to find his way home.

Doubtless, if questioned, he would have argued that what he was doing by leaving his father’s home was being true to himself and that no-one and nothing should be allowed to limit his personal freedom. We are deeply attached to the idea of having freedom and independence. We want to make our own choices and decisions. The trouble is we are not very good at it. It was because he was given his freedom that younger son ended up losing all freedom. By doing what felt right, following his dreams, and fulfilling his desires, rather than finding himself, he got lost and destroyed himself.

It is only when he comes to himself and sees that he has sinned against God and his father that he can find redemption. Repentance is about coming to ourself, realizing we are lost, and accepting that we have no-one to blame for it but ourself. As the younger son puts it:

‘I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ (Luke 15:18-19)

His journey home begins when he realizes that being a servant in his father’s home is better than being free in a foreign country. As George Matheson wrote in the hymn, ‘Make me a captive, Lord, and then I shall be free.’ It is only when we turn to God from the captivity of our sin that we can find true freedom.

3. Reconciliation

Repentance is essential, but it is not enough. Without repentance we can never find spiritual healing and hope, but seeing the mess we are in, and acknowledging it is our own fault that we are in it, is not going to get us out of it.

We are so familiar with the story of the father’ acceptance of the younger son that there is a tendency to think that if we simply say ‘sorry’ that’s enough, God will just forgive us, and all will be OK. It’s not quite like that. The younger son has to come to a point where he knows he is no more worthy to be called a son. He realizes that he cannot expect his father to take him back as a son; the most he can hope for is to be a worker in his father’s house.

It is all very well knowing we need God, but what is God’s attitude in all this? We have to move from repentance to reconciliation, and all the repentance and sorrow for sin, important though it is, counts for nothing until we are reconciled with God and find peace with him. Repentance is something we have to do; reconciliation, however, is something only God can do.

St Paul writes about this in our second reading this week. He writes of how God has reconciled those in Christ to himself. He describes how God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting our sin against us. St Paul is describing in theological language what happens in the story.

While younger son is still a long way off, the father sees his son and runs to him. Fathers in the ancient world would never have behaved in such an undignified manner. At the very least, they would have waited until the errant son had come home and said what he had to say. The son knows he can’t expect to be welcomed back as a son, but the father seeing his son returning doesn’t wait until he arrives. More than that, it is the father who does what is necessary to reconcile and restore his son to himself. It is the father who puts the robe over the son’s body, a ring on his finger, and sandals on his feet. It is the father who orders the killing of the fatted calf, and it is the father who orders the celebrations to begin.

We have no right to expect to expect God’s forgiveness and we cannot presume on the kindness of God. That’s what amazing about it! When we are at our moment of deepest despair, when we are in no position to hope, it is then we experience the amazing grace of God that not only forgives but reconciles and restores us in Christ.

The father describes his son as having been lost and dead but is now found and alive. It is in Christ that the lost are found and the dead are given life. It is in Christ that we are reconciled to God and restored to a relationship with him. It is in Christ that we come home. St Paul writes:

‘All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ …’ (1 Corinthians 5:18)

4. Rejoicing

And so, we get to the conclusion of the parable and to Jesus’ reason for telling it. The story has been building up to the fourth step in the process of salvation. The first three steps describe how we get home to God. The fourth step describes what happens once we are home and what the reaction should be of those already home to someone who has joined us in the house.

The parable asks how we should respond to someone who has realized their plight, repented of their sin, and been reconciled to God. Put like that it seems obvious. If God is happy, who are we to be unhappy. Sadly, it doesn’t always work like this. We can’t help ourselves. There are some repentant sinners we refuse to accept.

Perhaps it’s because we have never really felt ourselves to be sinners, certainly not a sinner in the way some are sinners. Perhaps we have been one of those who all their life have tried to do the right thing, to live a good life, help others, and avoid giving offence. What is it all for if someone can do what they like and get away with it? The elder son isn’t exaggerating when he talks of how well he has behaved and how loyal to his father he has been, and the father doesn’t contradict him. The elder son has, however, missed the point.

This isn’t about which of the sons has done what is right and which has done what is wrong, but what the right way to respond is when someone realizes they are in the wrong. We can accept that there is forgiveness for some sins, but we find it hard to believe that there is forgiveness for all sins. Jesus offered forgiveness to all who repented, whatever their sin. Jesus is telling the Pharisees and those like them that there is only way to respond when a sinner repents and that is the way the father himself responds. We should rejoice when the sinner comes home.

God likes sinners to repent and return to him. It is a cause for rejoicing, but more than that, God not only want us to join in the rejoicing, but to do what we can to welcome the sinner home and to join in the celebration.

We will only do this when we are willing, like the father was, to see that those who were lost and dead are now, through the forgiveness and mercy of God, found and alive. Knowing his son was lost gave the father no satisfaction and seeing the mistakes and wrong choices people make should give us no satisfaction. It should, however, give us an incentive to reach out to people with the love of God and to do so as those who have themselves made the same mistakes and wrong choices, and to offer them the hope of being found, as we have been found, by the God who gives life in Christ.

Seeing that many are lost and without life and hope in our world should also give us in the Church, and as a Church, a sense of priority.

Jesus tells two other parables before this one. In the first, a shepherd leaves 99 sheep to go in search of one that is lost. In the second, a woman stops everything she is doing to search for her lost coin. Seeing the lost around us, we need the same sense of urgency and determination. St Paul writes that God has given us the ‘ministry of reconciliation’ (2 Corinthians 5:18). We, like Jesus, are to ‘seek and to save the lost’ (Luke 19:10). But we will only want to do this if we think they are lost and need saving, and we will only be able to do this if we have been found and saved ourselves.

The message to us today is that God wants us to be reconciled to himself and to come home to a relationship with him in Christ.

May we find that relationship for ourselves and rejoice with him when others find it too.


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