Part of a series of talks on parables for our longer teaching sessions at Team Evening WorshipLuke 15
Coming home – the parable of the lost son
Jesus was a consummate storyteller. It may seem obvious to us now, but the way he used parables was, though not unusual in the ancient world, certainly striking and filled with a depth and meaning upon meaning that even now through the ages resonates with us as we try and know him more and seek his will and the Kingdom of God that he proclaims.
And today we are faced with one of the most striking and, in some ways to the leaders of his day, disturbing parables that he told. The parable of the prodigal son, as it is known, or perhaps more accurately the prodigal father or the lost son (as it is headed in the New International Version that we have here).
Of course, like most Biblical passages, it helps to have a bit of background, a bit of context to add to our understanding and, whilst we could probably never know the definitive meaning of any parable – as every time we read one new meanings come out – it might help us grow in our appreciation of all that is in this parable.
Actually its worth expanding a little on what I mean about seeing other meanings at different times. Its not that I think we can decide what a particular passage or parable in scripture is about and then read the meaning into it – on the contrary my understanding of the inspiriation of Scripture is that it was written under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and when we read with the help of the Holy Spirit we are going to see what God is seeking to communicate to us. That’s why I believe we need to approach Scripture with heart, soul, strength and mind – to engage our brains, but also to pray our way into the Bible and feel what the Bible is saying to our Spirits and our hearts too. I think Christians don’t always engage their mental circuits when opening their Bible, cos it’s scripture innit, but that we should intelligently view the Bible and take on board the wealth of historical, literary and textual criticism. On the other side I think that many of us who open our Bibles don’t actually ask for God’s assistance in getting to know what’s in God’s book! Nor do I think we feel the pain, joy, awe and wonder of the words in our Bibles often enough, but engage in a purely rational or intellectual way.
For example, as we will see in the parable for this evening there is a lot about how God relates to us as a father – or in other parts of the bible as a mother, friend, lover – and we file away that this is one of the images that scripture uses about God – but how does that make you feel? When I think of the overwhelming love I have for my children and, no matter what they do, how I just want to hold them sometimes and tell them I love them, for no other reason than the fact that I do. When I think of how I related to my own father when he was alive. When I feel all those complicated, overwhelming feelings that the word ‘father’ brings to me, I tend to turn all of that off when I read that God is my father ‘oh, that’s nice’ thinks Alastair, moving swiftly on.
But if I feel that God is my father, it makes me want to weep and laugh and dance and collapse with wonder all at once. To know that God loves me more and better and more powerfully than my own father did, that the good and bad I saw in my own father is just a pale imitation of the fatherhood of God, and even that my own imperfect, faltering attempts to be a dad pale into insignificance when I consider God’s parenthood towards me. Wow! That doesn’t just make my brain hurt, it hits me in the heart and in the soul as well! I feel more than I could ever put into words, I mean, just, WOW!
And that’s what Scripture should do to us, for us, in us. That’s what parables are there to do. They say to us ‘this is ordinary, stuff about coins and sheep and dads and mustard seeds and yet look deeper, feel this, think about this, let God speak to you through this, struggle with it, laugh about it, cry because of it, let it in.’
So with all that in mind, lets take a deep breath and look at the parable of the lost son.
This parable is the last of three parables with a common thread. It’s a giveaway in the NIV because they all have headings ‘the lost sheep’, ‘the lost coin’ and ‘the lost son’ – I suspect you have spotted the connection… But there’s more, of course there is otherwise you wouldn’t pay me the big bucks to talk about it!
What really holds these things together is just how daft the actions within them are! I mean, leaving behind 99 defenceless sheep to go and look for one foolish animal that’s strayed off, or turning the house upside-down to find one coin and then having a party to celebrate, or standing looking for your profligate, waseful, ungrateful son and welcoming him back even though he has squandered your money and reduced himself, through his own fault, to a lowly pig-herder. Really, this doesn’t make sense.
And these parables aren’t meant to make sense, they are to remind us that God’s response to the lost, to those who, perhaps deliberately have placed themselves out of reach, who have strayed, who have walked away is to reach out to them, and to welcome them back even if they themselves don’t feel they deserve welcome and forgiveness.
As such, this wonderfully crafted story is the pinnacle of these parables of the lost. It shows a father who is prodigal – for prodigal actually means generous to a fault, generous beyond reason – and that is what we see.
So lets break this parable down a little bit. Let’s hope for a glimpse of the depth and emotion and spiritual challenge that is in this parable.
We start off with ‘there was a man with two sons’ and an echo of biblical stories of Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers. It’s turned upside down, though, because there is no sense of the younger brother triumphing, but being laid low to the point of returning to the father in humility and sorrow and of the older brother being welcomed to the feast as well. But more of that in a moment. Jesus starts, as many parables do, with a recognisable situation – and everyday event, the family. We then see this son becoming rather disloyal to the family ‘give me my share of this estate’. Now in effect he says ‘I don’t want to work on the farm, and I can’t be bothered to wait until you croak – let me have what I’ll get eventually anyway so I can go off and party’
So dad divvies up the money and older brother stays, loyally, to work on the farm whilst we hear that younger bro ‘squandered his wealth in wild living’. Sounds like fun, but like most wild living things eventually turn out badly, the money runs out, the ‘friends’ who were always around when there were parties and there was fun to be had mysteriously vanish and there is nothing less.
So it’s off to be a pig farmer. Now that in itself is worth remarking on, there is nothing more gentile than a pig farmer, and Jesus was telling this story to Jews, those who knew themselves to be a part of God’s chosen people. These people were on the inside, and the gentiles were on the outside! Yet here we have a son of Israel reduced to the most gentile state, having lived entirely for himself he ends up caring for animals that are unclean, and therefore becomes unclean himself. It gets to the point that he’s even willing to share the food with the pigs. I mean, as far as being a faithful Jew is concerned, how low can you go?
But he comes to his senses, as the text says in verse 17 and there is a real sense of repentance, of sorrow for his actions and alongside a certain degree of self interest (the hired men get to eat better than I do!) there is also a sense of having made a mistake and acknowledging that. It’s an important point, because it is that turning around that makes a difference – he doesn’t rely on his one time status, or his background as a son, his position of privilege in the household. He says ‘I am not worthy to be called your son’. He also states ‘I have sinned against heaven and against you’ as he recognises that his behaviour doesn’t just go against his father’s love for him, but against the way which God has called him to live.
So there’s this long, humiliating walk home. And what does he find at the end, a censorious father who berates his son for his wastefulness? A cold return home and menial duties? Oh no, we see a father who is waiting for his son and who runs to embrace him! This is not your typical early middle-eastern family behaviour, no if you’ve seen ‘the Jazz singer (the Neil Diamond version rather than the Al Jolson) you will see a remnant of what happens when you go against father’s wishes in a strict Jewish household. There’s the ripping of clothes (a symbol of mourning and loss) and then there’s the back turning, the exclusion, the being made an outsider.
But not this father. It’s hugs and kisses, the best robe and a party at which the chunky calf is the guest at the feast. It’s a tremendous picture of welcome and celebration, my son was lost and is now found – he was dead but is alive again.
And this is what we’re to feel, this sense of coming home of welcome. It seems obvious that this parable is meant to parallel what happens when we turn to God again, when we see our own sinfulness and recognise our unworthiness, this is the welcome we receive this is our adoption as daughters and sons of God. Perhaps its particularly endemic to liturgical churches, but our confession often seems to be ‘just something we do’ at the start (or after the sermon) in our services. I doubt we think of the angels rejoicing in heaven over our repentance, or of God throwing a party to celebrate our turning back to him, but that’s what these parables say. You’re home! Welcome back! Wheel out the fattened calf….no, not the Vicar…the one who makes such great steaks! It’s party time ‘I’m accepted, I’m forgiven’ we sang a few minutes back – have we really let that sink deep into our hearts and our lives, into our bones and into our spirits – God has been waiting for you and I to come back to him and has accepted us without reservation.
That’s what I mean about letting this parable speak to our hearts, soul, strength and mind. It’s not just so we can have a good doctrine of repentance and forgiveness, but so that we can feel and know ourselves forgiven and embraced by our loving God. This is real, this story says in a much more striking way than any theological treatise could that we are welcomed into God’s love and God’s life when we turn to him again. Wow again!
And we go into the end of the parable, which I could spend a long time on, but won’t. We see the older son come back in from a days work in the fields and finding a party in full swing – a party for this waster of a little brother who went off and had lots of fun whilst the loyal, faithful, hardworking son stayed home and kept going.
The other son’s response is understandable, how many of us would feel so gracious towards someone who was so sinful and yet was welcomed back into our fellowships with such rejoicing! Lets put it another way, if we knew that at the very last minute someone as evil as, say, Hitler, turned to God with true repentance and was forgiven? It’s not a comfortable thought, really, but we can’t rule it out if we truly take God’s infinite love and grace seriously. Now, I don’t know how God will sort out that kind of thing in eternal terms, but our Bibles challenge us to believe that it is possible for all to be forgiven, just as each one of us has, as the letter to the Romans says, ‘sinned and fallen short of the glory of God’.
This is the profligate, prodigal grace of God. This is the love which the father has lavished upon the human race! This is what the death and resurrection of Jesus has made possible.
We don’t find the ultimate reaction of the older son, but he too is welcomed to the feast, and is reminded that the father’s riches were there all the time for him to share and to have a part of. For those of us who follow, those of us who strive to remain faithful, this is a reminder that God’s riches are here for us now, if we ask for them. When we look at those around us who seem to be growing spiritually we shouldn’t ask ‘why have they got what I haven’t?’ but rather ‘Father give me the grace I need to grow in faith’. God is always willing to share his riches with us, to give us his gifts, to embrace each one of us, sometimes we just need to ask.
So, again, a parable with so much to teach us, and as I said I don’t have the definitive meaning of it – but I want to encourage you to look again at scripture and let it speak to you, to all of you not just to your mind or just to back up what you want it to say. Open yourselves up prayerfully to what God has to say to you in the Bible. Let God live and move and act in, through and with you.