SERMON 6 MARCH 2016
Today is quite a challenge. It’s a challenge because we are thinking about the parable of the Prodigal Son, a story that is unique to Luke and which is possibly one of the best known stories in the world, certainly the Western world. Some of us heard Alison Whalley from St Andrew’s Anglican Church in Roseville beautifully recounting the story on Tuesday night and reminding us of the extraordinary portrayal of God’s love that it offers. I am not going to try and do that again.
Before we get on to Luke, let us turn for a moment to the reading from the Hebrew Scriptures. The passage from Joshua comes from centuries before the time of Jesus, from the time when the Hebrew people were at the end of their long years wandering in the wilderness. They had been in a far off country and were looking for a place to call home, the land that had been promised to Abraham, way back. The verse before where our reading started tells us that all the men of military age who had come out from Egypt had died as they journeyed through the wilderness. None of the young ones who had been born in the desert had been circumcised. But now that ceremony had been completed again. The people were entering a time where they could settle in this, the Promised Land. Importantly the people were told that they were to let go of their troubled past in Egypt. God had removed that reproach from them. I think that is very important as we think about how humans of every age and time have a propensity to carry the guilt and shame of past deeds and things that have gone wrong in relationships with self, with others and with God. It makes for heavy baggage. In this little glimpse we get of the lives of these wandering people back then, we notice that they now see how God had cared for them all along the way, providing them with manna day by day, and was now giving them a new future. Very symbolically, for the first time, they were living off the fruits of the land. Their situation wasn’t completely resolved: Jericho had not yet fallen, but now they could have confidence that everything would be all right. The past was left behind. There was a new generation. A new beginning. And it was celebrated with a meal, the Passover meal.
It sounds good doesn’t it? But I wonder how easy it was to let the past be not a story of struggle and hardship but be reframed as a story of God’s providence. Certainly the story of the exodus would be built into the consciousness of the Jewish people. They were not to forget that. It was a central element of their history and they recalled it each year at the Passover. They told the story to remind themselves of how God had taken care of them, provided for them and brought them to safety. So it was not a story that dwelt on trauma but rather on God’s goodness after all. We often need the perspective of time to look back and see how God has been a guiding presence after all. Every Passover, which, we may realise, coincides with our Easter, this goodness of God is celebrated by the Jewish community.
So let’s turn to the Prodigal Son. It is a story that holds within it great contrasts: self-seeking over against selfless giving, extravagance focussed on self-satisfaction against extravagance focussed on the other, wilfulness over against narrow self-righteousness, shame against freedom from judgement. This parable has been called the gospel within the gospel of Luke. That indicates that there are deep truths within it, truth as that can be lost because of its very familiarity. Indeed, it is hardly a parable any more. Jesus told parables to illustrate his message in ways that would often startle people with their rawness. Someone has said that the Prodigal Son has become myth, a story that certainly holds truth but has become absorbed and part of our own stories in some degree and has lost its power to startle. Culturally we are shut off from some of the more shocking aspects of what it is saying, much of it related to shame and dishonour.
I was wondering what a contemporary equivalent might be – perhaps a story related to a family where the younger daughter is drug addicted, keeps stealing from her mother, and then runs off with her credit card, leaving the family in crisis. The daughter ends up wrecked, homeless and on the streets until, in desperation, homesick, she realises how much she has lost. She realises that she cannot go on as she has and, with what strength she has left, summons up a fledgling desire to change. She slowly begins to make her way back towards her home, wondering how she will face her mother, her father, her sister, scared she will get the final rejection she knows she deserves. But her mother is there, doing some weeding in the front garden. Her mother pulls off her gardening gloves, throws them aside, opens the gate and runs down the street to enfold her daughter in a long, long hug. They go inside, the kettle is put on, a clean towel put on her towel rail, perfumed shower gel put in her hand, and a leg of lamb taken out of the freezer to defrost. The mother calls her friends to tell them that her daughter has come home, and to a person, each one tells her she is mad to let her back in the house. She mustn’t just take her back in like that after all she has done. Her daughter is a ne’er do well and won’t change. Even the husband has his doubts. And the sister, coming back from Uni, is furious. She can’t stand the thought of having to deal with all her sister’s moods and terrible behaviour. She cannot trust her. And anyway, isn’t that lamb the one they had bought for Christmas? And what about her? All she can usually manage is to have a quick coffee with people she knows at Uni. She storms out slamming the door and won’t sit down with her sister.
We can see all kinds of rights and wrongs in this story; all kinds of different perspectives on what is wise. One of the points of Jesus’ parable is that the father takes away the shame of the younger son. I was told that there is actually a Jewish ritual that is required of someone who has put the family through shame and dishonour. They are required to publicly announce their guilt so that they can do some kind of penitential act before they can be restored. The prodigal father casts all that aside as he runs to embrace his lost child and immediately reinstates him to the family by giving him the ring, the robe and the sandals. There will be no working off the debt as a servant. The fatted calf will be killed so they can truly celebrate.
We know that the older son can’t cope with this. He cannot even acknowledge his brother, but speaks to his father of “your son”. It is the father who says “your brother”. In the end it is the older son who is left in the far off place where maybe he has been living for years, metaphorically.
We can have a lot of sympathy for him, but the point that Jesus is making is directed towards the Pharisees and teachers of the Law to whom this is addressed. Who is it that is so held back by trying to protect not just what they think is right but their own self-righteousness? This is always the danger for the institution. The question is then raised about how the institution can show even something of the extravagant love of the father whose focus has always been on looking for the lost one. Did the older son ever think of throwing a party for his friends, or was that not the done thing? Was he able to celebrate anything, or was that not in his nature?
God’s love is extravagant, but not without purpose. It is extravagant in looking for the lost and celebrating the found. We may note that in the preceding and following chapter Luke also has cautionary words about planning and shrewd management. But this story stands out because what we all want to see and to experience is the kind of love that holds no grudges, no blame; that needs no excuses to be offered because the new beginning that is offered has no strings attached. The only strings that can remain are those that we hold onto for ourselves, the baggage from past mistakes and the self-denigration that can follow and, just as much, the feelings of self-righteousness and judgement that keep us pinned down to the safe places we have marked out for ourselves.
The Hebrew people in Joshua’s time were told that God had wiped all their past pain and struggle away. The prodigal father makes that abundantly clear. And in 2 Corinthians we hear these words, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled himself to us through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.”
Let us put down our baggage. We do not need it. We have learned from it what we needed to know. God waits to enfold us in love. Not just for ourselves, but because God’s purpose of love is so that we might be free to be God’s agents of reconciliation. And we can’t do that if we are held back by our own self-righteousness or feelings of unworthiness.
We are going to come to this table, where we are set free from baggage and invited to celebrate our inclusion, along with all who long for love, sinners and saints alike. We have a place together at this, the table of the Christ who is our companion always, through the love of God.