No Need to Choose Sides!
4th Sunday of Lent yr C, 3-6-16 Joshua 5: 9-12, Ps 34, 2 Cor 5: 17-21, Luke 15: 1-32
I was talking with a friend about preaching on “The Prodigal Son.” Her response was, “Ooh, that’s a hard one. Good luck!” I understood exactly what she was saying. Then I began to wonder why Jesus even the story. Every generation and every culture has stories about wayward sons. Every society has rules about inheritances. But reading this as a wayward son story or inheritance law story just doesn’t give us an adequate interpretation or reveal the purpose of the parable. We need to look closer.
The 15th chapter of Luke consists of three parables, which all lead in the same direction. They are: (1) The Lost Sheep, (2) The Lost Coin, and (3) The Lost (or prodigal) Son. The Lost Sheep (the guy who leaves the 99 sheep to search for one) ends with this: “I am so happy I found my lost sheep. Let us celebrate! I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 people who do not need to repent.” Now, how did that happen? How did we go from sheep, to repentance and heaven?
The Lost Coin (you know, the woman who loses her coin, sweeps & searches until she finds it) ends almost exactly the same: “I am so happy I found the coin I lost. Let us celebrate! In the same way, the angels of God rejoice over one sinner who repents.” Jesus is definitively not discussing inheritance distribution here.
Both of these first two parables focus instead on searching & the joy of finding. Then they compare that joy of finding with the joy that comes with repentance. The Lost Son focuses on those same themes, but in addition, it contrasts of the attitude of the father with the elder son’s attitude; contrasting compassion toward repentant sinners and refusal to celebrate repentance.
Now, the original audience listening to these parables included both the “sinners” that Jesus associated with – and ate with – as well as religious leaders who objected – strongly – to the presence of those “sinners. In fact, this may have been the “Hot Button” issue that ignited the plot to crucify Jesus.
But to find the birthplace of this parable, we must return to Luke 4: 18-22, which we read on Jan 31st. Remember Jesus reading from Isaiah in the synagogue: “(The Lord) has chosen me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty…recovery of sight…freedom for the oppressed and announce the time has come when the Lord will save his people.” It’s Jesus’ mission statement. It’s the announcement of the coming of the Messiah. It was widely believed then that the Messiah, or Christ, would bring a time of forgiveness, restoration, and insistence on joyous celebration.
To grumble in the face of his coming is to not understand what is happening. Jesus puts these parables in the context of why he is there, his purpose. It is a picture of the impact of his ministry, the coming of God’s kingdom….and the attitudes of those who find the Kingdom – those who repent, forgive, and who are forgiven.
“The Coming of the Kingdom” is a phrase we read in the Gospels, but it’s hard to be really sure what to do with it. The conflict which brought about this parable was the claim from Jesus that the kingdom of God was present and that God was at work. That’s fine and dandy when you sit in a church and feel safe among those of like mind. But it was met with great suspicion as long as those around Jesus were tax collectors who worked for and collaborated with the Romans (those oppressive invaders, those multi-god-worshiping heathens); AND those ceremonially unclean shepherds and lepers and disabled people that were so feared and despised; AND others who were absolutely disreputable and debase, like the woman who washed Jesus’ feet.
So, here is a contrast between the acceptance of the repentant by God and the suspicion and rejection of them by some religious leaders. But, Surprise! The parable ends without rejecting either side. How can it be that the father would desire a household that would offer love to the son who put every cent of his effort & time into the estate, alongside the son who is an obvious drain on the bank account and the emotions of everyone? Yet, the father of the sons rejects no one; both sons are chosen. The father loves and offers everything he has to the grumbling son with a disrespectful attitude as well as the son who has broken every rule in the book and come home at best only hoping not to die of starvation. Could I be so open and loving and generous on the very best day of my life?? In my own self, it would be impossible. Only if I was fully surrendered to the Holy Spirit of God could that happen.
You see, the kingdom does not divide but unifies; the kingdom is universal. This parable is without an ending, and so becomes an invitation to everyone who hears it to change their attitude and join in the celebration. The Messiah has come, forgiveness, restoration, liberty- all our inheritance. Our heavenly Father has given us all he has, and He is always with us. We are no longer slaves of darkness or ourselves. If we had a sliver of a clue what was happening, if we saw a glimpse of the Kingdom of God, it would be enough to make us rejoice until tears of unrestrained happiness streamed down our cheeks. What is now “ours” could be shared with the hungry, the dirty, the homeless, the refugee, the foreigner, the addict, the derelict. The hard years, the labor which seemed to be without reward could be remembered with gladness. Perhaps that is why we were given the Holy Spirit and Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”