15th Sunday after Trinity
St Barbara’s 25.09.2022
Rev Tulo Raistrick
A few years ago I needed a holiday but the type of holiday I needed I couldn’t afford. I was badly in need of sunshine, rest and relaxation. So I spoke to my parents. They didn’t have the money either, but I suggested to them that they should downsize, that they should move out of the family home that had been their joy and delight for the last forty years and move into a small, pokey flat and give me a share of the profits from the house. After all I would get it eventually anyway when they died. It may make their lives more miserable, they may even think I was being a bit heartless, but I badly needed that holiday. My brothers were none too keen on the idea, but hey, whatever.
You’ll be pleased to know that that story never happened, but you may have been slightly shocked, appalled even, by the thought it might have done. Our parable this morning tells a far more shocking story, of a son who seems to so unvalue his father that he is willing to demand his share of an inheritance that may be many years away. He is essentially wishing his father dead, he is willing to divide up and sell the precious family land that they would have held for generations, and he is willing to abrogate all responsibility for caring for his father in his old age. If Jesus wanted an example of rude, shocking, selfish behaviour, he couldn’t have chosen any better.
Jesus’ listeners sympathy and tolerance of the son’s actions continue to spiral downwards. He ends up wasting all his inheritance, becoming broke in a time of famine and having to do the worst possible job imaginable for a Jew – work on a pig farm. This is utter humiliation and degradation, and all brought upon himself by poor choices he has made. He is getting his comeuppance and good riddance to him.
But then Jesus uses this extraordinary phrase: he “came to himself”. It is as if, up to this point, he had been living in a false world, living a life that wasn’t truly him. For the first time, he discovers who he is. He is not this person who is made for selfishness and greed; nor is he this person to be defined by destitution and shame. He realises he is someone whose identity, his future, is about being back with his father, even if he has blown his chance to remain as a son. And so he turns around and goes back home.
Just step into the younger son’s shoes for a moment. Are there times in your life when “you have come to yourself”, when you have realised that the life you are living is not the life God intended for you? Maybe it was the first time you fully realised that God loved you and was calling you home – for some people that can happen in a dramatic moment that you are able to pinpoint to the hour and day, for others it is a much more gradual process over months and years. Maybe its been at key points throughout your life when you realised that through choices you’ve made, maybe in terms of work or relationships, you were no longer living the life God intended for you, that you had managed to wander away from the abundance of the presence of God, and you realised it was time to turn around. Or maybe its that daily sense of being nudged to make choices that bring us back to the father. I wonder, is there any sense in which you may need to “come to yourself” today? To, like the younger son, turn around and head back home.
Now we get to the heart of the story. And our focus shifts from the son to the father. As many have pointed out, this parable of the prodigal son could be better named, perhaps as the parable of the forgiving father. I personally like the title, the parable of the running father. For Jesus continues to shock and affront sensibilities with his description of the father’s response. The father sees the returning son from some distance off – a suggestion perhaps of a father scanning the horizon hoping beyond hope that his son would return – and when he sees him, he runs. In a culture where dignity and respect were so important, an older man running was shocking. At best you would walk towards someone; but normally you would wait for them to come to you.
But here is love and joy unconfined. Here is a father who run and throws his arms around and kisses his son, gaunt, frail, dirty, famished. The son isn’t given the time to express his pre-prepared speech of repentance. Instead he is enveloped in the father’s love. Here is love without limit. Robes, rings, sandals – all signs of sonship – are called for; a fatted calf is killed; a party is begun.
Surely the son doesn’t deserve this, Jesus’ listeners would have thought. Surely this is pressing incredulity too far. But just as with the parables of the lost coin and lost sheep Jeremy spoke about last week that proceeded this parable, it is the almost over-the-top nature of the celebration that takes us to the heart of the story. This is what is truly worth celebrating in life: when that which was dead is alive, when that which was lost is found.
There are some aspects of the father’s behaviour that are up for debate. In meeting his son’s demand to give him his inheritance was he being an over-indulgent parent giving money to a child not ready for it, or was he a wise parent recognising that he needed the freedom to make his own mistakes? The parable can make sense either way. But what no-one is in any doubt over is what the parable tells us about God’s response to those who turn to him: overwhelming joy and celebration. This is a God who delights in us, rejoices in us. Step into the shoes of the younger son once more: experience the delight of the father, the warm embrace, his joy in your presence. We are loved by the God who is love. On this Dedication Sunday, there is no greater foundation on which this church can be built than knowing that truth. Take time to ponder that for yourself this day.
That feels like the natural, and happy, ending to our parable, but of course Jesus does not leave it there. There is still yet another twist. For what about the older son, the faithful one who stayed behind? We find him coming in from the fields where he has been hard at work, work that Jesus’ listeners knew would have been all the harder for the younger son’s absence and his squandering of the inheritance.
It is not difficult for us to identify with his anger and hurt when he discovers the reason for the party. Now it is his inheritance that is being spent, wasted, on his profligate younger brother! Where is the party for him, he who has faithfully toiled away?
It is an entirely natural reaction. Of the three characters in the story he is behaving the most rationally and reasonably. And yet, view it from the father’s perspective and things seem quite different. What could be more important than to have his sons present and both knowing they are loved? More important that their property; more important than any sense of dignity or social standing. What trumps everything is love. What trumps everything is having the family back together.
Dare we step into the older brother’s shoes today? Are we frustrated, indeed angry, at the thought that God’s grace and love extends to those who have let us down, who have hurt the people we love? Are we able to celebrate and join in the heavenly party that God loves them too.
For those of us who like neat endings, this parable does not give us one. Like a TV season finale, we are left hanging, waiting for the next season to start to find out what happens next. We don’t know if the younger son, responding to the father’s welcome, sticks around or whether he abandons home once more once his belly is full and his pockets are lined. We don’t know whether the older son accepts the father’s invitation, comes to the party and joins in the celebration. In a way, Jesus leaves those story lines unfinished, so that we can fill them in for ourselves. What will we choose to do?
But there is one story-line that we know will remain consistent throughout: the unerring, abundant, overwhelming love of the father for his children. That will not change. On a day when we remember God’s love and faithfulness to all those hundreds of people who have worshipped in this place over 91 years, we can affirm that God’s love for his children will remain ever true for the future too.