Scripture Readings: 2 Corinthians 5:16-21
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Today we get the Gospel in a story. Here is a parable that speaks of sin and guilt- because the Gospel is realistic about the brokenness of humanity. Here is a parable which speaks of grace and forgiveness- because the Gospel is about hope for our broken humanity. It’s a story of hope for each of us, and for our broken world.
It’s a story that began as an answer to grumblers. We might not like grumblers, but sometimes they ask good questions. And so here is Jesus taking on the grumblers:
One day when many tax collectors and other outcasts came to listen to Jesus, the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law started grumbling, “This man welcomes outcasts and even eats with them!” So Jesus told them this parable:
Nowadays someone working in the tax office might not be very popular, but it’s a respectable enough job. But the tax collectors of Jesus’ day were lumped in with outcasts because that’s what they were- the hated agents of the Roman occupation forces. But something about Jesus attracted tax collectors and others who were not seen as respectable members of society.
The Church goes wrong if we try too hard to be respectable. For if Jesus was truly at the heart of the Church, we would be attracting the tax collectors and outcasts of today. And as happened in Jesus’ day, we would then attract the scorn of the respectable, the sort of people who think religion belongs to them. If the modern equivalent of the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law are grumbling about the sort of people who go to a church, then that church is probably doing something right!
So, Jesus tells a story which is good news to the outcasts, and scandalous to the respectable. But he begins by talking about guilt and sin:
“There was once a man who had two sons. The younger one said to him, ‘Father, give me my share of the property now.’ So the man divided his property between his two sons.
After a few days the younger son sold his part of the property and left home with the money. He went to a country far away, where he wasted his money in reckless living. He spent everything he had.
Then a severe famine spread over that country, and he was left without a thing. So he went to work for one of the citizens of that country, who sent him out to his farm to take care of the pigs. He wished he could fill himself with the bean pods the pigs ate, but no one gave him anything to eat.
At last he came to his senses and said, ‘All my father’s hired workers have more than they can eat, and here I am about to starve! I will get up and go to my father and say, “Father, I have sinned against God and against you. I am no longer fit to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired workers.” So he got up and started back to his father.
In a way, this is an odd story for Mothering Sunday. For it is the story of a father and his sons- there is no mother in this story. Yet it is a story about parenting, and we ought not to get too hung up on matters of gender here. Fathers and mothers, sons and daughters- they can all show love for one another, or they can fall out!
And so we get this story of a poor little rich boy (but he could have been a girl!). He takes his share of his father’s wealth, and travels the world, spending his inheritance with no thought of tomorrow. Later we will hear that some of the money went on prostitutes.
It is hard to have any sympathy with this young man… until, perhaps, we hear of what happens to him. He does well in the boom years, but fails when the famine comes. Once he had never had to earn his living- now he has to find work, anything, however menial, in order to survive. Once he was a rich man’s son: now he’s merely a farmhands, who is so hungry he wishes he could eat the animal feed. And it’s pigs he’s looking after- the ultimate humiliation for a good Jewish boy.
As I say, it’s hard to have much sympathy for this young man, except that we might feel sorry to see him fall so far. For the Bible’s view of human nature is that we are all flawed, that we all make mistakes, that just as the son in the story separates himself from his father as he goes his own way, so we all are in constant danger of falling into a pig sty of our own making.
Many people nowadays would deny that they sin. They don’t believe they have any sins needing to be forgiven. Famously, Donald Trump has said on number of occasions that he has never asked God for forgiveness. He once said in an interview:
I like to be good. I don’t like to have to ask for forgiveness. And I am good. I don’t do a lot of things that are bad. I try to do nothing that is bad.[i]
That’s such a striking insight into his personality: he thinks he is good, and doesn’t ever need to seek forgiveness. But many people think that way. They would have no idea what St Paul is on about when he talk about Christ changing people from being enemies of God into his friends. ‘How can I be an enemy of God?’ they say- ‘I’m a good person, really’.
But if we are really honest, we will admit it: that there is something of the lost son in me. I’ve taken wrong turnings, done wrong things. I do have things I need forgiven for. I am far from perfect. I need forgiveness. Which, of course, explains a lot about the state of humanity!
Eventually, the young man in the story at last does something right. He sees a way out of his mess, a way out of the pig sty which his life has become. ‘I will get up and go to my Father’. But it’s not a very heroic thing to do- it’s quite a calculated move: ‘All my father’s hired workers have more than they can eat, and here I am about to starve!’ He does not deserve his Father’s sympathy, and he’s not going to look for it. He just wants decent food and a comfortable bed. The last thing he wants, or deserves, is a warm welcome.
“He was still a long way from home when his father saw him; his heart was filled with pity, and he ran, threw his arms around his son, and kissed him.
‘Father,’ the son said, ‘I have sinned against God and against you. I am no longer fit to be called your son.’
But the father called to his servants. ‘Hurry!’ he said. ‘Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and shoes on his feet. Then go and get the prize calf and kill it, and let us celebrate with a feast! For this son of mine was dead, but now he is alive; he was lost, but now he has been found.’ And so the feasting began.
He’s still a long way from home when the father sees him- has the father always been looking out for him ever since he left. It’s the father who runs to the son, and throws his arms around him, and kisses him.
And now, at last, the boy’s attitude seems to change. He finally confesses- to himself, to his father, to God- that he is in the wrong, and that he really cannot expect any favours from the father: “‘Father,’ the son said, ‘I have sinned against God and against you. I am no longer fit to be called your son.’” In the emotion of the moment he doesn’t even get to the bit where he offers to work as a hired hand for his father. For the father is so delighted to get his son back that he immediately treats him as his son again. Father calls for the best robe, and ring for his finger, shoes for his feet- and prize calf to be killed for the celebratory feast.
It does not matter anymore to the father that his son had turned his back on him. It does not matter that he squandered his inheritance. It does not matter that the boy disgraced the family name. It does not matter that he ended up a pig keeper. It does not matter that he came back and presumed upon the father’s good will. Only one thing matters, and it is the reason for the feast: “‘For this son of mine was dead, but now he is alive; he was lost, but now he has been found.’ And so the feasting began”.
If, as you hear this parable, you identify with the lost son, then this is the natural end to the story. And that happy ever after ending is how many Christians have heard the story down through the centuries. This was a story which originally must have given joy and hope to the outcasts with whom Jesus was spending so much time: they would have identified with the Prodigal Son, have seen in his story a reflection of their experience in meeting Jesus- the one who, in God’s names, welcomes back the runaways with forgiveness and grace.
But Jesus hasn’t quite finished with the story. Remember the grumblers at the start of the story, the religious people whom Jesus scandalised? Well, this story is for them, too. And for them, Jesus brings back into the story someone we have only heard mentioned in passing right at the beginning:
“In the meantime the older son was out in the field. On his way back, when he came close to the house, he heard the music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him, ‘What’s going on?’
‘Your brother has come back home,’ the servant answered, ‘and your father has killed the prize calf, because he got him back safe and sound.’
The older brother was so angry that he would not go into the house; so his father came out and begged him to come in. But he spoke back to his father, ‘Look, all these years I have worked for you like a slave, and I have never disobeyed your orders. What have you given me? Not even a goat for me to have a feast with my friends! But this son of yours wasted all your property on prostitutes, and when he comes back home, you kill the prize calf for him!’
‘My son,’ the father answered, ‘you are always here with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be happy, because your brother was dead, but now he is alive; he was lost, but now he has been found.’”
To the older son, the father can only give, once more, the reason he already gave for the feasting. And he says, not that his son was dead and lost, but ‘your brother was dead, but now he is alive; he was lost, but now he has been found’.
And that is the answer Jesus gives to the grumblers, to those who are scandalized by his spending time with outcasts, to those who are revolted by his message that God’s grace and forgiveness is open to anyone: these so-called outcasts and prodigals are your brothers and sisters. So don’t judge them because you think you’re better than them. Just join the party to celebrate God’s grace!
Whether we admit it to anyone, whether other can see it or not: we all of us carry a burden of shame and disgrace. None of us does not need to ask for forgiveness. But when we admit that, we will be overwhelmed by the free grace of our loving Father. Here is a message for today, for we still are grappling with guilt and shame- what Christianity calls sin.
When we speak of guilt and shame sin only, we have not yet spoken about the Gospel. Rather, as St Paul puts it, the Gospel message is that God was reconciling all humanity to himself in Christ[ii]: everyone, even those who have just come out a pig sty. That is a scandalous message, and it often causes a lot of grumbling. But it is what Jesus did, and taught, and said we should do likewise.
Ascription of Praise
To God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ,
who gave himself for our sins,
to rescue us out of the present wicked age
as our God and Father willed;
to him be glory for ever and ever! Amen.
from Galatians 1.4
Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated
© 2019 Peter W Nimmo
[ii] 2 Corinthians 2.19