The end of religion-a sermon on the Parable of the Prodigal Son

Scripture Readings: Romans 3.9-18, 21-24
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

One of the most controversial issues in theology is the question of whether the writings of St Paul truly reflect the teachings of Jesus. For Jesus, as we meet him in the Gospels, is a man of action- striding out across the country, healing and caring for people, and preaching usually by telling stories. But Paul stands accused of having taken the original, pure good news, and turned it into some kind of metaphysical system. Jesus tells stories- Paul writes about abstractions.

But I think part of the problem is that Paul’s letters are often trying to deal with the questions of his own time. He’s talking about Jesus by through a fog of first century controversy. Yet faced with these problems, Paul asks, ‘What does Jesus Christ mean in this situation?’

Confronted with problems and controversies in the church, we often struggle to find answers for ourselves. Rarely do we say- well, what does Christ mean to us, in this situation? In our increasingly secular world, what does Christ mean today? In a church struggling with changing sexual mores, what does Christ mean today? In a world torn apart by war and suffering, where what does Christ mean today? What kind of answers might we get, I wonder, if we asked those sorts of questions?

St Paul, to his great credit, often asked the question, ‘What does Christ mean in this situation?’ when faced with a controversy. So, when some people suggested that Jewish Christians had some sort of advantage of Gentile Christians, he wants to tell the Christians at Rome that whether their background is in the Jewish faith, or if they were pagans (or Gentiles, as the Jews say), still it is all the same to God. There is no advantage in being one or the other.

For Paul has a strong sense all people, regardless of religion, are failures. ‘Jews and Gentiles alike are all under the power of sin’ is how he puts it. And he analyses the problem- no-one is really wise or righteous, people have turned from God, we’re liars and too quick to hurt others. Paul does not have a rosy view of the human race: ‘they leave ruin and destruction wherever they go’. He would have been interested to know that 2,000 years later, we are still ruining the world by war and violence, and that have even found ways of poisoning our water, stripping the good out of the soil, and even mucking up the climate.

But if that is the bad news, there is also good news, as Paul asks what Christ means in this controversy. Our sinfulness has cut us off from God, says Paul. No effort on our part can heal the breach. Yet God has made it possible for us to find peace with him. ‘God puts people right through their faith in Jesus Christ’. In other words- believe in Christ and you will find forgiveness, peace, the possibility of new life- even although you are a failure, and don’t deserve God’s love.

But why would Paul say that about Jesus? Why would he suggest that it is in following Jesus we can find a way out of the human predicament? Why does Paul make sin and forgiveness central to his way of speaking about the Gospel of Jesus? The answer to that is, I believe, that for Jesus, too, sin and forgiveness is central to his teaching.

Some people imagine that the centre of Jesus’ teaching is his ethics- the ideas he’s got about how we should live with one another. They say that Paul’s obsession with sin and forgiveness has blinded us to the original teaching of Jesus. Certainly, ideas such as love of our neighbour are at the heart of Jesus’ teaching. But I think the morality of Jesus is based on his theology. Yes, we are to love our neighbour- but we are also to love God. And we can only love our neighbour if we know that God loves us. We have to know that there is a God who loves us before we can love our neighbour. Take another example of Jesus ethics- he teaches that we should forgive others. He has a line in the famous prayer that he taught us- forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us. There it is again- that tight connection between how we treat one another, and how God treats us. We can only forgive because we have been forgiven. We are to forgive those who sin against us, because God has forgiven us, who sinned against God.

I think the Gospels will always be more popular than the writings of St Paul because Jesus says these things better. There are profound thought and deep wisdom in Paul’s letters- not to mention a sharp logic, which has much to teach us as we try to do as Paul did, and answer the question- ‘What does Christ mean in our own day, in our own situation?’. But the Gospels will always be more popular, for Jesus was a terrific storyteller.

The American writer Philip Yancey notes, ‘Those raised in a Christian tradition may miss the shock of Jesus’ message’ (The Jesus I Never Knew, p265). The parable of Jesus we heard today is a good example of a shocking story which, because it is so familiar, we might miss just how shocking it originally was. It is one of a trio of stories which Luke collects at this point, where Jesus tells some stories to deal with the fact that not everyone liked what he had to say. You know the sort- the ones for whom the glass is half empty, the ones who say it’ll rain soon when we’re enjoying the sunshine:

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!”

Not very respectable people are listening to Jesus, so the unco guid complain. There’s always the complainers, and quite often they are religious. They thought that they merited God’s grace by keeping to every detail of the Jewish Law as it had been elaborated over the centuries. And because they were pure, they thought they should have nothing to do with those who did not keep the Law as well as they did.

So they were shocked when Jesus, a religious teacher, seemed to draw to himself an audience full of ‘tax collectors and other sinners’- all kinds of people who didn’t really measure up.

So Jesus tells a story- a tale which has been called the greatest short story ever told. Many of us have been familiar with it from childhood. But the people who first heard this story- the Pharisees and the law teachers, the tax collectors and all the other ‘outcasts’- none of them knew that they were about to hear a story which would become a classic, remembered and retold down 2,000 years of history. What they heard was a story, which would have shocked some of them. But Jesus meant it to be very good news indeed for many people. For he was telling them that God was far more welcoming, and less forbidding, than thought.

And so Jesus begins:

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.

Now, this was not an unusual situation. The Jewish law required that the father give one third of his inheritance to the younger son, and two-thirds to the eldest. And often a rich man would divide his inheritance before he died, so that he could retire from active farming. And yet there is something heartless about a young man effectively saying to his father, ‘Give me the property I’ll be getting when you are dead’, and then taking the money and leaving home.

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.

In a few short words, Jesus paints a picture of a life which is utterly ruined. This young man has done more than just transgress some of the minor parts of the law. He has squandered his inheritance in a magnificently hedonistic fashion (later his elder brother will later on say he spent it all on prostitutes). He spends as if there is no tomorrow- and one day, there is no tomorrow. A famine strikes that faraway land. In an age when agriculture was the source of wealth, a famine affected everyone in a nation. It was their credit crunch or recession, and as still happens, difficult times for the economy spell disaster. The young man’s dreams of happiness are shattered. Now he has to work, and he grasps at whatever is available. Eventually, someone takes him on as a farm labourer. And on the farm, he is sent to do a job where he reaches rock bottom. This offspring of a respectable Jewish farmer finds himself looking after the pigs.

Yet even at the lowest ebb, human beings have a capacity to start again, to reboot, to turn over a new leaf. It begins when we honesty realise what a mess we are in:

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.

He goes home, and does not expect to find a very warm welcome. He hopes his father will allow him to live on the family farm, if only because he is his father’s son. But he cannot expect much more, for he has he not dishonoured his father?

There are those who think that way about God. They cannot believe that God could possibly accept them, after all they have done. No doubt some of the tax collector and sinners listening to the story thought that way about themselves- that they would never be good enough. And the Pharisees and the law teachers were quite sure that their God would utterly reject someone like the youngest son, someone who had so blatantly flouted God’s law. This youngest son deserves the wrath of God.

Back to the story- the son tramps homeward, not knowing if his father has forgotten him, worried about his father’s anger. What he would never have imagined is that the father has been spending a lot of his time at the edge of his estate, looking down the road to see if he is coming:

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.

"Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn - Return of the Prodigal Son - Google Art Project" by Rembrandt - 5QFIEhic3owZ-A at Google Cultural Institute, zoom level maximum. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rembrandt_Harmensz_van_Rijn_-_Return_of_the_Prodigal_Son_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg#/media/File:Rembrandt_Harmensz_van_Rijn_-_Return_of_the_Prodigal_Son_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg

“Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn – Return of the Prodigal Son – Google Art Project” by Rembrandt – 5QFIEhic3owZ-A at Google Cultural Institute, zoom level maximum. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rembrandt_Harmensz_van_Rijn_-_Return_of_the_Prodigal_Son_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg#/media/File:Rembrandt_Harmensz_van_Rijn_-_Return_of_the_Prodigal_Son_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg

It is with a welcome, and not with anger, that the father receives his son. And we can imagine that among Jesus’ audience, any of them who is a parent might understand that this is still a realistic story. What father who had lost a son would not welcome him home. What parents every entirely gives up on a child, no matter what they do, not matter where they go. The father’s emotion is natural and human. It is so strong, that when the boy tries to speak, his father interrupts 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.

How could it be otherwise? We often call this story, ‘The parable of the prodigal
son’. But the son is not the hero of this story- it is really the parable of the loving father. It is a story about love which knows no bounds. It is possible to forgive someone and yet now quite forgive- to allow the memory of their offence to still hang around in the background. But the fatted calf, and the feast, the best robe and the ring and the shoes all indicate that the youngest son is being completely resorted to his former status. It is as if his rebellion against his father had never happened.

Now, among Jesus listeners, I wonder if any of them had yet got the analogy. That this father is how we are to think of God. Looking out for us to return to him. Ready to completely and utterly forgive. Treating us as if we had never been away, even if we had been to the very worst of places. I could imagine that some of those ‘tax collectors and other outcasts’ would be delighted to hear this story. For it would bring them hope- Jesus was saying that God’s love could include them also.

But for some it is a shocking message, and not everyone then or since has been able to believe that God’s love is quite so wide-ranging. Christ’s message of God’s radical grace was always heresy for some- for the unco guid, the Pharisees and the law teachers. So Jesus does not end the story here. There is something in this tale for all his audience- for the Pharisees as well as the outcasts:

“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!’

You can hear the elder brother’s sense of injustice in his words- ‘Not even a goat!’ He’s the big brother, the responsible one, to whom the idea of abandoning his responsibilities had never entered his head. He’s not yet forgiven his younger brother. He thinks his father is an addled old fool. But the father has a reply for the eldest son:

‘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.’”

The father has his priorities right. This is not a time to judge, but to celebrate. For the father, love trumps all.

St Paul understood what the Gospel of Christ was about when he wrote to the Romans that the God makes things right when we turn to Christ, the one who told this wonderful story about God’s welcoming love. We are all sinners, says Paul- yet God wills us to return in faith, and when we do there is what Paul calls ‘the free gift of God’s grace’- a Father who welcomes us all with open arms.

A final thought. I said Paul always sought to bring Christ into any difficult, controversial situation. We’re struggling in Europe at the moment with the plight of the thousands of refugees who are crossing the Mediterranean in unsafe boats, who are crowding around the port of Calais. There are no easy answers, I know, to this crisis. Yet if I bring Christ into this situation, I hear him speaking of a Father who opens his arms in welcome.

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The God of grace who calls you all
to his eternal glory in Christ
restore, establish and strengthen you.
All power belongs to God for ever and ever, Amen.

Based on 1 Peter 5.10-11: c.f. BCO 1994, p584

Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated
© 2015 Peter W Nimmo