4th Sunday Lent
6 March 2016
Dcn Les Ruhrmund
The parable of the prodigal son is probably one of the best known and most loved of all the stories in the Bible. Charles Dickens called this parable the greatest short story ever written.
Of all Jesus ‘parables, this one is the most richly detailed, powerfully dramatic, and intensely personal. While the portrait of the loving, merciful father may bring comfort to we who can so easily identify with the prodigal son, the parable is also very challenging when we identify with the cold indifference of the older brother – the real focus point of the story as it turns out.
Jesus tells the parable of the prodigal son in response to criticism from the Pharisees and scribes who essentially accuse him of being evil. “This man” they say “receives sinners and eats with them.” In their eyes, by association Jesus’ behaviour was shameful because in their understanding of Jewish religious law sinners should to be rejected with contempt rather than welcomed in friendship.The parable contrasts the compassion, love and mercy of Jesus, represented by the father, with the self-righteous, joyless, pious pretence of the Pharisees and the scribes represented by the older son.
I’d like to look at the parable at a relatively simple level and explore its possible meaning for us as we journey through this season of Lent.
I’m sure we’ll find something of ourselves in each of the three central characters.
The younger son’s request to his father for his share of his inheritance was outrageous, impudent and insulting. He was rejecting the core values of his family, his religion and his society and was publically dishonouring and humiliating his father. He got caught up in a determined pursuit of pleasure and freedom and ran away from his duties and obligations as a son, a brother and a member of the community. Have we not at some time felt that urge to just run away from everything? To whom or to what do we run?
The picture that Jesus presented of this young Jewish man, penniless and reduced to feeding the pigs, could hardly have been more shocking and revolting to his audience. He was at rock bottom and completely estranged from his father.
Are there pursuits of our own that distance us from a close relationship with God, our Father? As did the father in the parable, God gives us complete freedom to follow our hearts and our desires but that doesn’t necessarily lead to happiness; often what we want leads us away from the Father. And the Father waits and waits and waits for us to return.
In the parable we’re told that when the foolhardy young man finally ‘came to his senses’ he decided to return to his father. The brief insight Jesus gives into the young man’s thinking is one of the best examples in all of scripture of true repentance. The son looked at himself honestly, at the ugly reality of what he had become and decided that he would make a full confession and throw himself on his father’s mercy. True repentance begins with an honest assessment of one’s self and a desire for relationship with the Father. Remorse for our sinfulness is not enough. The young man certainly felt sorry for himself and regretted the decisions he’d made but only found peace and comfort after he returned to his father and asked for his forgiveness. Lent is an ideal time to face up to that which is wrong in our lives, our sinfulness and return to the Father.
The young man seems to have had no doubt that his father would be merciful but he could never have anticipated that he would be welcomed back with such lavish love without any suggestion of anger or retribution. In the culture of that time, it would have been unthinkable for the father to accept the boy back into his home without demanding severe penance; perhaps many years of hard labour and a public apology to earn his father’s pardon.
Jesus’ audience would have been shocked at the father’s behaviour in the parable. Nothing fits with their expectation. The father overflowing with joy runs to greet the boy (scandalous); he embraces him and kisses him (outrageous and weak); he clothes him in his best robe, puts a ring on his finger and shoes on his feet as a public sign that this is his son and is to be treated with the same respect and honour as he is (inconceivable). And that’s the point. God’s love for us is inconceivable; way and far beyond anything that we can imagine or have ever experienced.
The Pharisees and scribes’ reaction at this stage in the parable would have been the same as the older son’s. They would have found the father’s response to his prodigal son unacceptable. They would rather see the sinner punished than saved.
The attitude of the older son showed that his years of obedience to his father had been years of grim duty rather than loving service. His response is all about himself… “I have served you; I never disobeyed you.” And he’s right …and he has no more love for his father than his younger brother had when he left home. He believes that as long as he follows the rules he’s beyond the need for grace or mercy.He hides his deceitful heart behind a cloak of respectability. His anger and resentment are directed at his father for forgiving and loving his brother. It is that rejection of God’s love and mercy that fuelled the Pharisees and scribes’ hatred and determination to put Jesus to death.
The parable ends abruptly with the father begging his son to join him in celebrating the return of his brother. We don’t know how the older boy responded to his father.
Did he recognise that his initial response was wrong and ask his father for his forgiveness and join in the celebration or did he plan to kill him?
We could think about that and consider our response to the Father as we journey to Easter.