Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Sermon preached at Gorbals Parish Church, March 14th 2010 – Mothering Sunday
When I read the Gospel passage assigned for today and realised that it coincides with Mother’s day, I knew I was in for a challenge. The story we read from the gospel according to Luke doesn’t even mention the mother of the two sons. She was obviously involved in the conception and birthing of the sons, possibly even in their upbringing and education, but she is not at all mentioned in the story. I can’t say I ever noticed that, especially since this is one of the most detailed stories that Jesus told in the gospels.
On top of that, we are facing another challenge in the fact that many people struggle to imagine God as a father, because their experience of growing up with a father was far from being positive. Because my wife is a councillor, I am made aware that a large proportion of her clients have suffered some form of parental abuse. It is a lot more common that I thought it was. How can a person who was abused by their father imagine God as a father?
The story of the prodigal son is probably my favourite out of all the stories of Jesus. It is a profoundly scandalous and outrageous story. It was meant to shock and horrify his listeners, while at the same time reveal God’s love and acceptance, which went far beyond what they could even imagine. It is a story that challenges us as sons and daughters, and also as fathers and mothers. The beauty of this story is that we can all read it from different perspectives.
We can read it as the younger son who disrespected his parent and messed up his life. We can read it as the older son who did everything right and is scandalized by the attention the rogue son is getting from his father. Or we can read it as a parent who did everything in their power to bring up their children in the faith and yet were disrespected and disappointed.
This is timeless story: a story that scandalizes and inspires at the same time. It reveals more about the love of God than any theological book you can think of. But this is certainly not a story about an easy, puppy eyed, sentimental kind of love. It’s not about the warm, tingly feeling when you hold your five year old child in your arms and kiss their forehead before you put them to bed.
It is about a painful and sacrificial kind of love in the midst of parental disappointment and despair. We can only understand the full extent of this story if we try to read it from a first century Jewish perspective. What the young son does to his father is, from a first century Jewish point of view, a most outrageous form of offense.
For a son to ask for his share of his father’s estate was basically to tell his father to drop dead. The inheritance was only imparted after the father’s death. For a first century Jew to hear the son’s demand was absolutely shocking. If you talked back to your father in ancient Israel, you were taken outside of the city gates and stoned.
And how does the father respond to this demand? I know how I would have responded. “Have you lost your mind? How dare you speak to your father this way?”… or something in those lines. The story tells us that the father responded by dividing his estate between the two sons and giving the young son his share. The listeners must have been utterly surprised by the father’s response.
What follows in the story about the son’s behaviour after he leaves his father’s house and travels to a foreign country, perhaps managed to relax the listeners somewhat. They could all see it coming. It was logical that a son who treated his father that way was not going to end up well.
The young son squanders all his money and ends up in the lowest kind of humiliation imaginable for a Jew: tending pigs. The Jews didn’t even touch pigs, much less tend them. But starvation and famine pushed him to accept the most demeaning of occupations that a Jew could imagine.
The story tells us that eventually the son came to his senses, and decided to return to his father and persuade him to take him on as one of his hired hands. This is the first and the only right decision that this son makes in the whole story: the decision to return to his father.
As he travels back to his father he makes up this whole spiritual speech in his mind. But he hardly gets to say any of it. The story goes that the father saw him while he was still far off. Now his listeners must have been on the edge of their seats at this stage. How was the father going to react? Will he take the son as a hired hand? Will he send him away to teach him a lesson? What will he do? What would you have done? Try to imagine yourself in that situation…
What the father does is again extremely shocking for the Jewish audience. Jesus tells them that the father ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him. This was shocking because an elderly man never ran in ancient Israel. It wasn’t a dignified thing to do. But the father doesn’t care about how dignified he looks to the onlookers. He is filled with compassion for his son, and runs to him, embracing and kissing him.
The son begins his speech, but the father is not listening because he is overcome by joy to see his lost son returned to him. There is no shouting match, no moralistic speeches by the father. Instead, the father sends for new clothes for his son, and throws a big party to celebrate the return of his son.
In the midst of the celebrations, the attention shifts to the older son, to the one who stayed behind and did all the right things. Instead of joining the party, as his father asks him to do, he stands outside, outraged and enraged by the father’s attention given to his younger brother. In his love for the older sun, the father humiliates himself once again by pleading with his son to join the celebration.
In many ways, the older son’s reaction may look as if it’s coming from a sense of justice and righteousness. What he doesn’t realize is that he is himself disobedient and disrespectful to his father by refusing to join in his party. It is so ironic when human righteousness ends up being sinful and destructive when it is not lived out in the context of love and acceptance.
And this is what this story is about. As we read, the story is triggered by the reaction of the Pharisees and scribes, the morally outstanding people in Israel, who were scandalized by the fact that Jesus ate meals with the sinners and people of ‘doubtful reputation’.
Their reaction is exactly the same as the older brother’s reaction in the story. They do not understand the extent of God’s love and acceptance. They cannot conceive that someone who messed up their life as the prodigal son did could ever be restored. This kind of love was scandalous and shocking.
But just as the father in the story does not care about how dignified he looks to the bystanders, our heavenly Father is driven by a love that surpasses our understanding, a love that challenges our self righteousness, a love that overcomes social customs and limitations. And because of this love, and only because of his love, we all know that we are welcome to his table.