Joshua 5:9-12; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; St. Luke 15:1-3 & 11b-32. a 5:9-12
There will be many sermons preached on the Prodigal Son this Sunday. But what is the meaning of this well-known parable and its place in the lectionary during Lent. What new thing has this word of Jesus to say to us in this season of Lent, who are so familiar with the words that before we hear them we believe we know what it all means.
Perhaps it is this familiarity which prevents us at times from seeing its meaning for us. The parable is understood by St. Luke as an answer to the question posed by the Scribes and Pharisees that “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” (v.2.)
One of the difficulties in understanding the parable is that so often it is transposed into a story about the general beneficence or love of God, an abstract notion whose content remains in the sphere of generalities, as is so much of Jesus teaching when its meaning is divorced from WHO He is in himself.
I would suggest that we think of the parable as Jesus own self interpretation of the way that he goes from Bethlehem to Golgotha. That is to cease separating the parable from Him who speaks it and turning it into an abstract moral metaphor of God.
You will recall the Pharisees words which precipitate the parable. It is this accusation levelled at Jesus, “This man receives sinners and eats with them”. This is the question which, in one form or another throughout the period of Lent, is understood, by the gospel lectionaries to be the crux of the issue for Jesus. The 40 days of Lent recall Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness consequent on His Baptism where the question of the nature of His being as the Son of God is put to the test.
In Jesus Baptism He is declared to be God’s well-beloved Son as He receives at the hand of John the Baptist a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin. Jesus the holy Son of God who knew no sin receives a baptism of one who confesses sin is a penitent! In this first act of His public ministry Jesus declares His solidarity with sinners and therefore embraces the cross as the fulfilment of this way to the depths of the godforsakenness which He now shares with all people. The temptations are directly related to the Baptism since they raise in various forms the possibility for Jesus of Him being the Son of God in some other way than the way of penitential obedience which will lead to the cross.
In Sunday’s lectionary, the Pharisees question raises the same issue. The association of Jesus with sinners. His identification of His way with their cause before God with all that involves in terms of His sharing to the uttermost the shameful corner in which God finds all of us.
In the parable Jesus speaks of a journey into the far country taken by a Father’s son. The reason he departs the father’s house is he sees an opportunity in half the father’s wealth he is given, to become ever more deeply involved in the dissipation of his life in fulfilling his self-serving desires. This is the story of all people, the sin of Adam who wanted to be his own Judge and Saviour as, according to Genesis 3, he wanted to know good and evil and not to rely upon the faithfulness of God as the basis of life. And this is the journey with which Jesus identifies Himself in His Baptism, this is the way that He takes to its depths, stated in the parable of the prodigal son as sinking to be associated with and feeding with that most unclean of all animals; swine.
The Son’s return to the Fathers house is initiated by His coming to Himself. His repentance. But who is it that repents? When penitence is abstracted from the work of Jesus, His penitence on our behalf, we are back in the monastery cell with Luther who found that by inward reflection there was no way from our ability to repent to reconciliation with God. He found through bitter experience that all our penitence is simply a more pious form of self justification. Long before Sigmund Freud, Luther discovered the truth of what Jeremiah declared, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?” (Chp. 17:9.) Jesus is the One who comes to Himself for the sake of us all; He takes the way of penitential obedience which finds its fulfilment in the cross.
St. Luke then uses the word used by the New Testament writers of the resurrection – anastasis anastasis – to describe the return of the Son from the far country to the Fathers house. In the resurrection of the dead Jesus, as St. Paul says in Romans 4:5, God is a God who “justifies the ungodly.” The Father welcomes the Son even while he is still absent from Him “a great way off.” The Fathers action is that of free unmerited grace. The Father wills to be the Father not as one who is against His Son, though in terms of a natural view of justice He would be in the right to reject the son, the Father wills to be in the right not over against His Son but for His Son, allowing him to share in the riches of his house without any preconditions.
The elder Son of course finds this extravagance of the Father too much to bear. The Son who has always been with father, working the fathers farm, rejects his reckless acceptance of the rebel and refuses to accept the invitation to rejoice in the younger son’s return. Here the claim of Israel is raised, the voice of the Pharisees who had accused Jesus of “receiving sinners and eating with them.” But there is no attempt to denigrate the elder son, He remains a son. The Father does not call into question his relationship to him as a son. As St. Paul says in Romans Chaps. 9-11, Israel compared to the gentile church is God’s natural olive tree, Gentiles are grafted by grace into this natural olive tree. Israel’s election and calling as His people are irrevocable. The mystery to which the parable points is the rejection by God’s people of His gracious action on their behalf, the elder son’s rejection of the Father’s gracious acceptance of the returning prodigal’s return prefigures Israel’s rejection of their crucified Messiah, through whom the gentiles are reconciled to God.
It is now the Gentile church’s purpose, our purpose, to celebrate this extravagant gracious election by God of Gentiles in the crucified Messiah Jesus. Through his journey into the fart country of the world in its alienation from God has reconciled not only Israel, but all people to Himself. Clothing them with the righteousness of Christ as they accept this unbelievable gift; becoming His beloved children.
This question translated into our own situation as the church of the gentiles, dependent upon our living by and celebrating the truth of our life in the extravagant condescension of God, is to imagine that we are any different to Israel, epitomised by the Pharisees and their accusation against Jesus. We too find it extremely uncomfortable to know that the crucified Lord of the church is the one who still goes His strange journey of obedience into the far country of the world’s godforsakenness, there to come to Himself for the sake of the least and the lost and to take us back to the Father’s house. The question this poses for us is the same as that which Jesus’ being posed for the Pharisees. Certainly, they rejected the claim to lordship of One who was a friend of sinners. But the fact of their accusation must remain for us the truth of our life: “this man receives sinners and eats with them.” It is precisely this scandal that offends us as we gather around the table of which He is the host and receive His broken body and shed blood in elements of bread and wine for us “this man still receives sinners and eats with them.” That He still does this today is for our eternal salvation!
Pastor Dr. Gordon Watson.