The Reverend Elizabeth Bowyer
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Sermon # 1 of 2 for this week

Reflection for the fourth Sunday in Lent, March 6, 2016 Based on Luke’s gospel, Chapter 15, verses 1-3; 11-32, The Parable of the Prodigal Son

Opening Prayer: Holy, gracious and amazing God, may the words on my lips and thoughts and feelings we carry in our hearts, and minds, and bodies, may all of them be acceptable in your sight as we reflect alone and together on your holy word for us this. May it be so. Amen.

This morning as we celebrate the fourth Sunday in the season of Lent, we find ourselves moving ever closer to Jesus’ arrival into the Holy City, Jerusalem. But for today, our reading draws us into the crowds gathered wherever Jesus finds himself.

In our reading this morning, in my mind’s eye, I see two circles of people. One gathers around Jesus as he sets the stage for this morning’s story while another less obvious circle forms itself off in the shadows. Comprised of those tense, puzzled, and fearful ones-the religious leaders, the Pharisees and the scribes, I can hear them grumbling loudly to one another about the company Jesus is choosing to keep. Their most pressing critique today? Jesus is breaking all the accepted rules of engagement by socializing and eating with those most reviled of people, the tax collectors and the sinners-men and women of the most dubious reputations!

This is the backdrop for our story this morning coming as it does from the mid portion of the 15th chapter of Luke’s gospel. Though this morning’s story is one of quartet of stories about being lost and being found, it’s the only one we have on offer this morning. As Mary Ellen outlined in the introductions to the readings, it’s a lengthy one vividly describing the homecoming of the prodigal son, his father’s response, and his elder brother’s displeasure at this turn of events.  The Parable of the Prodigal Son.

On the surface of it, it’s a familiar enough story focussed on renewing family ties between a generous, forgiving, and overjoyed father and his younger wayward son arriving home after squandering his inheritance in a foreign land. Over and against this shift in relationship, we have an envious elder son’s seething resentment bubbling over and threatening to spoil the homecoming. I really like how the authors of my Harper Collins Study Bible called this story “The Parable of the Prodigal and His Brother”.  

It is, in fact, a story about not one but two lost and ungrateful brothers whose sense of entitlement has got the better of each of them- one lost to undisciplined living and the other to righteous indignation.  And its a story full to the brim with scandals.  First, there's the scandal about the self absorbed younger son's behaviour and its impact on the entire family  living as they did in the predominant honour/shame culture of the time. Given that, its thought that that the community would have also viewed the father’s acquiescence in releasing the younger son his inheritance to him in the first place, though not entirely uncommon, also, a weak, if not scandalous thing to do as well. Then, to top it off, on the younger son’s return, it would be considered most unusual for a person of the father’s standing in the community to be so lavish in welcoming the very one who had brought such shame upon the family. Along with bestowing of the best robes, jewelry, and footwear, not to mention preparing the fatted calf for a community celebration, rushing out to meet his son on the road would also have had set more than a few tongues wagging! The elder son’s response to this shift in family dynamics along with the father’s pleading for reconciliation with his brother adds another poignant layer of scandal to the story offering us just a glimpse of the ongoing challenges of parenthood ensuing even into adulthood.

Though we have no idea of how the story ends, whether the brothers are reconciled, or whether the family’s status in the community is restored, we know that something is at work in all three of the men as a result of being in lifelong relationship as family. 

With all of that background, then, some thoughts about what might have been at work for Jesus in the sharing of this story as it appears at this point in the gospel of Luke narrative: Some biblical scholars suggest the story might have been one of Jesus’ own attempts at homecoming for himself. After all, he was rejected by his own family at Nazareth. Others suggest the story is a metaphor for God’s kingdom where abundant and welcoming grace would trump everything we know about justice and fairness being meted out or given as reward for effort. God’s kingdom-a place where those who would hold up rules and norms as being of more value than relationship would be challenged to think and think again. Going back to the context of what propelled Jesus to offer this story, we remember that he was being challenged by the religious authorities for entering into table fellowship with those on the margins of culture.

By telling this story in response to the critique of breaking bread with the last and the least, he was breaking down the walls between who was in and who was out. He was trampling on the boundaries of what was considered to be tried and true. In the final analysis, he was offering a radical and counter-cultural understanding of the implications of how being in relationship with God impacts how we are in relationship with one another and how being in relationship with one another brings us closer (or not) to God.

To put it another way, Barbara Brown Taylor describes the purpose of this parable this way: “The Parable of the Prodigal Son and his Brother” is an alarming one. Its about hanging out with the wrong people. Its about throwing parties for losers and asking winners to foot the bill. Its about giving up the idea that we can love God and despise one another.”  (Christian Century, March, 1998)  

In a nutshell, this morning’s story reminds us of this: At some time in each of our lives, we have all been the elder or the younger offspring in our family constellations.

At some time in our lives, we have all felt someone has taken advantage of us or we have taken advantage of another.

At some time in our lives, we have all been in the position of begging forgiveness and compassion on our own misdeeds.

At some time in our lives, we have all had to help a son or a brother or a sister or a cousin see that their behaviour and or their sense of entitlement needs tweaking.

Sometimes we’ve been effective and sometimes not.

Sometimes forgiveness and compassion have been offered or received and sometimes not.

Sometimes reconciliation has occurred or outcomes have been left to dangle.

The Parable of the Prodigal Son and His Brother is a tale with the power to speak to each and every phase of our life: for our wandering youth; our staid middle age; our softened old age.

It’s a story of rebellion and of love; and it’s one that puts us back together, sometimes in spite of ourselves.

It’s a story that challenges us to live generously among those we might consider family. (paraphrased from Lent, Easter, 2013 Seasons of the Spirit, Copyright Wood Lake Publishing Inc. 2012)

Ralph Waldo Emerson was once quoted as saying that the Parable of the Prodigal Son was the greatest story ever told. As we move through the remaining days of the Lenten season for this year, may God help us to discover how this story from scripture might guide our discernment of ourselves and one another as being worthy of both offering and receiving forgiveness, compassion, and generosity of spirit within the bounds of this church family and beyond its door. May it be so, amen.