Sermon for Trinity IX – ’28 Propers
All Saints’ Church
August 9, 2009
During my first year of seminary I had the opportunity to attend a Biblical Preaching Conference where The Rev. Dr. Paul Zahl was the keynoter giving a series of 3 lectures concerning Biblical Preaching. The audience was almost exclusively Episcopal priests in various stages of the ministry, from those who were nearing retirement to folk like me and others who were just embarking on the journey of the priesthood. Robyn and I were parishioners of Dr. Zahl’s at the Cathedral Church of the Advent in Birmingham, so I was quite excited to see and hear him again. One of the things that Dr. Zahl said in one of his lectures has stuck with me now almost 5 years later, and does so with crystal clarity in light of this morning’s Gospel lesson. Paul said this and I quote fairly loosely, “I hate preaching. It’s like a Golgotha each and every time I step into the pulpit.” Not sure how that quotation strikes you, but those are not exactly the kinds of things that one wants to hear when he hasn’t really delivered any sermons before, or for those who have preached a lifetime of them. What is he saying and what does that have to do with what has commonly been called the Parable of the Prodigal Son?
To begin with, I think, like many other commentators on this passage, the parable has been mischaracterized to single out the repentance of the younger son. There’s no doubt that the younger son plays a significant role in Jesus’ teaching because the majority of the verses deal with him as opposed to his brother. However, this parable is not simply one about a wayward son, but rather, it is one about 2 lost sons. A more appropriate title should be the Parable of the Two Lost Sons, or perhaps more accurately the Parable of the Loving Father.
This is perhaps one of Jesus’ more well-known parables, and one that we have grown up hearing in church. I’m certain that we’ve all heard a number of sermons preached on this unique teaching of our Lord that is found only in Luke’s Gospel. As Bishop N.T. Wright once said humorously in a talk he was giving on the Historical Jesus, “whenever we hear in church hear begins the eleventh verse of the fifteenth chapter of the Gospel of St. Luke – ‘Jesus said, A certain man had two sons, and’ we immediately switch off and begin to wonder if we switched off the oven before we left for church.” However, this parable, like so many others, could almost be read, marked, learned, and inwardly digested on a weekly basis and never lose its ability to convict us in our walk with the Lord.
Since most of us do not read Scripture from the perspective of a 1st Century Palestinian, we tend to miss some of the underlying themes that would have confronted someone from this area from the start. First of all, the scandal of this parable hits us right off the bat. As Dr. Wright says, “sons do not ask fathers for cash down before their death.” The effects of the younger son’s question has the effect of cursing his father, wishing he were dead and out of the way so that he might have the inheritance that would have been due him. According to the book of Deuteronomy the rules and regulations regarding inheritance was spelled out in detail and the oldest son would have received 2/3 of the father’s goods and the younger 1/3. With the inheritance divided amongst the two brothers, the younger one sets off and journeys into a far country.
A quick side note here. One of the biggest problems with hearing this parable read in the context of the liturgy is that it is usually isolated from the first 10 verses of chapter 15. The reason that those first 10 verses are important is that the two parables which precede it help set the stage for the larger parable of the two sons. Those being the parable of the 1 lost sheep out of 100 and the parable of the woman and the lost coin. Another detail is contained in the first 2 verses of chapter 15 which gives the context in which Jesus is telling these stories. Chapter 15 opens with these words, “Then drew near unto him all the publicans and sinners for to hear him. 2And the Pharisees and scribes murmured, saying, This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them.” There is a mixed audience of religious outcasts and religious authorities. This is a very important point to note, and will give additional meaning when the parable of the two sons reaches its climax.
All of the Old Testament prophets had a message that was never far removed from the minds of the Jewish people. They were always reminded that the Covenant that was made with Abraham would eventually led them home where they would no longer be exiles, and that God would reign as their King. Even though the Israelites were no longer physically in exile as they were in Babylon or Egypt, they were still enslaved by the rule of Herod and the outstretched arm of Rome. They were technically still foreigners in their own land.
Jesus was always masterful in his use of the images, signs, and symbols which would have evoked deep meaning with his hearers who would open their ears to what he was saying. By the very mention of phrases such as “feeding swine,” “journey into a far country,” “Father, I have sinned” he is intentionally going to touch something deep within his audience. The people would immediately begin to put the pieces together and figure out quickly that Jesus is talking about the Exodus and return to the Promised Land. The symbols spoke loud and clear, and his message would be one of Redemption and Return even if those words don’t appear explicitly in the text.
The theme that is most often extracted from this parable is of course the most obvious that no matter how bad or disastrous our life becomes, we are never beyond the saving grace of God – The Father of the two sons. Even when we have reached rock bottom and we’ve resorted to feeding pigs in a pagan land, whenever we come to our senses, recognize our brokenness, and come home, the grace of God is not waiting on the front porch, stomping his feet, saying, “well you’ve gone and done it again.” No, the grace that comes from a father such as this one says, you were lost, but now you’ve been found, you were dead, but now you are alive again!
Certainly there are times in our lives when we’ve all been guilty of being the younger son, squandering what we’ve been given, and tried to do it on our own.
However, the greater sin I believe comes after the return of the younger son.
Here is the place where I see myself concurring with Dr. Zahl in admitting that preaching can be a Golgotha experience. I hear this parable again, and I relate not so much to the younger son, but more often with the older.
If we only spend time looking at the younger son, we miss something that I believe befalls us all more often than we’d like to admit. From the parable itself, here is what we know of the older brother.
• He heard the music and dancing, and wouldn’t even go investigate things himself, but sends a servant instead.
• He was angry and would not go in
• He expresses his anger in terms of what he has done all these many years in service to the father
• Refers to the younger son not as his brother, but rather as his father’s son
• Complains that he never received any reward or party for being faithful
As is often Jesus’ custom, he never ties up all of the loose ends. Have you ever pondered the question, “did the older brother ever go into the party?” Certainly within the pages of Scripture we don’t find the answer, but if I were to venture a guess I would say that he probably did not. This is why I mentioned a few minutes ago that it is important for us to know who was hearing this parable and what they must be thinking. Pharisees had already made comments regarding who Jesus was eating with and fraternizing with. It’s painfully obvious who the older brothers are in this story.
The older brothers are the ones who were saying to themselves…
• We’ve been keeping the Torah to the Nth degree since birth
• We’re the ones who make sure that the sacrifices are done perfectly and in order in the temple
• We’ve made sure that our hands were clean, and that we would never defile ourselves by hanging out with the wrong types of people
Jesus tells them through the Father’s words that they’ve in fact had all of the promises of God from the very beginning and never realized them for what they were. They lived their lives from the perspective of someone who only kept the rules in order to reap some type of reward at the end. I’ll only do X so that I can receive Y. Jesus is saying that their perspective is all wrong. The keeping of the law shouldn’t be done just to earn points or punch tickets to get into heaven. The keeping of the law should be done because it was a part of who God was. If we love God, then the natural outworking of that love should cause us to do everything possible to manifest that love.
If we are truly honest, how often does our Christian walk look something like that of the older brother when we’ve asked questions or made statements such as these?
• Don’t I deserve this since I’ve been faithful and haven’t been like that particular sinner over there?
• This will make me look good in front of that person whether we’ve thought it consciously or not.
• I’ve sure done my good deed for the day
• I wonder if anyone saw me do that
Please don’t hear me making statements such as these without including myself. I realize that throwing stones in glass houses makes very big messes, and I am as guilty as anyone.
One of the greatest points to take from this parable is to note the posture of the Father. In both instances the Father makes the point to go out to meet both sons. He doesn’t wait for the younger son to get to the house, but rather, runs out to meet him while he’s still a great distance off. He’s been looking for him, and as soon as he sees him, he rushes out to welcome him home. The Father also leaves the party that he’s thrown for the younger son and goes out to meet the older son. He does it lovingly and compassionately, and then leaves the response for the son to make. He can’t make it for him. The older son must decide whether he can forgive his brother or not. He has to decide whether to come into the party or not. Most importantly, he has to decide whether he can call him brother again – or not.
This is the hardest thing we can ever do because it causes us to swallow our pride and accept grace for what it is. The world we live in today is no different than the one that heard this parable for the first time. The grace of the Father still seems as scandalous today as it did then.
The older brother thought that his works would earn him favor and merit with his father, and that he should be recognized for what he had done in the past. The younger brother knew he had nothing to show for what his life had become, and came to his father in the only posture that he could – that of a servant. Jesus told his disciples that he came not to be served but to serve. He said that he came to seek and to save that which was lost.
Here is the story of two brothers – both lost, and in need of salvation. We are those very same brothers, lost and in need of salvation. Our Father is waiting for our return from that far country, so that we can enter in to the banquet that he has prepared for us to enjoy. Will we heed that call, and come home, or come in, whichever the case may be?
******Citations available upon request*******