The headlines that might have been;
‘Arrogant son squanders inheritance!
Wild living lad mixes with the wrong crowd!
Wayward Jew ends in pigs trough!
Good for nothing lout seen groveling homewards!
Battle ahead for estranged brothers!
Its one of Jesus best and most loved stories and theres a great sense of drama and contrast, but its not just a story. Jesus parables, especially this family one, have a social bite because it is about real life; we identify with them - people can get lost in many ways.
Today I want to look at the parable through the lens of Pauls metaphor of us, in Christ, being a new creation to see what it might say to us today. - and no!, Im not leaving for a far country and I do hope not to squander anything in my new setting! Perhaps I should check for a pigs trough before I go!
In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul clearly wants the divided church to get their act together; to focus on the positives of a new beginning in Christ and the ministry of reconciliation they have been entrusted with. There is a call to leave the old behind, not counting trespasses and taking on a new outlook, from God.
So Im not dwelling on the sins of the sons in Jesus story, or on the past, but trying to look forward with this story as guide.
Luke has collected together three stories Jesus told; the lost coin, the lost sheep and the lost son, stories about things being lost and the joy of finding, because that was the nature of his ministry; he came to help and save those who knew that they needed help - those people who felt lost or were made to feel like they should get lost.
And because Jesus was seen with these undesirable people, there were good upstanding folk who thought that this wasnt right. They said, "this fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them." Jesus is developing what we would call an image problem! But I dont believe that was an area Jesus cared to be sensitive about. What Jesus cares about are the people who are lost.
God seems to be "hell bent" on saving everyone. Those who seek and save the lost in these stories show us something of the character of God. Its like God is a single minded collector who simply must have a full set. - Every last stamp for the year or every football record for the season; God seeks out the lost and throws a party every time the set is restored, lost one by lost one.
Now if youve ever tried to play chess with one piece missing, or if youve ever had 8 for dinner and discovered one of the plates is missing you might perhaps identify with Gods concern at the lost and the joy in finding them.
The gospel is - that God is like that with us.
God, the Father wants all the family together.
Everyone with children knows that a parent should never reinforce bad behavior with a reward. Take him back, let him learn from his lesson - clip his wings a little would be a good idea, but a party !? Surely that condones recklessness. We might have organized a counselor for some debriefing -set up a prodigal help line, to help the lad to learn from his experience with some sober reflection, surely that would have been a more fitting outcome for us in the middle of the season of Lent, but instead we have this account of a fathers unrestrained joy.
And the text itself puts the emphasis on this same point, Luke spends more words describing the party than anything else; theres the ring, the robe, the sandals and the fatted calf. But the party is not just meaningless joy.
In scripture the party or banquet is a metaphor for forgiveness; In Zechariah, the prophet says that Israel stands before God, in dirty clothes, because of their sin. "Take off his dirty clothes, dress him in splendid robes, you see his sin is forgiven" - sounds familiar!! Pull out all the stops, says the father, spare no expense, for this son of mine was dead, but now he is alive. - In Pauls terms hear; a new creation.
And they began to make merry over this new beginning - one has to assume that forgiveness is a reality - its seen in action. The extravagant festivity shows that impossible, forgiving grace is real to the point of being offensive. Its as though Gods forgiving grace causes amnesia as well as joy and the new beginning is the only thing worth acting on!
And Jesus comes, not to point the finger of accusation at us or force us to follow him - Jesus comes to find us and to help us to find our true life, and by Gods impossible forgiveness, to have that "life abundant" that he spoke of.
So thats Gods part, shown so clearly by all Jesus did and taught, but when it comes to us, to the human response side of the equation, there are some open ended questions. The arrogant and wasteful son returns to a great party and a new beginning, but we dont know what he will make of this second chance.
The son who stayed behind faithfully working the farm, he has trouble with his brother and the fairness of a second chance is a challenging concept for him, but we dont know what he makes of that challenge.
The opportunity of new beginning is there for this prodigal, as it is for us as individuals and for this church community. So, yes the story of our past helps us to understand ourselves, but Jesus story and Pauls theology put the emphasis on the new beginning and fresh start.
May we all have the willingness to be found, to live in the pattern of Gods forgiving grace, accepting it for ourselves and giving it to others, with an eagerness to join in the joy of heaven which is Gods will and blessing for us all. We are a new creation, we are grafted into a new and stronger reality. Its like our stories being edited into Gods story, where we are becoming part of Gods new story for the world.
For us now, Im going on to new opportunities and new challenges in ministry and you will faces new choices and challenges too. What will we make of them?
Its Gods grace that the questions are open ended and full of possibility.
The farming family, father and sons in Jesus parable, have a future to work out - they dont have it all neatly planned.
Perhaps its like that for us too.
The party is the first thing, I like the sound of that, then there are the possibilities of each new day and the ministry we are all called to participate in. We can feel bound by the past, like the those Jesus was confronting with his parables or be open to a new future like the father in the story. We know the story cant finish with the party, but there are new and open possibilities. I my new ministry, and you here, we all must continue to look for signs of new beginnings, celebrate them with joy and work with them until they become Gods new reality.
So to finish, with some typically mixed words of encouragement and challenge, let me quote from Paul:
"So from now on therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view.... So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away, everything has become new. All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ.. .and has entrusted us with ministry of reconciliation.
May this be so in us by Gods grace and to God glory.