4th Sunday in Lent

March 27, 2022


Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear [Jesus]. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable:

 And he said, “There was a man who had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.

 “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”’ And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.

 “Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’” (Luke 15:1-3, 11-32 ESV)

The phrase ‘prodigal son’ is well known – the ne’er-do-well who is welcomed home – is a character and theme that brings us joy because of the happy ending. Perhaps Bruno in Encanto is the most current incarnation but such characters are found in many novels and plays. The departure or separation occurs for various reasons but now there is a homecoming and rejoicing and all is well – and the focus very often is on the prodigal and the effort to return or the realisation of error or stupidity that leads to the change of heart. I’ll return to that in a moment but for now I’d just like to remind you that the ending of Jesus’ parable has the older son – another prodigal – outside in the darkness – and we don’t know what he will do?

What would you do?

And that’s the point of the parable – setting up a situation for the hearers to answer that question. That means that prodigals come in all shapes and sizes – and some of them might never have left home – physically.

Jesus tells three parables in response to the grumbling from the Pharisees and scribes that Jesus receives – has fellowship with – tax collectors and sinners and eats with them implying that they don’t need to repent first and fulfil God’s stipulations. The first parable is the lost sheep which is really about what some might say is the ‘Stupid Shepherd’. He’s got 99, why endanger yourself over 1 sheep?

The second parable is the lost coin which might be called the ‘Persistent Woman’. That’s good for us to emulate, I’m sure.

The third parable begins, “There was a man who had two sons …” – and I think it is more about the man – this father who has two … ‘lost sons’.

You can’t blame the sheep really for getting lost – well, you can – but you know what I mean – this is not deliberate rebellion towards the shepherd – we’d say it was stupidity – even though shepherds have told me that sheep are not stupid.

You can’t blame the coin. It’s lost somehow. That’s life. One day it will be found – and the owner wants it to be her.

But the sons – can you blame them for their behaviour? Yes! That is one of the biggest expectations of our planet for good order, justice, and peace – that all of us are responsible for our behaviour and are accountable. Our justice system is based on this reality – so is our sense of right and wrong – as are our wages or school grades – and why we detest corruption and are seduced by the possibility – because it is also human nature to get more if we can.

So to hear this story of a man with two sons back then we need to also know the following –

  1. Land is sacred, it cannot be sold because you received it to hand it on and yes, the first born gets the larger inheritance to maintain this in the family, in the tribe.
  2. Consequently the firstborn is to be a younger version of the father – of his values, his heart, his faith – and increasingly represent him in the community as the father ages. The father and the firstborn son are to be as one.
  3. To ask for your inheritance is to want your father dead and to break relationships with family and tribe. To sell the inheritance means you are leaving – you can’t stay in this community – and be a bad example to everyone else.
  4. The younger son cannot do what he does without the support of the older son – so the scene is set that this man has two sons – and both seem to want him dead – both want the assets – this is not a good situation – for some reason the relationships between father and sons are broken.
  5. The business dealings fail and the younger son is desperate and tries to go back on his terms – as a hired hand – maybe living in the village – and maybe with a view of earning enough money to make good in some way what he has done.

And what happens – the father runs to him – oriental men don’t run – possibly because the younger son is in danger from the community as a bad penny returning to corrupt other second born sons – and the father reinstates him publicly as his son – and it is this action that breaks the son and he goes home as a son but everyone will know that he is a recipient of grace – and he has realised that his father loves him as a son and that it is the relationship that is important to the father – not even traditions or property.

And then we hear of the older son – and his heart is revealed that he is not his father’s son – and the father knows there is distance between them – and he goes out again this time in the darkness, away from the festivities when the community is present – so he is being publicly humiliated – to reach out to his son with the same grace that he has shown to his younger brother.

And yes, the story ends there. What will the prodigal hearted son do?

Jesus’ parables about searching but for us this one especially is about repentance. Realising that we scheme and rationalise our behaviour and sometimes it works for us and sometimes we fall flat on our faces and sometimes the world or others attack us, we all try to make do the best we can in life. And for Christians it’s the same with God. We don’t see him – which might make it harder for us to live – or not because if he was around all the time would we then fear him far more than love him? – but we all have experiences of knowing what God wants us to do – how we should follow him in this or that behaviour, relationship, and circumstance but we don’t and we rationalise it, excuse it, still go to church – remember we’re the ‘good guys’ – and not change or follow Jesus. Can our hearts be far from Jesus?

What the second son discovered is that true repentance is the awareness that the mercy I receive I have no claim to; I don’t deserve. The mercy, the restoration of a broken relationship and the pain and hurt that has happened – can’t be erased – it is born, carried, and in time it is part of the relationship, in the background – not necessarily forgotten but forgiven – and carried by the one who has been hurt, humiliated, betrayed, denied, violated. At times people can say, ‘Let me fix this with justice – I’ll make amends’ – but that is only a band aid, a stop gap, a cessation of hostilities with maybe a ‘moving on’. Reconciliation or restoration truly comes from the person who has been hurt – and it is remembered by the person restored – trusted and received as the grace that it is.

The father has gone out to two sons to reach them. Jesus goes out to eat with sinners and tax collectors to reach them. If they are reached then they are changed and they come in from the darkness into the light and the festivities knowing that from now on, they live by grace – that changes them each day.

And Jesus comes out to us through words, water, bread and wine – to us standing under the cross – and we, too, live by grace – that changes us each day.


Bible References

  • Luke 15:1 - 5:3
  • Luke 15:11 - 5:32