Chapter 15 of Luke’s gospel begins with three parables; the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin and the prodigal son, which we heard today. Jesus didn’t give his parables names; we have invented names for Jesus’ parables. We have come to know these names and everyone knows what you mean when you say, “the lost sheep”, “the lost coin” or “the prodigal son”.
But many people think these names are a mistake. Fred Craddock is one of America’s best loved preachers and teacher of preachers. He has been a great influence on me through his books and writings. Anyway, Fred and I agree that it would be better to call these three parables, the sheep which was found, the coin that was found and the son who was found. In each parable, the person, animal or thing which was dead is now alive, that which was lost is now found. The parables are not about losing, but about finding, and all of them end with a celebration.
Even then, the names are misleading because the focus of each parable is on the one who does the searching and the finding. The shepherd who searched and searched until he found the sheep; the woman who cleared out her house and swept the floor until she found the coin; the man who ran out to meet his returning son.
These parables are about the way God behaves. Jesus has been seen sharing meals with Tax Collectors and Sinners, and the Pharisees and scribes are upset. In their eyes God has cursed and rejected the Tax Collectors; they are rubbish people, lost for ever; and good and righteous people should stay away from them.
Jesus tells the parable to show them how God really works. The father who owns the farm stands for God. God gives every person a share in God’s Kingdom; you might say God gives each person the promise of a place in heaven. The younger son takes God’s promise and treats it lightly, living a life which brings dishonour to his father, to God and to himself. He is like the tax collectors and sinners who through greed or misfortune have become separated from the community of God’s promise to Abraham.
Let’s say then, that the older son stands for the Pharisees and scribes. They are good, hard working and honest and they have kept the Law of Moses in the tradition of their father Abraham. They have loyally remained part of the community of God’s promise, just like the elder son remained loyal to his father.
Now the younger son falls on bad times. He has run out of money, there is a famine, and he is down in the dirt with the pigs. According to the Law of Moses, pigs are unclean animals, so the young man is totally unclean, totally unable to take part in the community of God’s promise, just like those tax collectors and sinners so looked down on by the Pharisees.
Next the younger son “comes to himself”. All of a sudden he knows who he is and where he belongs. He knows that he is the son of his father. He knows that he belongs in his father’s household, even if he has to be a slave to get in. The tax collectors and sinners had given up any hope of being part of the community of God’s promise – it was Jesus who shared meals with them and reminded them who they were.
In fact Jesus is very like the shepherd, the woman or the father in the parable, he didn’t wait until the tax collectors and sinners repented, he went out to find them. God the father had been looking out for his younger son every day, watching the road for any sign of him. And when he did see him he cast aside his dignity and ran, and before the son could say anything he embraced him and kissed him. Do you notice that the father never ever criticises his wayward son? The father asks no questions, but welcomes the son home with love and joy.
The elder son is the one who makes accusations and asks questions. “He’s wasted all your money; he’s been with prostitutes, why are you wasting your time with him? I’m the one who deserves a feast because I’ve been good and obedient. It’s not fair!” You can almost hear the Pharisees saying the same thing. “Why didn’t Jesus come to my house? He went to that dreadful tax cheat Zacchaeus’ house. And he let that dreadful woman pour perfume on his feet. I’m the one who’s been good and obedient to the Law. It’s not fair!”
There are so many people who think like the Pharisees and the elder son. They expect rewards for good behaviour and punishment for bad. They think the world is like a prison, where you get privileges for good behaviour and solitary confinement if you misbehave.
The kingdom of God is quite different. It is a kingdom of joyful hearts and peace of mind. And God is like the father in the parable, always on the watch for his children, so that he can run out and meet them and bring them home where they belong.
The moment anyone remembers that they are God’s beloved child and that they belong in God’s kingdom, then God will come running, without stopping to ask whether we deserve it or not. Once we are back in the community of the promise of God, then the Holy Spirit starts the work of transformation. After Jesus had shared a meal with him, Zacchaeus the tax collector was so overjoyed to be decided, of his own free will, to give back the money he had defrauded. The woman who wept over Jesus’ feet and dried them with her hair was already in the kingdom of God, without a word being said. God’s love, God’s Holy Spirit was at work in her and her life was changed.
St Paul pointed out quite rightly that “nothing can separate us from the love of God.” The Pharisees and scribes, for all their complaining and blaming, are secure in God’s kingdom. “Son, you are with me always, and all I have is yours,” said the father. And as for the others, the gate of heaven is wide open, God turns no one away.
So it is for each open of us. We have stepped inside the gate, we have come home, God meets us with ring, sandals and coat. We are, even now, children of God. We do not know what we will be like, for God is still at work within us. The prodigal son, after he came home, had a lot to learn about self control, and the older brother, he, too, needed to be more loving and accepting.
God welcomes us with love, no matter who we are or what we’ve done, and we also have a lot to learn. Let us therefore rejoice in God’s love and allow it to renew, strengthen and change us.