The text for this sermon is Luke 15:1-3; 11b-32
Today is Mothering Sunday. No one is absolutely certain exactly how the idea of Mothering Sunday began, but we know that on this day, about four hundred years ago, people who lived in little villages made a point of going not to their local church but to the nearest big church - to what was called the Mother Church. And some would go to the nearest city to worship in the cathedral.
In the past, mothering Sunday was also known as 'Refreshment Sunday' or 'Mid-Lent Sunday'. It was often called Refreshment Sunday because the fasting rules for Lent were relaxed, in honour of the Feeding of the Five Thousand.
But today is also the fourth Sunday in Lent and our Gospel reading for this morning is the story of The Prodigal Son – not a mother to be seen anywhere in the story!
Now the really useful thing about parables is that, because they are stories, different people can get different things out of them.
Traditionally this story is interpreted as being about God’s generous grace towards sinners. And I think that there is good evidence to suggest that this is undoubtedly the parable’s primary meaning. The story is told in response to the grumbling of the Pharisees and Scribes that Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with them. It follows directly after the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin. And it’s in a section of Luke that is concerned with the question of who is going to participate in God’s Kingdom.
The Two Brothers
But because it is a story, we can let our imaginations wander a bit, each individual hearing different things in the story. Let’s think for a moment about the two brothers. Can we identify with one of them or possibly with both of them?
First we have the ‘prodigal son’ of the title. The younger brother who is eager to explore foreign lands beyond the confines of his family. Perhaps originally he has nothing more in mind than having a bit of an adventure, making a name for himself, getting out from under the shadow of his older brother and his father. In this respect, we might be able to identify with him. Even people who were not arrogant or overconfident in their youth can probably understand the desire of a young person to spread his or her wings.
Then there is the older son. A paragon of virtue and duty – or so he would have us think. Now I don’t know if the following is an important omission or not – it’s part of me reading the story in my own way, but did you notice that the older son didn’t make a peep when the younger son asked for his inheritance?
Giving the younger son his inheritance would have involved a great deal of effort in terms of selling property and turning it into cash. But no-where in the story does the older brother raise any sort of protest. The older son sees himself as dutiful and loyal, but he hasn’t actually tried to stop such an outrageous event. Maybe he’s thinking that if his brother gets a £100 inheritance for this outrageous behaviour, that he’ll eventually get a £200 inheritance for his own loyalty.
Duty, Grudges and the Kingdom of God
Now, the approach to this parable in recent years is to point out how easy it is to identify with the older brother’s outrage when his wayward sibling is brought back into the fold. And, of course, it is easy to understand how he feels.
I don’t know about you, but I honestly can’t stand here and say that I wouldn’t feel hurt and cheated if I felt that my loyalty and good deeds had been in vain. And then, let’s admit it; there is a darker part of me that would have been waiting to see what my brothers’ punishment would be.
This is the religion of the Pharisees. But the Pharisees are you and me. Not always, of course, but sometimes.
The thing we need to understand about the Pharisees’ approach to God is that it was not all bad and it was not all hypocritical. Some of it may have been about useless purity laws but a good deal of it was about doing the right thing – the same way that Christians believe in doing the right thing. Where some of the scribes and Pharisees may have gone wrong, however, was in seeing reconciliation with God as a reward for their own good works.
Some of the religious establishment seemed to think that it was their own observance of the law that had earned them a place as a child of God. And they felt it was important to make a religious distinction between those people who kept God’s law and those who did not. Their ‘fences’ were not just about right and wrong actions, but they were also about who they considered to be the right and wrong people. Their fences were about who could be included in the people of God and who could not.
We do this too. I think that it is part of human nature to sometimes think our status as children of God comes from what we do. It’s human nature to sometimes think that we have been reconciled with God because we go to church, pray, give money and time to people in need and keep the ten commandments. Even though church-goers know that this is not true, sometimes we act as if it is.
Some will maintain that the dilemma of this parable is that if we worship a God who is like the Father in the story, then aren’t we saying that there is no need for anyone to bear the consequences of their own sin? Aren’t we saying that the canniest thing to do would be to go out and sin as much as possible and then return to God’s unconditional embrace on our deathbed?
I think that the answer to this lies in what the father says to his oldest son near the end: The obedient child has been with the Father all along. With perfect hindsight, and with the perspective of a reader of the story rather than a character within it, we can see that what the oldest son has failed to do is to rejoice in the fact that he’s been a part of his Father’s household all along.
All these years, he could have been celebrating his fellowship with his Father, but instead he’s borne a grudge against his brother. When the brother returns home, the elder brother’s desire is not for celebration and reconciliation but for some form of penalty.
So did the younger brother play the system? Did he have his cake and eat it too? Well, I don’t think so. Not only did he squander the resources he had at his disposal, but he ended up in starvation and degradation. True, he was eventually restored to his Father’s house, but unlike his obedient older brother, he wasted many years when he didn’t even the opportunity to celebrate his fellowship with his Father.
It’s ironic. The younger son did not have the opportunity to celebrate the fact that he was his Father’s child because he had put himself outside of his Father’s household. The older son did not celebrate because he focused on his resentment and desire for his brother’s comeuppance rather than on his own good fortune in being his Father’s child.
I said earlier that, besides being Mothering Sunday, this fourth Sunday in Lent is also called “Refreshment Sunday”.
I don’t know for sure, of course, but I suspect that this parable might be the favourite of a lot of people here today. It’s certainly one of my favourites and I think it is certainly a “refreshing” message in the middle of Lent.
The refreshing news – the wonderful, amazing, unbelievable news is that God really is like the Father in the parable. And loving parenthood is, I think, a good metaphor for God’s character. As one theologian puts it, ‘God delights in his creatures in the same way that a parent delights in his children.’ God loves everything that God has made, and therefore we and all creation are held in being by God’s love.
Just like the Father’s household in the story, the Kingdom of God is open and available for every single person: God runs with joy and celebration to meet each person who decides to come home. God also delights in the presence of each one of his children who is already home and he asks us to celebrate with him.
God’s love for us is ever-present His love doesn’t come into existence because of our repentance. Rather, it is our love for God that comes into existence because of our repentance.
This morning, we share in Holy Communion and partake in the celebration that is the Lord’s Table. This is a table that has been set for all and to which all are invited. During this season of Lent, we remember the faith of Jesus in his Father as he set his sights toward Jerusalem
And we remember Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples, a Passover meal that celebrated God’s deliverance of his people from slavery. Together as brothers and sisters in God’s Kingdom, we come round this table to be with Christ and to celebrate the love of a God who runs to meet us.