Holy Trinity Church

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Sermon for 9am Eucharist at Holy Trinity Geneva on Sunday 27 March 2022 (Mothering Sunday & 4th Sunday in Lent)

Sermon for 9am Eucharist at Holy Trinity Geneva on Sunday 27 March 2022 (Mothering Sunday & 4th Sunday in Lent)

Texts: Joshua 5.9-12; Psalm 32; 2 Corinthians 5.16-end; Luke 15.1-3, 11b-end.

Some stories have clear, very satisfying endings and others do not. One of my favourite examples of a story with a very clear ending comes from Oscar Wilde’s play ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’.  In it, the governess, Miss Prism, who confesses to have written a romantic three volume is asked by her charge how the novel ended. She replies unhesitatingly ‘The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means’. No doubts there!

But the endings of other stories are less clear and leave us with a sense of ambivalence and uncertainty.  What did happen next?  And what is the significance of the story that it ended just there?

I suggest that the Parable of the Prodigal Son – our Gospel reading for today, falls into that category.  This may come as a surprise – after all, it’s one of the best –known and best-loves parables of Jesus and one which we may think is absolutely clear – the restitution of the wayward young son through his father’s love. Yet looked at more closely, it raises all kind of questions and as I will argue today, it’s precisely in the questions which it raises, that this parable challenges us to think about our relationship with God and with one another. So it is particularly appropriate to explore it today, on Mothering Sunday – a day when we traditionally think about God’s relationship with us and His care for us and the relationships we have within our families.

Even the very title which the parable has acquired is ambivalent – ‘The Parable of the Prodigal Son’. It implies that the entire focus is on the recklessness of the younger son who squanders his inheritance and reaches the depths of degradation before coming to his senses and seeking his father’s help. Yet, there are so many other aspects to this parable – the father’s love, generosity and perhaps foolishness, the bitterness of the older son, and the brokenness with which the story ends.

Because the parable is ambivalent, it forces us to consider where we are in the story, not just hypothetically as if we were living at that time of Jesus, but now, today, in the reality of our daily lives and relationships. Where are we in our relationship with God? And where are we in our relationship with others, whether in our own family and friendship group or more widely in our community and perhaps work relationships. These are really important questions to consider.

For often we feel helpless as we look at the world around us, and surely particularly at this time of bitter war and conflict.  As we look with horror and grief what is happening both in Ukraine and in other parts of the world for example in the civil war in Ethiopia and in Syria, we often feel particularly helpless and in a sense, also removed from the causes which have led to these wars.

Yet the parable of the Prodigal Son, reminds us that our starting point must always be with ourselves and the intentions of our hearts and this is where we can make a difference. So let’s look now at this Parable and its challenges and consider what it may be saying to us today and the questions it may raise to challenge us.

Our starting point is to think about the cultural context which existed at the time when Jesus told this parable. It was a context of an honour culture – one which we perhaps have largely forgotten in the West today but is still a powerful factor in many societies in other parts of the world. This honour culture was characterised by respect both by children for their parents and also respect for the younger for the older.

It’s helpful for us to remember this as we look at the parable for it is enables us to grasp just how shocking the younger son’s request to his father was. In that culture, inheritance to the children would come only after the death of the father.  For the son to ask for his inheritance now whilst his father was alive, was effectively like saying, “I wish you were dead”. This sentiment would shock us today – multiple it by a factor of thousands in the society at the time of Jesus.

Second, in a society in which it was taken for absolute certitude that a son would look after their parent in old age, his request also was a declaration that he had absolutely no intention of looking after this father in old age. Again, the harshness of this would sadden us today – in that society, it would have been utterly shocking.

But his request also showed contempt for his elder brother. Under Jewish property law, the property could not be split (i.e. with the young son inheriting then and the older brother later, Therefore the older brother is unwittingly thrust into his inheritance as a result of his younger brother’s decision.

We also need to consider the significance of the father’s action – in acceding to his younger son’s request and giving his is inheritance then and there. Again, in that society – it would be seen a shocking for the child to inherit before the parent and there were warnings in the scriptures about what would happen to fathers and to families, were fathers willing to grant these request whilst they were still alive. There are shades of King Lear here!  In this context – the father’s action can be seen as an act of generosity. But it can also be seen as an act of foolishness which leads the way to ruin – both of the younger son, and also in the broken relationship with the elder son who cannot accept what has happened.

Looking at the parable from this perspective, all the characters can be seen as flawed in some way.  The younger son very clearly for the reasons we have seen, totally flouting the customs and obligations of a son, then wasting his entire inheritance and above all, the shame and utter contempt he would have brought upon his family thorugh his actions. In a society rooted on an honour culture – this was appalling.

The elder son cannot accept the father’s generosity and forgiveness in not only welcoming his son back and honouring him as a son not a servant. He represents in a way, the Pharisees who could not bear the fact that those who had fallen short of the law- the outcasts of society, could, be welcomed back by God and given a place of honour in His kingdom.

And the father, as we have seen, can possibly be seen as foolish – not only in granting the younger son’s request and thus setting in motion the actions which tear his family apart but also in the way he treats his elder son when welcoming his younger son back.  For the older son, has already entered into his inheritance and he is working faithfully to support his father and himself – to create a future for the family which has already suffered so much. Imagine the impact on his when he hears sounds of music and laughter, smells the roasting of the fatted calf and sees his reprobate brother dressed in the finest robe and sandals – the sign that he was not a servant. All this was coming from the older son’s inheritance yet he had not even been told about the party.  No wonder he was furious!

Yet the key point in the parable is the father’s love for his children.  Because of this love, he accepts the shame and humiliation which the younger son has brought upon this family. Because of this love, he does, what no elder would ever do in that society,- he runs out to meet his son and as e embraces him, he brings him back from physical and spiritual death, back to life again

It’s in this act of sacrificial love and humility, that we glimpse Jesus. We see the one who will accept shame and degradation caused by our sin to save us that we may be reconciled to God and honoured as his children.

And the parable calls for our response.  First of all, to think where we are in this story in the context of our lives today.  Are we in a far and distant land at present because of something we’ve done or failed to do thorugh foolishness, greed or pride?  Is Jesus perhaps calling us this Lent to come to our senses and to come home to Him?  What will we do?

Or are we perhaps, like the elder son, angry and resentful at someone or some who seemed to be accepted and welcomed back whether to church, our family or other context, despite having got things very wrong or failing to pull their weight. In the early church, there was often considerable resentment by some Jewish Christians of Gentiles who were welcomed in to the family of God without observing the Law, or anger that those on the edges (the tax collectors and prostitutes had been forgiven and saved. We are perhaps subtle in our expression of this today, but the old resentments and sense of entitlement (“I’ve led a holy life and they haven’t so it’s not fair”), linger on and leave a bitter taste.

Or have we shown some of the foolishness of the father in the parable, have our actions in our relationships with others created more brokenness and hurt? The father welcomes the prodigal son back but in the processes can be seen to have ‘lost’ his elder son. Are we doing the same?

This reflection helps us to see where we are in our lives so that during this time of Lent, we do all we can to seek reconciliation with God – honestly recognising and acknowledging what we have done and harm we may have caused but trusting in God’s forgiveness.

But this isn’t the final word. As we are reconciled by Christ to God, so we are called to share in this reconciling ministry.  St Paul, writing to the church in Corinth tells the Corinthian Christians that in Christ they are a new creation and they are called to be ‘ambassadors to Christ and to reconcile others to God.

The father in the parable, for all his foolishness, brought the younger son from physical and spiritual death through welcoming back and honouring him in the family. Today, let’s ask ourselves the questions, where is God calling us to enable others to find their way from death to resurrection?  What can we do this Lent, to grow as those through whom God’s grace can act in this way?  And how can we, here at Holy Trinity Church, become a community in which this journey from death to resurrection can take place and be celebrated?