On 31st March 2019 (Mothering Sunday) I preached at Nelmes United Reformed Church in Hornchurch.
The gospel reading for that Sunday is in some Bibles entitled “The Prodigal Son” and in other translations “The Lost Son”. At Nelmes Church they use the Good News translation and so I quote that version below:
Luke 15:1 – 3 & 11b – 32
Family life is never easy.
It can be wonderful, or it can be awful.
Even for Christians family life has its moments.
Some years ago, I took a funeral for an elderly lady. She and her late husband had been “pillars” of their local church. He had been an elder and I believe she had helped run the Sunday school. As far as the church was concerned, they were a wonderful Christian family. And yet when I met with the son, he told me that he and his sister nick named the family home “The Somme” as they never knew what battle would be going on between the parents. Crockery, cutlery etc would be flying between the protagonists and yelling and shouting would fill the air. Not a good environment for children to grow up in.
Many families have wayward children or difficult parents. One day last year I visited five bereaved families and each one had a “black sheep”. It was quite depressing. But sadly, that’s how life is for some people.
On the other hand, there are families where they all pull together to care for a loved one at home. Often having a rota to ensure at least one person is always there.
So in our Bible reading Jesus is challenged by the pharisees as to why he eats with “sinners” and he tells three parables in reply. All are about “lost and found” and illustrate the lengths someone will go to when they are looking for something or someone who is lost.
Before we look at the longest of these three parables, some 20 years ago when I was still in the Church of England, we had some new folk come to the morning service. They had been attending the Alpha Course at the church. One girl in her 20’s had tattoos and scars on her arms. She had been a drug addict and had self-harmed to seek release from the mental and emotional pain she had gone through. Sadly, she got some looks from certain members of the congregation. You know the sort of look. “We don’t want her sort in our church” “What’s she doing here?”
And so, to our parable.
The younger son has an outrageous request. “Father, give me my share of the estate”. Normally a person’s estate is not divided until they are dead. So, is the young man saying, “I can’t wait for you to be dead so that I can get my hands on your money”?
Sadly, I have seen some family businesses where the next generation aren’t interested in the business and so won’t put in the hours they should, but want the rewards. And you know that when the current owner dies the son or daughter will sell up and take the money.
We don’t know what the father thinks of this, but he divides up the property and gives the younger son his share.
Isn’t the younger son just like Esau in the Old Testament who sold his inheritance, his birth right, for a pot of stew. Sometimes we just don’t realize the true value of what we have.
So, the son leaves home and goes off to live the life of Reilly. He lives the high life. With lots of money he, of course, has lots of friends.
George Best, the famous Irish footballer, was quoted as saying “I’ve spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars. The rest I just sqaundered”
Many years ago in the bank where I worked, we had a customer who had won £280,000 on the football pools. At the time it was a fortune and the man who was probably in his 50’s would have been set for life. However suddenly he had a girlfriend and many other friends who were very keen to help him spend his money. The men he met in the pub and bought him a pint were clearly better investment advisers than the professionals in the bank. After all the bank didn’t recommend the sure-fire earner of buying a clapped-out taxi that he could rent out . Neither did they recommend buying a second-hand electrical goods shop that was sure to make a fortune. Sadly, within a couple of years it had all gone. He didn’t even have the money to cover the mortgage on his ex-council flat.
So, what about our hero in the Bible passage? The money ran out and surprisingly his friends disappeared too. To quote an Eric Clapton song “nobody wants to know you when you’re down and out“.
Our hero was desperate. He was penniless and hungry. Destitute and in a foreign land. He was willing to do anything to make some money. He even looked after pigs. No Jew in his right mind would have anything to do with pigs. They were “unclean” animals. You had nothing to do with them. But this young man felt he had no choice. There was no other job available to him.
It must have been a truly miserable existence for him.
Then one day he has a “light bulb” moment. A sudden thought comes to him. perhaps he was thinking of home, the good old days on the farm. Even my father’s farm hands are better off than me. They always had more than enough to eat. I should go home and work for my father at least I would have food and shelter.
And so he set off for home. You can imagine him rehearsing what he was going to say to his father, about how sorry he was, and could he have a job on the farm? He probably thought about the possibility that his father would turn him away. If that happened what would he do next?
He is still quite a distance from home when his father sees him coming and runs to him, hugs him and kisses him.
This is not how respectable people behaved in Jesus’ time. The father was clearly a man of some standing and his son should have come to him. Instead the father in his joy at seeing his son alive breaks all the cultural conventions. His son is so much more important to him than what people may say. We can be certain that those listening to the parable would have been shocked at the father’s behaviour.
What happens next is even worse. A fine robe, the family ring and sandals are all provided for the young man. The father is showing that despite his shameful behaviour the young man is part of the family. The father is more concerned with the safe return of his wayward son than with family honour.
Sadly, we hear of some communities, some cultures, where family honour is a matter of life or death. So, girls who refuse an arranged marriage or people who marry inappropriately are murdered to preserve the family honour. Also, for some becoming a Christian dishonours the family and they may well be murdered for their faith in Jesus.
The father in our story is so delighted that his son is safe that he organises a feast. What a thing to celebrate!
Sadly, one person is not happy with the outcome. The older, dutiful son. He has worked hard for his father, never gone off the rails and never got into trouble. He is not pleased. In fact, he is furious. It’s not fair! Maybe Jesus is equating the Pharisees with their dutiful following of the law to the older brother.
Look what he says to his father “But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!” He doesn’t acknowledge the lad as his brother. He distances himself from the lad.
His father replies “My son you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we have to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again, he was lost and is found“.
So where do we find ourselves in this story? Do we side with the older son, the one who has always played by the rules? It doesn’t seem fair when you look at the younger son’s behaviour.
The Scribes and the Pharisees thought that keeping the rules got you into heaven. The trouble was that they had added manmade rules to the “law” as given to Moses and the Israelites in the desert. They didn’t seem to have a love for God or indeed any compassion for those who got things wrong. They were so weighed down with the rules and regulations they couldn’t look up to see God.
They condemned Jesus for eating with sinners because they lacked compassion for their fellow men and women who struggled with sin.
Jesus met with people because he wanted to give everyone a chance to turn their lives around and be saved. How do people have a chance to change their lives if no one tells them the good news and they just get the message that they are miserable sinners? It’s like going to see you doctor who gives you the diagnosis but doesn’t prescribe the cure.
But to change your life, to be healed of sin you need to take the cure. Sadly, many don’t want to change. They want to stay with the pigs in a foreign land rather then return to the Father. For some they just want to live life their way. For others it’s a matter of pride “I can never own up to being wrong” or indeed it could be “I’ve been so bad God can never forgive me. He could never accept me”. Let alone those who decide the diagnosis is wrong and there is nothing wrong with me.
Perhaps some people have been told that God wouldn’t want them to come back to him, to come home as he doesn’t want them. A few years ago, when our eldest son’s marriage fell apart because of his wife’s inability to keep her wedding vows, his mother in law said to him “I don’t know where you are going to live. Your parents won’t want you back!” What a lie! We were disappointed that things hadn’t worked, but he is our son so of course he was welcome.
Similarly, God always welcomes people who turn away from their sinful lives and want to come home to him.
I think that most of us have, to varying degrees, been with the younger son, living a life that was not honouring to God, squandering what he gave us. Maybe we didn’t end up with the pigs but somewhere in our journey we started to head towards God, and he met us in his son Jesus, and we were welcomed into the heavenly family.
So our job is to tell others that through Jesus, our Heavenly Father welcomes home all who wish to come. Jesus is the only way to heaven, so they have to come through him. But firstly, they have to leave their old life, their sinful actions and lifestyle behind, turn their back on it and set out in the direction that brings them home.