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Sermon: The Parable Of The Three Prodigals

Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

“We’ve heard it all before.”

That would be an easy reaction to hearing this parable read, wouldn’t it? If there were a league table of parables, this one and the Good Samaritan would probably be the top two. Is there any more to be said? Can we switch off now, please?

Well, I’m a great believer in the words of the Puritan John Robinson who said,

I am verily persuaded the Lord hath more truth and light yet to break forth from His holy word.

And the moment you start delving into this parable, you find there is far more too it. You’ll notice that so far I haven’t referred to it as ‘The Parable of the Prodigal Son’. That’s because not everyone would agree that the popular title summarises it accurately. One preacher called it ‘The Parable of the Waiting Father’, and another ‘The Parable of the Father’s Love’. Someone else called it ‘The Parable of the Compassionate Father and the Two Lost Sons.’

Well, at the risk of looking stupid alongside eminent scholars, I’m going to suggest my own title: ‘The Parable of the Three Prodigals.’

Three prodigals? Yes, I think so. For what is it to be prodigal? Is it not to be reckless and extravagant to the point of excess? I want us to consider how not only the younger son is reckless, but the father and the older son too, in different ways.

Anyway, let’s begin with the prodigal younger son. He’s a shocker, isn’t he? He is reckless about his work in the family:

Agricultural work was highly valued, and at least in the minds of some, abandoning agricultural work brought loss of respect.

He isn’t throwing away a meaningless job, but a decent one. He isn’t taking a gap year. He isn’t like the friend of mine whose parents supported her through an expensive secretarial course and became PA to one of Marks and Spencer’s directors, only to leave because she felt God calling her to help plant a church. The young prodigal is different. He says: blow my career and what I am doing to support the family, I want out. I want pleasure. NOW. Psychologists tell us that the willingness and ability to defer personal gratification is a sign of maturity. On that measure, he is a highly immature young man.

Not only that, he is reckless with regard to his whole family relationships. As if leaving the family business won’t damage that enough, his demand for his share of the inheritance to come is as good as saying to his father, “I wish you were dead.” He’s a nice boy, isn’t he?

Then when he goes, we see wild recklessness. He spends the inheritance (which has been given to him in the form of property) on ‘dissolute living’ (verse 13). The older son hears he has ‘devoured [the] property with prostitutes’ (verse 30). He is no model of faith. He is the sort of young man that fathers warn their daughters against.

So what do we think of someone like this? Not a lot. We would despise a young man like this. If you want contemporary equivalents, you don’t have to think too hard about various kinds of people we look down our noses at today. Think of the young people out clubbing at the weekend in Chelmsford, blowing their money on binge drinking and drugs. Think of overpaid entertainers and footballers, parading their spending in the celebrity magazines, wasting millions on gambling, having affairs and crashing their sports cars. Think of the couple who had plenty of food in the house but who starved a seven-year-old girl to death, leaving five other children with malnutrition, two of them dangerously so.

And people like that were the context for this parable, and the two immediately preceding it that we didn’t read – about the lost sheep and the lost coin. Remember how chapter 15 begins:

Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’

So he told them this parable: (Verses 1-3)

So, secondly,  what will the father do with the errant son? We must not minimise the shock in discovering that the father is also a prodigal. Prodigal in a different way, to be sure. But a prodigal nevertheless.

For what should the father do with a young son like this? It certainly shouldn’t involve him looking out for him, running to greet him and then throwing a wild party. Culturally, such a father would never have gone looking for his son. The expectation would be that the father would say, “I’m going to wait at home until that ne’er-do-well comes home and grovels.”

But this father is nothing like that. He is constantly keeping his eyes open for signs of his errant son’s return. He runs to greet him – an act that would be condemned as undignified. For in running you risk showing your legs, and that was considered wrong. (Which begs the odd question about the importance of dignity in church!)

Now if the father in the story makes us think of our heavenly Father – as Jesus, I am sure intends us too – what is the prodigal behaviour here? The father is reckless in grace. God the Father is forever on the lookout for people who are far from him, whose lives are messed up and for whom there is nobody to blame but themselves. He is looking for such people so he can tell them there is a place at home with him, and a party for all who turn back to him.

And so that is our calling through Jesus Christ. Followers of a reckless Father also look out for people who have ruined their lives, and who offer God’s unconditional love and grace.

The other day I read the story of St Mary’s church in Leamington, as told by their then vicar, Morris Rodham, in New Wine Magazine. Here is just a little bit of what he wrote:

Our community engagement started by serving one life at a time, because we looked for the mess, stretched out a hand and built a relationship. The same happened in the severe floods in Leamington in 1998. We started to get a reputation in the local area as a church that did practical things to support the community so we just kept the ball rolling.

Our youth worker, previously a drug addict, was recently awarded a civic award by the local District Council for outstanding contribution to local youth. She’s been working with a small team of people for the last four years doing detached youth work on a nearby estate. This involves befriending young people and families, especially those effected by negative circumstances. She’s also started mentoring in our local secondary school with kids that are in danger of being excluded. She’s already seeing positive changes in attitude in the kids.

She was one the many on our recovery scheme for people addicted to drugs or alcohol, or with offending backgrounds.[1]

He goes on to describe all sorts of other initiatives, and explains that every individual and small group in the church is expected to reach out to the poor and hurting, and that the church gives away 15% of its income to outside causes as an expression of this.

If we believe in a prodigal Father, then, our life as God’s people will be characterised by ‘outrageous grace’ – bringing the love and mercy of God in Christ to the last and the least deserving.

However, that brings us, thirdly and finally, to the prodigal elder son. For he is reckless, too. Tragically reckless. He is reckless in throwing something away. Not the reckless living of his younger brother, which he despises, nor the extravagant application of grace shown by his father. He despises that, too.

And that is what he recklessly discards: grace. His whole complaint is based on being treated not mercifully but according to what he deserves, as in his angry reaction in verse 29:

Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.

Furthermore, he doesn’t even understand that everything his father had was his (verse 31). This is a man who wants to judge everything and everyone on grounds of moral perfection, and leave no room for his father to be merciful and gracious. Because that would be plain shocking. We can’t have that! How does that maintain moral standards? How does that help us keep track of who is the in crowd and who should be excluded?

The great tragedy, of course, is that our churches are filled with prodigal elder sons. Take as an example the question of how churches welcome newcomers. I’ve never known a church that doesn’t say it’s a welcoming congregation. In these days of church decline, few fellowships can afford to be anything other than welcoming (as if they should be the opposite in any circumstances!).

However, look at what happens to some newcomers. What happens to some of them when they get to be known a little better? Once their little foibles are known, the murmurs of disapproval begin, and you can bet that the new person perceives this. They may have habits that don’t fit the received etiquette of the church. They  may accidentally trespass onto what an established church member considers to be her territory. Words will be said – perhaps only behind their back, but you can be sure they will pick up on the vibe. Do you think they will hang around?

Probably not. They will have been driven out by a small army of prodigal older sons.

Now let me tie that thought in with another. This parable – like several others – ends without a proper conclusion. We need to supply our own ending. The last part of the parable is the father saying to the prodigal older son,

Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found. (verses 31b-32)

However, we don’t know the older son’s response. Will he accept the father’s invitation to celebrate outrageous grace? Or will he stomp off? He is left with a decision to make. So are we. Will we embrace grace, with all its implications, or will we remain stony-hearted moralists?

Except – we do know the end of the parable. Let us remember that Jesus told this in response to the Pharisees and scribes who were complaining that he welcomed ‘tax collectors and sinners’ (verses 1-3). And we know how they responded. They said, “We’re going to kill you.”[2]

Which makes our graceless ‘older son’ behaviour in churches all the more traumatic. Every time we despise others who need the mercy of God, we nail Jesus to the Cross. Every time we think we can live without grace because we’re just so good and worthy, we lay Jesus’ body in the tomb. Whenever we believe that prodigal younger brothers should be judged and denied the love of God, we roll a stone across the entrance to the sepulchre.

We have a choice. Either we embrace grace and offer it to others, whether we like them or not. Or we refuse grace to others and in doing so refuse it for ourselves. The consequences are not only for our own personal eternal destinies; our decisions affect the future life and health of the church.

It is time to stop being prodigal younger or older sons and instead drink from the well of the Father’s prodigal love.

[1] Morris Rodham, ‘Loving Your Neighbour’, New Wine magazine, Winter 2010, p 29.

[2] I owe this insight to David Pawson.

Covenant Sermon

This Sunday, my church at Broomfield is experimenting with bringing its annual Covenant Service forward to the beginning of the ‘Methodist year’ rather than the calendar year. Hence what follows is a sermon for a Covenant Service, rather than on one of the regular weekly Lectionary readings.

Romans 12:1-2

At my office, I worked with a Muslim guy. Javed (or ‘Suave Jave’ as we called him, for his attitude to the ladies) was more Muslim by upbringing than practice. But one day, he brought in to show us his mother’s copy of the Qur’an. It was edged and blocked in gold leaf. It came in a special tissue-like wrapper. One thing neither Javed nor his mother would have done with that book was write in it. Even touching it seemed risky, in case of damage.

But I don’t treat my copies of the Bible that way. In particular, I was taught as a young Christian to underline words in my Bible. Not only verses that struck me, but also some key words. ‘But’ was a good word to underline. It indicated an important change in Paul’s arguments.

And Romans 12 starts with another key word: ‘therefore’.

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:1-2)

‘I appeal to you therefore’: therefore indicates all that has preceded Romans 12. It indicates the first eleven chapters of Romans, summarised here as ‘the mercies of God’. We make and renew our covenant because of ‘the mercies of God’. All we offer today is in response to the mercies of God. Not just one-off mercy in initial forgiveness, but mercies. Over and over again, God is merciful to us. Our sins, our mistakes, our foolishness and weakness: for all these things God is merciful to us in Christ through the Cross. And because he is relentlessly merciful – his mercies are ‘new every morning, [so] great is [his] faithfulness’ (Lamentations 3:23) – we offer ourselves to him.

How does Paul ask his readers to respond to the mercies of God? In these two verses are two ways:

1. Sacrifice
Paul urges Christians to ‘to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship’ (verse 1).

‘Spiritual worship’ here implies that it is reasonable, rational and true. This is the right and proper thing to do in light of God’s enduring mercies to us. The mercies of God come to us through the sacrifice of Christ: is it not appropriate, urges Paul, for us to make sacrifices as a grateful response?

But what are these sacrifices? ‘Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God’, he says. It’s not just something we do ‘spiritually’: we present our bodies. And if I might just re-order the words to reflect what many commentators think is the sense of the Greek, we make ‘sacrifices, living, holy and acceptable to God’. Those adjectives ‘living’, ‘holy’ and ‘acceptable to God’ illustrate the kinds of sacrifices we might make with our bodies.

‘Living’ – we freely offer our bodies to God, because of what he has done for us in Christ. It may cost us something. The author Robert J Morgan tells how one Sunday, the late Corrie ten Boom was preaching in Copenhagen on these very verses. She was eighty years old at the time. Two young nurses at the church invited her to lunch afterwards, but they lived in a tenth floor flat and there was no lift. Not what you want at eighty.

She struggled up the stairs as far as the fifth floor, but her heart was pounding and her legs buckled. Collapsing into a chair, she complained to the Lord. But she sensed God whispering to her that it was important she carried on.

When she finally made it to the tenth floor, she met the parents of one of the nurses. Neither was a Christian, but they were both interested in the Gospel. Corrie ten Boom led them to faith in Christ. All because she reluctantly followed her own sermon and made her life – her very body – a sacrifice in climbing ten flights. She was willing to go where God led her, despite the cost.

‘Holy’ – our dedication to God may also sometimes come at a price. The Covenant Service promises balances the way some parts of our discipleship are attractive and others are costly:

Christ has many services to be done: some are easy, others are difficult; some bring honour, others bring reproach; some are suitable to our natural inclinations and material interests, others are contrary to both; in some we may please Christ and please ourseleves, in others we cannot please Christ except by denying ourselves. Yet the power to do all these things is given to us in Christ, who strengthens us.’ (Methodist Worship Book, p288.)

Holy sacrifices are about being willing to pay the price of unpopularity and difficulty for the sake of dedication to the right thing. It is also a matter of doing so graciously, rather than with complaint, self-righteousness or attention-seeking.

‘Acceptable’ – this probes our motives. Other translations say, ‘well-pleasing to God’. It’s about a desire to please God. In marriage and other human relationships, we make it our first goal not to please ourselves but our spouse, or whoever it is we love. So too with God. When we know how merciful he has been to us and how regularly he has been merciful, the fitting response is to set our minds and hearts on doing the things that bring him joy.

There is a story told in the Old Testament that gives a small illustration of what I am talking about King David wanted to buy some land from a subject and use it for worship. The owner says he can have it free of charge, but David says, no: he insists on paying. Why? ‘I will not give to the Lord that which has cost me nothing,’ he says. Discipleship and giving need to cost us something to be genuine. It may be financial, material, emotional, psychological, even social. If we realise just how merciful God continually is to us, then out of joy we shall be willing to show love in return, even if it comes at a price.

2. Transformation
Verse 2:

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

‘Do not be conformed to this world’ – or, as J B Phillips famously translated this passage, ‘Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould’. Do not be conformed, be transformed, says Paul. Don’t be squeezed by the world, ‘let God re-mould your minds from within’ (Phillips).

Yet how easy it is to conform to the world, to let it squeeze us into its mould. Often we don’t notice. The late Lesslie Newbigin once observed that just as a goldfish is not consciously aware of the water in which it swims, so we are often unconscious of the culture we live in and its values.

In our society’s case, think about how we easily use popular words such as ‘tolerance’. It is presented as a quality that everybody must have. Woe betide the intolerant! But the word ‘tolerance’ carries with it overtones of a benign attitude to things that are wrong, enduring wrong things or having no deep convictions oneself. It’s a slippery slope towards tolerating sin. All these shades of meaning are therefore anathema to the Christian, but we refer to tolerance as much as anyone! The world is squeezing us into its mould, if we are not careful. I could give examples from other apparently innocent or positive words such as ‘inclusiveness’ and ‘community cohesion’.

So how do we resist social pressures to adopt ways of thinking that are inimical to the Gospel? Paul exhorts us to ‘be transformed by the renewing of [our] minds’, or to let God re-mould us from within, as Phillips puts it. Spiritual transformation involves a battle for the mind, because what we think affects our attitudes and our actions.

This doesn’t mean we all have to be intellectuals. Any Jesus-follower can develop Gospel thinking, Gospel attitudes and Gospel actions. That is Paul’s vision. Where do we begin?

We start with reading and reflecting on the Bible and its great story from the Garden to the New Jerusalem. It is Scripture above all that will help us to be Gospel thinkers. However, we don’t do so alone. Private Bible reading is good and worthy, but most of the books in the Bible itself were written or dictated to be heard less by individuals than by groups of disciples. It’s important, therefore, to get to grips with the Gospel together. If you’re not part of a small group that does that, you’re missing out! For starters, join the Living Faith course! It will help us get to grips with the big picture of our faith together.

But it’s not enough just to read the biblical message and discuss it. There are many people in churches who know their Bibles well, but who are harsh, unloving and judgmental. (Not that any of us is perfect – least of all, me.) So just reading the Bible and talking about it isn’t enough.

In other words, the biblical authors didn’t write their books just to be read or heard. They wrote them to generate action. The Bible isn’t just to be read, it’s to be done.

In my final year as a student minister, I spent half my time on placement in a circuit. At one of the two churches where I worked, I led a Bible study every week. However, the minister who supervised that group had been very frustrated with it. ‘When are they going to stop talking about the Bible and start doing something?’ he said to me once. ‘They’re more interested in the maps on the inside covers of their Bibles than in putting the teaching into practice.’

And that’s what I’m on about. Spiritual formation in Christ – the transformation of our minds to which Paul calls us – involves Bible reading, reflecting on it together where we support and challenge each other, and then getting on with what we’ve learned. It’s when the thinking leads to action that we truly learn. If I were a betting man, I would wager that Katie learned more about God’s love for the poor through her trip to Kenya with Hand In Hand than I would have done simply by reading about the poor.

One famous preacher said, ‘Never finish your sermon without telling your congregation what you want them to do about it.’ I suggest you might almost say, ‘Never finish your Bible reading without deciding what you are going to do about it.’

If God has been so persistently merciful to us, then what might we give him as a present? It would be appropriate if our offering involved sacrifice, when we recall all that he has done for us in Christ.

Transformation is also appropriate: Christ did not die on the Cross only for our forgiveness: he died that we might be saved from sin in every way. Not only the penalty of sin, but the practice of sin (which involves us co-operating with the Holy Spirit in being transformed) but also the presence of sin (as we anticipate God’s New Creation by being colonies of God’s Kingdom).

This Covenant Service, let us pledge ourselves again – in promise and in action – to the God of abundant mercy.