The Scope of God's Grace
Luke 15: 1-3, ll b-32

            Today's Gospel reading is the Parable of the Prodigal Son, perhaps the best known of all the parables.  But ironically, it may be the best known for the wrong reasons.
             So I propose that we take a thorough look at what is the longest parable in the Gospels, and one that occurs only in Luke.


As the first three verses of our reading explains, the Parable of the Prodigal Son responds to the grumbling of the Pharisees.  As was their habit, and a habit we find in many churches today, the Pharisees were looking for ways to exclude people from access to God; in other words making judgments about those who would receive salvation and those who would not.
             In this case they were criticizing Christ for welcoming sinners; clearly the Pharisees believed that sinners should be outside the Temple.
             Christ responds to the Pharisees with three consecutive parables:  the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Prodigal Son.  
             Clearly there is a wide gap between those whom the Pharisees considered lost to God and those whom Christ considered beloved and sought by God.
             Our parable begins with a request from the younger son, the prodigal: “Father, give me the share of property that will belong to me.”
             It was the custom in first century Palestine, and indeed it was Roman law, that property is transferred to heirs only after death.  So in the context of Jewish custom and the law of the land, the prodigal son's request of his father was not only exceedingly brash, it was downright insolent and disrespectful.  It was tantamount to wishing that his father was already dead.  
             What's more, the son's immediate departure, after making the outlandish request, cast aside his obligation to care for his father in his old age.  When he departed for the distant country, he rejected his duty as prescribed by the Decalogue to honor his father.  That duty, therefore, fell to the older brother alone.
             A distant country implies not only geographical separation, but psychological, as the prodigal distanced himself from his father, his brother, and his community of faith.
               What follows is well known to most of us, and in a sense is predictable by any parent who has dealt with a rebellious child.  He loses his inheritance on dissolute living and ends up in dire need.  The prodigal son becomes in essence an indentured servant to a Gentile who raises pigs.
             The symbolism is clear, for him to stoop to feeding what were considered unclean animals by Jewish Law and tradition, was a degradation of the worst kind.  It would be like an estranged child today resorting to work cleaning out sewers to survive.
             At this point in the story, we encounter a controversial line for which there is no clear explanation.  The prodigal son, having reached the lowest point, “came to himself.”
            Some  interpreters conclude that “coming to himself” indicates repentance.  But Luke does not use that word, so we are left to wonder whether the young man is simply in misery from his destitute state, or whether he is committed to amending  his life as evidence of repentance.
             Perhaps the best explanation is that the son realized how foolish he had been and that this constituted a prelude to penitence if not repentance itself.  
             Even the three-part statement he prepared for his father: I have sinned, I am no longer worthy to be your son, treat me like a hired hand, is no proof of repentance for how else could he return home?
             At this point we can see the irony of the title: the Parable of the Prodigal Son, for the parable is not about the son at all, who represents human selfishness.  It is about the father, who represents God.
             Perhaps a more appropriate title would be the Parable of the Waiting Father or the Parable of a Father's Compassion.
             At this point in the story, you see, the actions of the father clearly reflect the divine compassion revealed in Jesus.
             By the standards of this world, even faithful and reverent worldly standards, the proper response to the prodigal son would have been to let him fall on his knees and ask for forgiveness.  At which point the father would respond with words of forgiveness and a review of subsequent expectations to ensure a permanent amendment of life on the son's part.  The son would, in effect, be on probation.
             But that is not what happens; instead the father runs to meet the son.
             This is outlandish behavior—we have a dignified man, a prominent person, wearing a long robe.  In order to run, he would have had to lift the robe, exposing his legs, an act that would have been considered shameful in Semitic culture.
             All this is to convey the unbridled joy that God experiences when one who is lost, whether a sheep, a coin, or a person begins the act of seeking reconciliation with Him.  All this reflects the scope of God's grace. 
             But the story does not end here; for the older son, the one who has remained faithful and dutiful is to be accounted for as well.  The older son's reaction reflects worldly standards, and we who read the story cannot fail to identify with the older son.
             The older son has been hard working and loyal; he has been unfailingly obedient both to Jewish Law and to his father, and we can understand his resentfulness.
             But the father reassures the older son and expresses appreciation for his fidelity.  In his relationship with both sons, the father demonstrates unconditional love.

            The relationship of the father, who clearly represents God, with his sons, is not determined by their character or their actions, but by his.

            God takes the risk of our assuming that His mercy will outweigh His judgment no matter how great our offenses may be, in order to offer forgiveness to create an environment for our permanent transformation to faithfulness. 

            The true lesson of the Parable of the Prodigal Son, is not therefore about the son at all;  it is, like all the parables, about the nature of God.

Amen.


 


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