Sunday, March 6, 2016

a story of redemption

May I speak in the name of Almighty God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Amen

Our Gospel reading today consists of one of the most famous passages from the Bible, and therefore in all of literature, that of the prodigal son; a story so famous that even those who have never read the Bible or indeed anything else are likely to know it, and even when they don't they will probably have a good idea what is meant if they hear someone referred to as a prodigal son.

The story, I think, can be broken down into three parts. In the first, the younger son asks his father for his inheritance. It is a shocking enough thing to do, in a way, for it is almost like saying you want your father dead. And what happens next is even more shocking – the son turns his share of the property in ready cash and, in a complete rejection of home and family, heads off for the bright lights of a far away country. There we are told he squanders the lot in dissolute living. We are not given any details of what this may consist of – his brother later fills in some of the blanks with some particularly sordid information, but we can not be sure if what he says is based on a sure knowledge of the facts or if he is simply letting his imagination run wild. However, the younger son later admits that his behaviour has been sinful so we can be sure that whatever it was that the younger son spent his fortune on, it was not on anything good and pure and wholesome. And all too soon it is gone, every penny.

That is where we move to the second part of the story – and this section begins with the son discovering the sad reality that the temptations of the world are made up of false and empty promises. Once the money is gone, he finds himself broke and on the scrap heap of life. No one wants anything to do with him. To stay alive he has to find work tending pigs – the lowest of the low for a Jew. And he is so hungry that even the food the pigs is eating starts to look good to him. How far he has fallen from his glory days: he who was not that long ago a rich man able to fling his money about getting whatever he wanted, is now a day labourer, all but starving as he ekes out a living in another man's fields herding his pigs.

But out of this suffering something good comes – the young man comes to himself, realises how foolish he has been, the great wrong he has done to his father, and determines to go home. And he truly has learned his lesson, for he does not seek to return on the terms that he had left, as a son of the household. No, he realises he has sinned against heaven and his father, so instead he will seek admission as the lowliest of servants. And so begins the journey home to his father.
With his return begins the third part - and what a loving father he returns to! There is no anger, no bitterness, no desire to see his son grovel and beg for forgiveness. No, the fathers stands watching for his son, hoping for his return. And when he sees the ragged, woebegone, and miserable creature in the distance he doesn't wait for him to walk every last step to the door; instead he runs to his son. And before ever he speaks a word of apology, or indeed speaks at all, he throws his arms about him, embraces him, and kisses him. The son tells him how he has sinned against him and heaven, and that he is no longer worthy to be called his son. But it is as if the father hasn't heard a word. The son never even gets to beg to be allowed to be treated as a servant, for the father is already calling a ring for his finger, fine clothes, and a feast to be prepared. The elder son is not best pleased to see his wastrel brother greeted so lavishly on his return; but the father explains that his joy stems from the fact that coming to his senses and coming home it is as if his brother had returned from the dead – something that must be celebrated.

The story is a powerful message of sin and redemption; and the great and merciful love that God has for his children. It has captured and held the imagination of mankind down through the ages; and rightly so – for we all know ourselves to be sinners who needed to be saved from the consequences of our own. And the message that it does not matter how low we can sink that God will forgive us is one we need to hear.

But there is an important part of the story that is not to be overlooked, although I think it is by many. Yes the son sins and the father forgives him – but in between those two lies the sons suffering, his realisation and acceptance of his sinfulness, his true and abject repentance, and his return to the father begging for his forgiveness. There is a tendency to gloss over all that, I think; which is a huge mistake, for without it the forgiveness that the father grants him could not happen. The son is saved in the end – a salvation which, as his elder brother points out, he in no way has earned or deserved – because of the abundant love and mercy and the father; but it is his own repentance that allows him to access that love and mercy.

And so my prayer as I end today is that you will be like the prodigal, not in his sinfulness, but in the repentance and return to the father that follows when he at last comes to himself, so that you may at the last be saved; and I ask that you pray the same for me.


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