Lost and Found
The Parable of the Prodigal Son
Sermon preached by
The section of Luke's gospel from which I chose the reading we just heard is a rich vein of treasures; Luke also combines all his favourite themes here: God's love for sinners and outsiders ; repentance; joy.
The whole passage reads rather like the inventory of a 'Lost & Found' Department. Two parables precede the one we heard:
- the parable of the lost sheep: lost through their own foolishness
- the parable of the lost coin: lost no fault of its own
then we have the parable of the lost son: lost through his own deliberate choice
Luke says God can conquer all three.
The story is about son who demands his inheritance in advance, as is his right (in the society of the time the younger son was entitled to one third, the elder son to two thirds), but it was still rough on father. The younger son went off and had a great time, spent and lost a lot of money (Luke 15.13), ended up feeding pigs - an abomination to Jews. Eventually he decides to turn around and return to father, expecting to have to beg to be allowed back. He'd been abroad - father hadn't a clue where he was or whether he would ever see him again.
I was once lost on a Devon beach when I was just five years old. The most frightening thing was not 'being lost' but not realising that anybody would have missed me. On another occasion, much later, I arranged to meet up with some friends at a remote country cottage in France, but got comprehensively lost. I finally found them when I spotted the ginger hair of the tallest of the group way across some fields. He was looking for me with binoculars. When I reached them I found that they had put posters on all the approach roads to the cottage to guide me, but I hadn't seen one of them.
Other experiences of being lost? What did it feel like?
The father had probably been hurt by what his son had done. He knew that his son was likely to get himself into trouble, knew that he would lose his way. BUT he never stopped loving him or looking for him.
When he finally comes back, Father is still on the lookout for him. v.20
"But while he was still a long way off his father saw him.." (Perhaps he had
binoculars!?) He was actively seeking him e.g. Big Issue - Missing Persons’
section. When he sees his son returning he is overjoyed. The son doesn't
have to use the grovelling speech he's probably prepared. Father celebrates
and honours the son he has found again. The fattened calf was killed for a
feast; the son was given a robe (representing honour), a ring
(representing authority), and shoes as a sign of family membership (slaves
wore no shoes: there are echoes here of the other passage, Galations 4.7:
“You are no longer a slave but a son.”). That passage goes on to describe
the special nature of “son-ship”.
Luke 15.20b: “he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.” This, for me, is at the very centre of this story. I don’t know about you, but I like being hugged. Sometimes I feel a very great need to be hugged. It’s a warm act of acceptance and well-meaning care from one person to another. It can be the intimate sexual bond between lovers, the all-giving and proud commitment of a parent, or the genuine heartfelt sharing of a concern, perhaps too difficult to express in words, between any two human beings. And here, in Luke 15, here is a hug – a powerful, unconditional expression of love communicated physically in an all-embracing way. God is seen hugging the most rebellious of us. As we sang in our first hymn “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea.”
There are no questions asked by the father. President Lincoln was once asked how he would treat the rebellious southerners when they had finally been defeated and had returned to the Union of the United States. A vengeful answer was expected, but instead he replied: "I will treat them as if they had never been away”.
The elder brother reacts very differently from his father - harsh, accusatory, angry, questioning. In the parable the elder brother equates with the Pharisees who'd rather see a sinner destroyed than saved. The Father represents God, a God who is looking for us without us knowing it, perhaps looking even when we don't want to be found. (Divine binoculars?)
We have a God who finds, but Jesus wanted us to know that it doesn't stop there. He forgives also, unconditionally, unquestioningly. Finding us and forgiving us are so close together for God that they cannot be separated. Can't divide them. And yet let's reflect on how hard it is to forgive.
Next weekend I’m going to a family wedding. Like all good families we have a rift – the groom has two brothers but doesn’t like one of them and has nothing to do with him. Whatever caused the problem in the first place is long covered over with the dust of history and time and yet he won’t be at the wedding.
The father in our story would have been entitled to harbour a grudge, be
upset, angry. After all we don't hear whether the older brother ever
forgave. Did he join in the party? And yet with the father we get the
feeling that he's never even going to mention the subject of his son's
misdemeanours again. Here's where the father becomes the hero of tale, even
though the son gives story its title.
Being a parent is very hard - it's not always easy to forgive kids. As a society we’re sometimes like that: criminals have become the fashionable group we love to hate, Society is so tied into punishment and retribution that any idea of forgiveness goes right out window. Sometimes we know full well that individuals or groups are lost but as a society we adopt an unspoken agreement that we won't bother looking for them. E.g. complacency re. homelessness. Jesus is our best model here. He spent all his ministry seeking people out who were lost. Church has a role in raising awareness and challenging complacency. It must nudge society in ribs and remind them to go out looking with forgiveness in their hearts. The father forgives, the brother cannot. Jesus is telling us here that God forgives where humans refuse to do so. This is the wonder of our God, a God who is looking for us, a big God who welcomes us back with arms outstretched, with a wonderful hug, no questions asked. Verse 3 of our 3rd hymn reads: “Jesus is seeking the wanderers yet; Why do they roam? Love only waits to forgive and forget; Home, weary wanderer, home!”
Conclusion - the cost
Being found and forgiven sounds wonderful, but what’s the catch? What did the son have to do to be found and forgiven? He just had to turn around - just like Missing Persons - turn around - repentance.
God is there whether we repent or not. But sometimes we won’t see him
unless we turn round and look over our shoulders. Then we will see Him,
perhaps through prayer, perhaps in someone else, in music, et.c. But there
he'll be - finding and forgiving.
Father of all, we give you thanks and praise, that when we were still far off you met us in your Son and brought us home.
We thank you that you find us and forgive us, not just once, but again and again. We, your children, are often lost and far away. Find us and forgive us we pray,
Through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen
Bible readings and notes for 17th August 2003