Sermon: LENT 4, March 31st, 2019
In the Name...
A Sunday School teacher told her class the parable of the Prodigal Son and then asked, "Was anyone in the story sad when the prodigal son returned home?" "Yes, Miss", said one little boy, "The fatted calf."
The great statesman Daniel Webster once observed, "Every man has the right to raise his fist to his Creator, but, when he does, he stands at a crossroads, and one road leads to a dark and stormy sky under which, if he should follow it, he will fall the victim."
In this parable, the young man who raised his fist becomes the victim of the storm which overwhelms him. The head which refused to bow to the father becomes the head bowed to everybody else; the body which hungered for indulgence is the body hungry for pig fodder; the heart which yearned for independence is the heart which yearns for home.
We know this story so well, perhaps too well. We don't readily grasp the enormity of the son's crime and crime it is. He took his share of the inheritance while his father was still alive. In essence, he told his father to “drop dead.” This is more than just running away from home. The Talmud, the Rabbinic writings, considered this sort of gross disrespect as an act of suicide and provided a ritual by which the offending offspring was declared publicly, legally, dead to the family and the community. So when, later in the story, the father says, "My son was dead." this is not mere poetic hyperbole. He really was - in the eyes of the law.
And that's what makes the father's action in receiving back his son so shocking. The father is supposed to uphold the standards and traditions of society and be hard and unforgiving. His act of forgiveness is as shocking and disrespectful to the community as the son's rebellion. Instead of calling this the parable of the prodigal son, maybe it should be renamed the parable of the prodigal father. And certainly that's a message which Jesus wants us to hear - that God's love is so generous it knows no man-made boundaries.
But, there's another message in the story which Jesus directs specifically to the Pharisees in his audience, the ones who, "trusted in themselves and despised others". Jesus warns that they too could become like the prodigal son by failing in their obligation to love God, their neighbours, and themselves.
The season of Lent is as good a time as any to remind ourselves that the words “love” and “obligation” go hand in hand. When we love somebody, we take on certain obligations. In a wedding ceremony, the love of husband and wife is expressed in a series of obligations - "to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, etc." Parents have obligations to children and children to parents. The entire fabric of the family is sewn up with these innumerable threads and these are what the prodigal son tore apart. He declared he was no longer bound by them. He could do as he pleased.
And every day there are people who do this same thing to God. Every day people decide that they've outgrown Him, or that they know more, or better, than He does, or that He's failed them in some way. Like the Pharisees they trust in themselves and despise others, even God.
Thinking ahead to Holy Week, we recall that four key people turned their backs on Jesus during those fateful days. Four - each one of whom illustrated one of the main reasons people become prodigals today.
First, and most obviously, of course, was Judas. Judas represents those who prefer fantasy over reality. Judas imagined he knew what the Messiah would be like and he could not accept the kind of Messiah Jesus was turning out to be. So, he had to preserve his fantasy by destroying the reality. He didn't betray Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. He betrayed Jesus because Jesus betrayed him. He let him down. Judas is really typical of those today who boast, "Well, the Bible may say that, but, that's not what I think." I have my own ideas of how things should be.
Then, there was Caiaphas, the High Priest. He was a bit like the elder son in the parable. He looked down on Jesus with contempt and jealousy. Jesus wasn't one of the aristocracy. He was a carpenter's son, a friend of tax collectors, a dubious character, a nobody. God couldn't possibly be working through him. We see Caiaphas today whenever someone says that to be considered a true Christian, you have to go to a certain kind of church or believe certain doctrines or exercise certain spiritual gifts. I'm sure God gets a copy of the memo.
Next, Pilate, the sophisticated intellectual, the man whose gods were good order and reason. For him, religion was a matter of duty, ethics and convenience - not love and obligation. He was the C&E type, the Christmas/Easter attender. Anything more would be unseemly. After all, there are lots of religions, lots of interpretations. What is truth, anyway? Who says? We see Pilate today in those who are professional seekers, just enough scepticism to avoid accepting the answers to their questions and thus enjoying the freedom to keep on searching for an absolute truth they hope they never find.
And finally, a person we tend to overlook in the Holy Week story. Herod, the ruler of Galilee who was in Jerusalem for the festival. All he wanted from Jesus was entertainment, a show of some sort. The gospel says he taunted Jesus and, in the Andrew Lloyd-Webber musical, I love the way this is expressed in the song, "Prove to me that you're no fool. Walk across my swimming pool." We see Herod lived out in those who hop from church to church to sign up for the latest programme or hear the guest preacher with the biggest ad. Professional visitors. These are people who might attend a dozen different churches, but, won't settle in any one for more than a few months, or weeks. They're like Herod in that he wasn't malicious or angry with Jesus, he was just busy and Jesus bored him. He wouldn't perform on demand and we live in an on-demand society.
Judas, Caiaphas, Pilate, and Herod. Each of these is alive and well today and each is a prodigal son for whom the Father's heart aches.
There are many ways to turn the back - fantasy, prejudice, sophistication, boredom - but, there's only one way to come back. To say, "I will arise and go to my Father." Once that decision is reached, once that relationship is acknowledged, the Father runs to greet and welcome because He never turns His back on us. We are members of His family and love has obligations. His to us. Ours to Him.
Let us each be thankful that we are sons and daughters of such a prodigal Father and try not to give him too much grief. Never mind the fatted calf, the Lamb of God has already been sacrificed for us.
In the Name...