A story of love - A non lectionary sermon based on Luke15:11-32
It’s a story that could fill an entire Jeremy Kyle Show - this story told by Jesus that is so often called the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Each of the characters has a different take and indeed both sons are just a little bit dysfunctional. One cannot be sure that Kyle’s genius Graham would be able to sort this one out.
After all each of the characters has a story even if they do not match with each other. Let’s first look at the younger son. At the beginning of the story he sees his father as something of a cash cow. And he can’t bring himself to wait for the cash cow to die. He wants his inheritance and he wants it now. So he demands it - an act tantamount to telling his father to drop down dead! And when he gets it he goes binge spending = a bit like Vivian Nicholson who having won the then princely sum of £152,000 on the football pools in 1961, announced to the world that she was going to “Spend! Spend! Spend!” And like Nicholson he ends up well and truly spent out!
Confronted with the desperation and humiliation of his poverty which coincides with a time of famine, the son begins to realise that life back home was not so bad after all. And so he makes his journey back home not to sonship but to the relative insecurity and lack of status of a hired worker. After all his actions have brought shame on himself and by implication his father. So back he goes rehearsing his “I am no longer worthy to be called your son” speech.
That is his story, a story of unworthiness. But what is the father’s story. He has been hurt by the son’s actions towards him. Yet he has given him freedom despite knowing the risks. And in the time since he has not stopped loving this son. Indeed he has kept a look out for him. And when he sees him, he runs to him in what would have been seen as most unmanly behaviour in his culture. And when he gets him there is not the much deserved slap across the face but an embrace and a kiss. There is no allowing a “not worthy” speech but there is the robe, ring and sandals that signify sonship. There is no journey into servants quarters but instead a right royal party in the son’s honour.
Now see the contrast in the two stories. Now the son needs to decide whether he is to live in his story of making up for the past without expectation for the future or the father’s story that rejoices in his being alive as a fully dignified robe ring and sandal wearing son. His future quality of life and his relationship with his father depends on which story he chooses to believe.
Now let’s look to the other son, the older son. He has been working for his father whilst the young scamp has been gallivanting around - and doesn’t he know it! He comes over as having a chip on both shoulders. He clearly is not impressed by his brother. Indeed his reference to the use of prostitutes suggests that he is only too willing to think the worst of his brother. In fact he cannot speak his brother’s name. But when we meet him it seems that his prime anger is directed at his father.
This son is not going to the party. He’d rather be miserable on the outside. And he is full of gripes and by the time he speaks to his father his complaints come out with bucket loads of venom. As far as he is concerned he has worked for his father like a slave. And what has he got for it? Not even a scrawny goat to eat with his friends. And now the same father who has been a cheap skate with him is going overboard with that waster of a younger brother. We can almost hear him wanting to yell out those words so beloved of young immature children - “It’s not fair!”
And that is his story. He sees himself as the one who does the right thing and gets scant gratitude. But it is only his story. The father’s story is very different. It is a story summed up in the words;
“Son, you are always with me and everything I have is yours.”
This is a story that suggests that the Son has been the author of his own unhappiness. He hasn’t had to work all hours. He hasn’t had to do without. His father has been only to willing to let him all he wanted and that includes not just scrawny goats but fattened calves. By denying the reality of his father’s generosity he is the reason for his own embitteredness. It has all been there for him but he has chosen to believe the worst he can believe about the father. Indeed perhaps we might think that he could do with the thrashing that Jesus’ audience would expect a father to give him so as to defend his honour, in the hope of beating some sense into him.
But there is one more point in the father’s story that deserves mention. This point is that he blots out fairness. It doesn’t interest him. He is in the generosity business - the business in which fairness matters not one iota. The younger son does not deserve a party. But that doesn’t matter. It is profoundly unfair but this is how grace works - even parties for sons who Spend! Spend! Spend! But because one receives generosity and grace does not mean that there is less for others.
“Son you are always with me and everything I have is yours.!
So two very different stories. A Son who sees the father as cheap and unfair to him set against a father who is purposefully unfair yet who speaks in terms of generosity without limit. We do not get told which choice this older son eventually makes as to which story he chooses to believe. But as with the younger son that choice will determine his future quality of life and his relationship with his father.
We do well to be careful about suggesting that characters in parables represent God. In some cases carelessness can lead to a skewed picture of God. But the context in which this parable is set in Luke’s Gospel as well as the story itself, make clear that the father is a depiction of God.
So do we believe in this father as telling us God’s story?
If so we find that Hell is not believing in God’s story. For it when the sons do not believe in God’s story that they are essentially experiencing Hell. When they do not see that the Father is love unlimited then they reject the possibilities of love and celebration within their own lives. They cut themselves off from all that can make their lives whole.
But the story never ends. The father’s love just is not going away. It is the very nature of the father to love even when the sons are a right pain in the arse. And that is the truth of God’s story. When we are at our most impossible God loves us to the max. And when we give our time, our labours and our moneys God loves us to the max but no more for there is no greater love. For here is a love that has no limits, is not arbitrary but which in generosity and grace goes on and on. It can not be driven away ! Neither can it be earned. It is simply the natural yet purposeful way of God.
Too often in the Christian church we put limits on that love. Sometimes we portray a harsh understanding of God. And yet to take the title of a book written by a local preacher from Cornwall who was dying from motor neurone disease, “ Love never ends.” More than that God’s love is the great transformative presence in our world today greater than sin or any means of destruction. In it we can put our hope and listen to this story. For this love of God is victorious!