Transforming from the Inside

This morning’s service is on the parable of the Prodigal Son, which is one of the many stories, or parables, that Jesus tells to relay, to those who would listen, his spiritual teachings. This parable of the Prodigal Son, we can find only Gospel of Luke. Simply put, the parable is about a father who welcomes back his wayward son. And traditionally this parable has been understood as being a symbolic representation of the kind of redemptive open-armed welcoming we would receive from a loving and gracious God, afforded to us his wayward children, if only we would return to him in a contrite, cap in hand fashion. Without much effort this parable can be read and understood in that rather prescribed Calvinistic fashion, in which we are what? Sinners in the hands of an angry God?

Lost to our sin, and lost to a world of sin. But if we can be convicted of our sin, if we can recognise it as the Prodigal Son does, recognise our own helpless nature, we can throw ourselves upon the mercy of God, and he will in turn redeem us, welcome us, and make all well again. Rewarding us, as the son in the parable is rewarded, as if we had never transgressed at all, because now, all our sins have been transferred to Christ, or to the cross, or whatever. And we can be right with God again.

It’s this way of understanding the parable that I want to pick apart this morning, that I want to problematise. The great thing about Jesus’ parables is that they resist any one single interpretation. The parables support a multitude of meanings. We come back to a parable again and again and we glean new insight, or our understanding of a parable collectively as human beings evolves as we move from one epoch to the next. If this or any other parable could only speak meaningfully to those original first century listeners, we would not still be considering Christianity or the words of Jesus today. The words have a force, and a dynamism, which transcends the sum of their parts.

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And so, we come into the company of Jesus. And who do we find him with? “Sinners” of course. Jesus is always with those “sinners”, those the Pharisaic leaders of Jesus’ day would not have been found dead with. But Jesus is not just with them, he eats with them, he drinks with them, he breaks bread with them, he welcomes them as if they are his brothers and sisters. It’s almost as if he is happy to be around those “sinners”. Imagine that. And into his company comes a teacher of the law, a pharisee, in all his finery, and there he stands. He looks around, and an expression of disgust falls upon his face - ‘what could Jesus possibly have to say which is so important. Look at the company he keeps, look at these deplorables, these wayward souls…’ Jesus responds in his customary way, by telling his stories, his parables. Of course, his disciples are there, listening to his every word, amongst many others, but he directs what he has to say towards this man, this teacher of the law, this pharisee. And to this man, Jesus tells three of his parables. He tells the one about the shepherd, who leaves his ninety-nine sheep to go out in search of that one lost sheep. He tells the one about the woman who loses one of her silver coins, and scours her house up and down, diligently, until she finds that one silver coin. But it is third act, the final story, the one about the prodigal son, where Jesus packs in the punch.

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The story begins with a father on his grand estate - the man with the money, the property, and the power. Talking to this Pharisee, this image would have conjured up one thing, namely, the seat of Pharisaic authority itself, the Temple in Jerusalem. It was there at the Temple that the religious leaders would have received their tithes, overseen their elaborate animal sacrificial cult, with the complex currency exchange system underpinning it. When we think of the ‘father figure’ in the parable, we should not be thinking of God, we should be thinking of these religious leaders. Those who could so easily block access to the Temple, to anyone they deemed unworthy, or sinful. They held the keys to the Kingdom. And as such, those who played by the rules, those who kept themselves on the good side of the religious leaders, they were able to maintain their access, but those who violated the rules were expelled or (in Jesus’ case) even executed.

And into this scene, Jesus inserts two sons. Two sons of the estate, of the Temple. The first is the eldest, and he knew how to play by the rules. He knew who merited access to the Temple, to God, and who certainly did not. We can think of the first son as being much like the Pharisee standing before Jesus as he speaks. He’s not at the top of the religious hierarchy, otherwise he wouldn’t be here on this errand to see what the agitator Jesus is up to, but he’s certainly in the hierarchy. He’s playing by the rules, he’s pleasing the right people, he’s biding his time, and he’s making his way up. The second son, the younger son, also grew up within the estate; he also enjoyed the privilege that afforded him. He too dressed in finery, dined well, and he too watched the cogs of power turning, from that privileged, insider vantage. But unlike his older brother, he began to ask questions. He began to wonder why privilege should be afforded to the likes of him, merely because he was born here, within the walls, and all those unfortunate people out there beyond the walls deserved nothing. More than that, they were in effect cursed, the poor souls that they were.

This reminds me of Gautama, the historic Buddha, who likewise was born into privilege, born a prince, heir to a throne. Who grew up within the walls of the palace, in the lap of luxury, until that fateful day when he was taken on a tour of the city and was brought face to face with poverty, frailty, sickness, and death for the first time. You can imagine the younger son of the estate sneaking away at night, going beyond the safe confines of the Temple walls, and speaking with those outsiders, with those sinners and wayward souls, and thinking to himself ‘they don’t seem so different to me’, and then musing to himself late into the night. He would conclude that it just doesn’t seem fair. How could this system, this authority structure, be just? And he was a beneficiary of this system; he benefited from it by chance and it was eating away at him. He felt spiritually dead inside. He had to get out. He had to get away. He had to do something to right this colossal wrong.

But what could he do about it? He was just one man. But he had to do something, he had to try. And so, he would ask for what was rightfully his, his inheritance (you can think of this as the natural boon his circumstances would have afforded him, his wealth, his learning, his access, his insider knowledge). And with that, he would leave his father’s estate, leave the temple, leave the authority structures behind him, and he would live by a different code, one that recognised the worth of all people, one that did not discriminate based on beliefs, or looks, or wealth. One that was not based on an insider/outsider dynamic. A code which turned all that his father held dear, and believed true, on its head. And so he set off. He would take up residence with these sinners, these prostitutes and outcasts, he would eat with them, he would drink with them, he would break bread with them. He would live extravagantly with them. He would enter that world, be merry with them, and hopefully relieve some of that suffering.

Jesus, telling this story to the Pharisee, surrounded by just such wayward souls, was clearly talking about himself. He is identifying himself with the younger son, the wayward son. And the older brother, much like this Pharisee standing before him now, he just doesn’t get it. Why would Jesus squander his father’s inheritance? he thinks to himself. Why would he turn away from all that is good, to live here, in this bad? To be surrounded by such disreputables, Jesus is even starting to look like them, look like a sinner himself. He must not care about his reputation at all. But as time goes on, things take a turn for the worse. The money runs out. And worse still. A famine sweeps across the land. And the younger son finds himself sleeping with the swine. Desperate and hungry, he looks down at the ground and sees those disgusting pellets the pigs eat, and he considers eating them himself, so desperate he is. And in that moment, he realises something. He had set out, all that time ago, to help the outcast, but now, quite clearly, he was one of them. And it was horrible. He felt like he had failed, he felt hopeless and alone.

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Was all his youthful idealism worth this? He felt so righteous back then, setting out to right the wrongs of the world as he saw them. But had he achieved anything at all, apart from his own downfall? He was nothing now but a homeless outcast, starving away in some God-forsaken corner of the world. He felt disillusioned with it all, and for the first time, he thought he would return to his father’s estate. I mean, there, even his father’s slaves ate better than this, they were given bread and water. And they didn’t wallow in the pig’s muck. Back then, he set out so lofty in his ideals, to help all those his father would have nothing to do with, but now look at him, he was one of them. And so, gathering himself up, he began his journey back.

But as he walked the path back to the estate, he thought about what he was returning to. Would he return as the lost son, and be welcomed back with open arms, and return to his place within the family as if nothing had happened at all? It was a very tempting prospect. But could he really endure that? Would he be able to suppress his conscience in that way? Maybe that would be a fate even worse than the pig’s muck. After all, he had seen and experienced so much. Could he really just pretend it all meant nothing now? No, if he was to return at all, he would have to return not as a son, but rather, as a slave. Because even though he had failed, he wasn’t wrong, change really was needed. The status quo was clearly unjust. Such wealth and power being stored up behind walls in this way, how could that ever be right? A pharisaic class holding the keys to the kingdom, passing their judgment on who is worthy and who is not.

And so, he does return. And his father does welcome him back with open arms, not as a slave but as a son, bestowing back upon him all the trappings of his birthright, the very best robe, the family ring, and some sandals for his feet. All those symbols of power and privilege. And his father celebrates, for the son is back where he should be. And we’re left to wonder, what does become of him after all this? Do the privileges thrust back upon him cause him to forget about the outcast’s plight, the lost sinners beyond the wall? Or now, back within the estate, back in the temple, back within the authority structures of his day, does he work to subvert and challenge the status quo from the inside for the greater good?

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Most of Jesus’ parables are about the nature and character of the Kingdom of God, and so most start with the preface: The kingdom of heaven is like… a mustard seed… is like a merchant in search of fine pearls… is like a net that fishermen threw into the sea… But not here. If this reading of the parable is a valid one, this parable is a rare example, as it's not about the Kingdom of God, or the Kingdom of Heaven, but rather it is about the reality of contending with the Kingdoms of this world, which seek to ensnare us within their narrow frames of reference. It’s a parable asking us to consider the thorny issue of what it’s like to seek to do what is right and just, from within the established authority structure, in which people are playing their power games and manipulating things. In which they’ve already learned which buttons can be pushed for desired outcomes, and learned which are the right cogs to turn. And the challenge then is in part to us, hearing this parable unfolded today. But here in the text it falls back upon that young Pharisee standing there before Jesus.

If he can be likened to that elder son in the parable, then Jesus predicts his response to be that of inertia, jealousy and rage, and an ongoing inability to see the intrinsic injustice within the system he represents. But, just because Jesus sees that as the most likely response from this Pharisee, it's certainly not set in stone. This Pharisee still very much has a choice. He can choose to return to his place within the hierarchy and use his position to work towards the common good, and not simply towards the status quo which benefits his own standing within the hierarchy. Perhaps such boldness would even require turning his back on the role he has hitherto held, and hitherto cultivated. Perhaps doing the right thing would mean working against his own personal interest entirely. It would be a sacrifice, just as the prodigal son once turned his back on all that was due to him, because he saw a higher principle at play, a code which superseded the ways of the world. And perhaps such will be required of you also.

Amen.

Lewis Connolly