The Sunday of joy halfway through Lent. the color of the vestments is rose rather than violet–a little more festive.
Today’s Gospel is the Story of the Prodigal Son. It’s been called the greatest short story in the world.
By way of introduction to the story of the Prodigal son, our scripture scholar William Barclay tells us it was an offense to the scribes and Pharisees that Jesus associated with men and women who the orthodox Jews labeled as sinners. The Pharisees called the people who didn’t keep the law the People of the Land, and they kept a solid barrier between the Pharisees and ‘those’ people.
The regulations they observed were: Entrust no money to these people, take no testimony, trust no secret to them, don’t appoint them a guardian of an orphan, don’t accompany them on a journey. A Pharisee was forbidden to be a guest at such a person’s house or have them as a guest. A Pharisee was forbidden so far as possible to do business with such people. It was their deliberate aim to avoid every contact with such people who were not only outsiders but sinners. Contact with them would necessarily defile. The strict Jew said not, “There will be joy in heaven over one sinner who repents,”, but “There will be joy in heaven over one sinner who is obliterated before God. They looked forward not to the saving but to the destruction of the sinner. (Think of the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11.). (We’ll see how this applies in the in the second part of the story.)
Under Jewish law a father was not free to bequeath his property as he liked. The elder son must get two-thirds and the younger one-third (Dt. 21:17). It was unusual for a father to distribute his estate before he died. And there’s a kind of heartless callousness in the request of the younger son. He said in effect, “Gimme my part of the estate; I’ll get it anyway when you’re dead, and get outta here.”
The father didn’t argue. He knew his son had to learn from the hard knocks of life, and he granted the request. Without delay, the son collected his share of the property and left home.
He soon ran through the money; and he wound up feeding pigs, a task forbidden to a Jew because the law said, “Cursed is he who feeds swine.”
So the son decided to come home and plead to be taken back not as a son but in the lowest rank of the slaves, the hired servants, the men who were day laborers.
He came home, and his father never gave him a chance to ask to be a servant. He broke in before that and gave him a robe that stands for honor and a ring for authority. If a man gave his signet ring to another it was the same as giving him power of attorney. And shoes for a son as opposed to a slave, for children of a family wore shoes but slaves did not.(The slaves dream in the words of the spiritual—when ‘all God’s chillun got shoes’, for shoes were a sign of freedom.)
Barclay makes several points about Jesus’ famous parable . . . .
(1) It should never have been called the parable of the prodigal son, for the son is not the hero. It should be called “the parable of the loving father,” for it tells us more about the father’s love, than a son’s sin.
(2) It tells us a great deal about the forgiveness of God. The father must have been watching and waiting for the son to come home as he saw him a long way off. When he came, he forgave him, with no recriminations.
When forgiveness is as a favor—that’s not real forgiveness. It’s even worse when someone is forgiven but always by hint or word or threat the sin is held over the person.
Once Abraham Lincoln was asked how he would treat the rebellious southerners when they were defeated and finally returned to the Union. His answer: “I will treat them as if they had never had been away.”
But this isn’t the end of the story.
Then enters the elder son who was actually sorry that his brother had come. He stands for the self-righteous Pharisees who would rather see a sinner destroyed than saved.
Barclay points out . . . .
(1) His attitude shows that his years of obedience to his father had been years of grim duty and not loving service.
(2) He has absolutely no sympathy for his brother. He refers to one returned home not as my brother, but as your son. He was the kind of self-righteous character who would gleefully have kicked him farther into the gutter.
(3) He had a nasty mind. There’s no mention of harlots until he mentions them. He probably suspected his brother of the sins he would have liked to have committed.
Barclay concludes with this . . . .
“Once again we have the amazing truth that it is easier to confess to God than to another person; that God is more merciful in his judgments than many orthodox people,that God’s love is far broader than human love; and that God can forgive when we refuse to forgive.
In the face of a love like that we cannot be but lost in wonder, love and praise!”
So, as you can see our Lenten journey fills us with the joy of God’s love for us. Pope Francis is fond of saying “mercy upon mercy upon mercy.”Yet, there is no story of Jesus ~ none in the entire Bible more poignant, more revealing of God’s love, God’s mercy towards us than the story of–not the Prodigal son, but the Prodigal Father!
Do you know what the word prodigal means? It means, according to my trusty “Synonym Finder” ~ wasteful, squandering, extravagant, excessive, generous, open-handed, abundant, plentiful, bounteous, lavish, exuberant, measureless, bottomless, limitless, overflowing.
That, dear friends, is what Jesus was trying to tell us in his most famous parable about who his Father wants to be for YOU and ME!
This morning in prayer, I caught myself realizing that my relationship with the Father fell short. I wasn’t even sure I loved him! Then I got to thinking that my relationship with my own father was always obscure too. And I felt really sad for a while. I know. I know I love God. And I know he loves me. But I had that moment of obscurity. But there’s still the wonder and the love.
Now, before you go, here’s a beautiful hymn with a slide show to fit our theme, There’s a wideness in God’s Mercy. Click here. Be sure to enter full screen and turn up your speakers. (I invite you to listen to it a second time; the words are amazing. Get Lost in the Wonder of God’s Mercy and Love!