The Prodigal Son

10 March 2013, Lent

The concept of “Sin” seems to be past its sell by date. I think many people would be uncomfortable or offended if someone were to suggest that they are sinners. Sin, most people feel, belongs with Medieval or Victorian Christianity; or perhaps with certain enthusiastic preaching about sin and being washed in the blood.

There has been a sea change in our society. I am fascinated by the way TV, films and popular fiction reflect that sea change. We are bombarded by a constant stream of human and supernatural evil: violence, gruesome murders, psychological depravity, abductions, bombings, political violence, wars, not to mention sparkling teenage vampires and dark zombie-filled apocalypses. Paul is amused because when something gruesome comes on TV, I often close my eyes, cover my ears and keep asking “Is it finished yet?” Instant and twenty four hour news – local and global via TV and the internet – make us painfully conscious of human evil. We are a society flooded by verbal and visual images of evil, living with a heightened consciousness of it. And yet, curiously, there is little consciousness or awareness of the human condition of sin.

The story of the prodigal son is about God’s love, sin and repentance. It is also about two young men: the elder son who ends up self righteously indignant and the younger who ends up “coming to himself”, being forgiven and reconciled to his father.

There are three parables in Luke 15 – the lost coin, the lost sheep and the Prodigal Son. Taken together they were Jesus’ response to the Pharisees who were grumbling that Jesus welcomed sinners and ate with them. They were meant to say provide a picture in words of Jesus’ actions which were a reflection of God’s love. The Scribes and Pharisees pop up all over the gospels and lurk around scrutinising Jesus. They were self righteous and believed that they were not sinful. They generally remind me of the vultures in Walt Disney’s cartoon film Jungle Book. The vultures stand around watching Mowgli, poking fun at him. The more hostile Pharisees and scribes followed him partly out of curiosity, but mostly to find out what he was doing and take offence at it.

At the Wednesday Lent service, Paul (our rector) talked about the consistent theme of in the parables – about being lost and found by a persistent God who loves us. The parables tell us that God loves us persistently. If, like the coin and sheep, we have got inadvertently lost or have strayed, God lovingly searches for us and finds us; if, like the prodigal, we chose to go away from Him, God waits for us to return.

The Parable of the Prodigal son is a familiar story. Many of us probably heard it when we were in Sunday school. The term prodigal has even permeated cultural consciousness. It is represented in art, one of the more famous paintings being Rembrandt’s “Return of the Prodigal”. Mark Twain – the writer – used the image of the prodigal son in many of his stories, and even called himself a “prodigal in a far country eating husks” in a personal letter. Unlike the parables of the lost coin and sheep, the parable of the prodigal son has extra detail. You might expect the story to have just the prodigal son and the father, and might wonder if the elder brother is somewhat superfluous to the story. But Jesus is addressing the Pharisees who were criticising him; the elder son is there to represent them. The Pharisees probably didn’t like the portrayal at all. After all they were the good people, following the law. Like some Christians today might do. Like the elder son did.

I think that many Christians throughout the world today stand where the Pharisees and Scribes did. Perhaps that is why the Christian faith is now so unattractive to people. We can be a judgemental, condemning people. The most important message we seem to have today for the world appears to be about sexual morality, and our faith often comprises a long list of do’s and don’ts. Mostly don’ts. Too often, we feel we are right with God, and look down at others we consider worse than ourselves. Like the elder son did. Like the Pharisees did.

I started out by saying that Sin appears to be past its sell by date. But maybe we have lost sight of what Sin really is. It is not about the magnitude or quantity of our wrongdoing.  It is not like karma in which good deeds create merit to offset our bad deeds; a bit like owning a Toyota Prius to compensate for the way we might be harming the environment. As Jesus describes it, sin is fundamentally about whether or not our lives are lived estranged from God. Whether we live by “Thy Kingdom come” or “my Kingdom come”, “Thy will be done”, or “my will be done”. The prodigal son chose “my will be done”. Like we often do.

We see Sin as old fashioned and outdated because we misunderstand it. Most people essentially try to live good and decent lives. We all slip up from time to time but most of us are not out there thieving, taking drugs, rioting on the streets, or committing atrocious crimes like murder or running the Royal Bank of Scotland and destroying the economy. Human nature ranges between the good, the not so good, and the deliberate evil. But the biblical concept of Sin is not primarily about what we do. It is about where we are before God. It is about recognising that we are far from God, living our own lives outside of His will and His Kingdom. Like the prodigal son did.

The parable is also about repentance. But what is repentance? The word for repentance in the OT comes out of two verbs that mean to return and to feel sorrow. In the NT the word repentance is translated from the Greek word metanoia. It literally means a change of mind and heart that is accompanied by regret and a change of behaviour. It is a change of consciousness and change of direction. This is exactly what happens with the prodigal son who “came to himself” – or came to his senses and returned to his father.

The Bible has many metaphors and phrases for restoring our relationship with God. Being born again, (as Jesus told Nicodemus), entering the Kingdom of Heaven, being saved from our sins, receiving Christ, believing in His name, becoming children of God who are born not of the flesh but of the Spirit (as the first chapter of John describes it). Our OT reading from the book of Joshua talks about God removing the disgrace of slavery in Egypt, and new beginnings; 2 Corinthians has a vivid description: “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”

The prodigal son “came to himself” and said “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you;  I am no longer worthy to be called your son”. The confessional prayers we pray on Sundays and other services echo the words of the prodigal son and remind us of the mercy of God. At communion we pray, “We do not presume to come to this Thy table…we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table …you are the same Lord, whose nature is to always have mercy”. Or, we pray “we have sinned in thought word and deed…through our own grievous fault…we are truly sorry and we humbly repent”.

We often assume that the prodigal son is a profligate, very different from us. We are not so wild. But in essence the prodigal son is really someone choosing a self centred life not a God centred life. Perhaps someone not so different from us after all!

During the season of Lent we can take the time to think about where we are with God. At different points in our life our stories we might find ourselves in the place of the prodigal son or his elder brother. We can think of whether we have got lost like the coin, strayed like the sheep or walked wilfully away from God like the prodigal son. Or perhaps ask ourselves whether we are complacent and self righteous like the elder brother or the Pharisees, assuming we don’t need to repent.

These three parables are stories about being estranged from God, and more importantly about finding our way back. We can choose to respond like the prodigal son did – to return from our self-centred lives back to God. We can “come to our senses” and see ourselves as we often are – alienated from God, and living our own selfish lives. We can refresh ourselves with His love and His grace, mercy and forgiveness. Like the father in the parable, God waits for us to return to the centre of His love and His Kingdom.