Sermon for Jun3 16, 2019 -- THE PRODIGAL FATHER


-a sermon preached by Terry McGinley 6-16-2019 Pardeeville

(Luke 15:1-10 and Luke 15: 11-32)



     The Pharisees were always watching what Jesus was doing and, whenever they thought they had him cornered, they told him and everyone else about it.  On the occasion we heard about this morning, the Pharisees were noticing the kind of people who came to hear Jesus speak.  Goodness gracious!  They were nothing but tax collectors and sinners!  Tax collectors, since they were Jews that had sold out to the Romans, were a special class of sinner.  They had renounced their families and their religion in order to profit from their fellow Jews.  Some translations include the word outcasts for those who were coming to listen to Jesus.  An outcast was anyone who was injured or sick or looked different.  Sinners though, were just plain lawbreakers…anyone who had broken one or more of hundreds of laws.  The Pharisees saw no reason to associate with any of these people.  And it’s for that reason that most Jews knew better than to approach their religious leaders to ask a question…one of the reasons why Jesus posed such a threat to the Pharisees.  People were quickly discovering that they could approach Jesus, that he would not drive them away or make them feel ashamed.  So the Pharisees fought back that day with the only thing they had left.  They tried to discredit Jesus in front of all the people by criticizing the company that he kept.  They accused Jesus of welcoming sinners and even eating with them.  In the culture of the Middle East, eating together was a big thing.  The Pharisees were extremely particular about obeying all the laws, yet they realized that there were those among them who did not keep every law.  The Pharisees decided that they could put up with these sinners in most situations but they were very careful about meals.  The Pharisees were adamant that there could not be any outsiders at meals.  That’s why they mention to Jesus that one of his problems is…he eats with sinners.

     How does Jesus respond when he hears the accusation that he eats with sinners?  He’s says, “That’s right I do…and here’s why.” The three parables that Jesus told that day were directed to the Pharisees in an attempt on Jesus’ part to describe how sinners and outcasts are received in the kingdom of God.  The first parable is about a shepherd who is watching one hundred sheep.  When he notices that one is missing, he heads off after it.  He doesn’t want it to get hurt.  He doesn’t want a predator to come after it.  The shepherd doesn’t notice a sheep is missing and say, “Gee, I hope the sheep finds its way back okay.”  Instead he leaves the other ninety-nine by themselves and seeks the one that is lost.  When the shepherd finds that sheep, he doesn’t punish it for running away.  He calls the whole neighborhood together and he throws a party.  There is a similar message in the second parable.  It tells of a woman who loses one of her ten coins.  She doesn’t think, “Oh well, I’m sure the coin will turn up somewhere.”  She gets down on her knees, lights a lamp and begins to look for it.  She turns the house upside down looking for the lost coin and, when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors over to celebrate.

     Now we get to a parable that Jesus tells the Pharisees in direct answer to their accusation of eating with sinners.  He says to them, “Let me tell you a story about a man who sat down and ate with a sinner.”  The parable of the prodigal son is heavy laden with socially unacceptable things.  As people listened to Jesus’ parable about the prodigal son, they must have been shocked to hear what the young son did to his father.  It would have been a great insult to ask your father for your inheritance early.  In the culture, it was as if he had already declared his father dead.  And it was certainly an affront to his family too.  Yet the father in this parable demonstrates remarkable grace.  Rather than discipline his son, the father allows him to receive his inheritance.  The way in which this was accomplished was the transfer of a portion of land from the father to the son…probably land that had been in the family for generations.  But the young man was not through insulting people.  It was an even greater insult to his father, his family, and his religion when the young man immediately sold the piece of land and took off with the proceeds.  Jewish families considered their land to be a special gift from God and so they held on to it.  The son trampled on this belief when he sold his portion for some instant spending money.  And, because the son likely had to go around to a lot of people before he found a buyer, now everyone in town knew about the son’s insults to his father and his family.  The picture that Jesus paints early on in this parable would have certainly bothered everyone in his audience.  But, as they listened to how the young son fell on hard times, people likely would have felt that the son got exactly what was coming to him…that God punished him for being so selfish and inconsiderate.

     Actually, the son’s life away from his home, while enjoyable for a short time, could not have been much worse.  After basically severing all ties with his family, the son spends his money quickly.  When the local economy suffers due to a famine, the son has no nest egg to draw upon, no cash cushion to tide him over.  He is just plain stuck and he’s forced to get a job to try to stay alive but the only work he can find is a job watching some Gentile’s pigs.  For a Jewish person, this had to be the pits, the worst thing he could have been forced to be around.

     The son is completely humbled by his experience.  He realizes that he has screwed up big time.  So he decides his only chance is to come back home.  Of course, he knows that there’s no way that things can be like they were before he left.  He has made too many mistakes for that to happen.  He doesn’t expect that his father will even consider him to be his son any more.  The boy would be thrilled just to be able to work on the family farm as a hired hand.  He decides he will head on home, apologize to his father, and see what happens.  He hopes he’ll be able to find work on the family farm but nothing is guaranteed.  Once he figures out the right words to say to his father, he practices them over and over.  “Father, I have sinned against God and against you.  I am no longer fit to be called your son.  Treat me as one of your hired workers.”  There are three parts to what he says.  The first two are simply stating the facts.  “I have sinned against God and against you.”  And, because of what he did, “I am no longer fit to be called your son.”  The third statement, “Treat me as one of your hired hands”, is the way that the son figures he’ll fix the problem with his father.  All the time he is on his way back home, the son is repeating these words to himself.  At this point, the best of all possible worlds is that he’ll be able to work on his father’s farm.  He wants to get rid of his constant hunger.  He wants to stop being around pigs every day.  He wants to come home, albeit as much less than a family member, and certainly with no inheritance to look forward to.

     While he has been away, the neighbors have not forgiven him for his actions and for bringing such shame to his father and his family.  His neighbors don’t want to have anything to do with this young rebel.  The young son is in for a surprise though. His father does not share the same feelings.  The father has never given up on his young son.  He has hoped and prayed for the day when his son would return home.  To be prodigal means to spend lavishly, extravagantly, excessively.  That certainly describes the way the son lived while he was away from home.  He spent his money lavishly and quickly until there was no money left.  But “prodigal” is exactly the way the father spends money when his son returns home.  First of all, when the son tries to apologize, when he tries to say those words to his father, the father will have nothing to do with his son working as a hired hand.  But lavish doesn’t even begin to describe what the father does after he runs out to meet his son.  He cannot wait to go to talk to him, to welcome him home.  He dresses him in the finest robe and puts a ring on his finger.  These actions let everyone know that the father still considers this young man his son.  Then he throws an extravagant party!  And here again, Jesus surprises his audience.  The neighbors don’t want to go to a party!  They know that the son disrespected his father and his family by what he did.  They know the son has lost all his money among the Gentiles, an especially bad thing for a Jewish person to do.  Losing your money among the Gentiles even had its own special disinheritance ceremony.  Everyone would come together in the middle of town so they could officially kick the young man out of town for good.  Any self-respecting Jewish dad, having been so shamed by his son, would have disowned him and never talked to him again—regardless of what his son or anyone else asked him to do.  That’s what the neighbors expect to happen…but it’s not what happens!

     Just like the shepherd who goes after the lost sheep to bring it back…just like the woman who gets down on her hands and knees to seek a lost coin…the father in the story runs out to meet his son, even when the son is a long way from home.  In these three parables, Jesus was trying to tell the Pharisees about God’s desire to have a relationship with us and that God wants us to be in harmony with God.  God knows we’re going to screw up now and then but God continues to reach out to us, to renew that relationship, to reconcile us to God, to repair what we have damaged, to restore us to God’s favor.  When we fail, God doesn’t sit back and hope we come to our senses.  Not at all, God seeks us out and shows us grace and mercy.  And, each time we return to God, God throws another party.

          When Jesus told this parable, he used a lot of cultural booboos to make the young man seem unforgivable.  The young man insulted his father and his family.  He disregarded the Jewish tradition of holding on to the land God had given them.  He wasted his money and would up tending the worst animal any Jewish person could imagine.  He hit rock bottom and hit it hard.  But he returned home and was welcomed there.  That’s the kind of forgiveness we have all received in our lives at one time or another.  That’s the message of this passage of scripture.  And because we have received God’s abundant mercy first, we are now free to offer that mercy to others, to let them know that they too can be welcomed home by a merciful and extravagant God.  Thanks be to God!




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