Fourth Sunday of Lent – March 31, 2019
Joshua 5:9-12; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
The parable of the prodigal son is the best known of all Christ’s parables. There are many names that are given to this parable. It’s quite enlightening to our imagination when we explore alternative names for this parable. The German theologian Helmut Thielicke has written a book called “The Waiting Father.” I took the liberty of being a little creative about it. In my mind this naming of the parable could even go one step further. In life I’ve seen many forms of waiting, and I have a hunch it wouldn’t be too far out of line to say there are many mothers who go through that same waiting that fathers undergo. Hence calling this parable “The waiting parent.”
Isn’t the parable of the prodigal son about family life? This way it’s so much easier to understand and appreciate. In the past it has even been called the “gospel within the gospel.” Very appropriate!
When the very reverend Michael Harper in England once preached about the prodigal son 1) he quoted Kenneth Bailey from his book “Through Peasant Eyes.” Bailey says of this parable, “nearly everyone has a sense of awe at its inexhaustible contents.”
This parable is an excellent angle from which to approach Lent, because it revolves around repentance. In a way it is to challenge our preference for the equivalent of feeding on pig’s swill rather than to dine at our father’s — our parent’s — table. Lent should hopefully be for us a change of direction. It is a return to the Father, our Divine Parent, the Creator God who has been waiting patiently for us to come their way.
There are two things about the Father’s love that stand out. The first that jumps out, is what L. Levison describes in this way, “there is no law or custom among the Jews or Arabs which entitles the son to a share of the father’s wealth while the father is still alive.” It would imply that the son wants his father to be dead.
To sum up, Kenneth Bailey writes, “it is difficult to imagine a more dramatic illustration of the quality of love than this.” This father, this parent gives their inheritance to their child, ahead of time.
An Arab, Ibrahim Said, who has written a commentary on Luke’s Gospel, says “this action is unique, something which has not been done by any father in the past.”
How tough must this decision be, to give the part that would belong to one’s child when one were to die, to give that part to the child and allow this child to go? This seems to be the overwhelming, trusting love expressed by the Father in the parable.
Sometimes this child never comes back, maybe not during this life, maybe only in the life hereafter. It really must be extremely agonising.
The father, very much like any parent, waits for their child without giving up, without growing weary.
The second aspect of the love stands out when the son returns to his father’s home. We see a picture of the father or parent in the demonstration of love when the son or child returns.
The father, according to the parable, is “filled with compassion.” Hence the way the word “guts” is used in English. This love is not primarily mental or emotional, but comes from the father’s total being.
The father also ran to meet his son. The philospher Aristotle once wrote, “great men never run in public.” But this father does!
The love extended to the returning son is not a ceremonial peck, but an outpouring of affection. The word used here points towards a kiss “again and again.”
It’s also the best robe that the son receives, the father’s own robe, demonstrating the father’s full acceptance.
There’s the ring, which meant “you are trusted.”
When he receives shoes, it illustrates that he is a freeman, not a slave.
A fatted calf is prepared for the welcoming feast. In the early church, confession was normally made to the community. So here the reconciliation of the father and son is seen not merely as a private and individual matter: everyone in the neighbourhood, the community, was also involved.
There is a story told about another “prodigal” who left his home and led a self-indulgent life, which was a disgrace to his parents. He too decided to go home, but he was uncertain what the response would be. So he wrote to his parents to tell them what he was intending to do. He asked them to put a small white handkerchief in the top left corner of a window as a sign that he would be accepted back.
As he pulled up close to his parents’ home he looked carefully for the hankerchief. It was not there — but in its place was a huge white sheet; the message was plain, you are welcome home and all is forgiven.
This is the way it is with God’s love for us. Indeed God parts with the inheritance if that is what we want; but when we come home the response is overwhelming — there is no probation period, no punishment, no repaying. It is total acceptance — no questions asked.
The son underwent something that we would love to translate as “repent.” The words “he came to himself” are probably as close as we can get in English to what is being said.
It would seem important as we approach Lent that we realise our need to be arrested by this season of Lent, and to realise fully the seriousness of our condition. The prodigal began to change when he realised where he was and how he needed to go home.
When the German theologian Helmut Thielicke wrote his book called “The Waiting Father”, it depicted something of the Lord’s view on us.
Unfortunately the elder brother, although as son he was living at home, had the spirit of a slave; on the other hand his brother was ready to be a slave in his father’s house, but was treated by his father as a son.
Let us allow the Holy Spirit to give us that spirit of being God’s child, be it son or daughter, which will bring us from the far country to our parent’s love and presence.
1) For this message I made use of many insights from a sermon titled “Lost and Found or – The Waiting Father” by the Very Revd Michael Harper in Foxton Parish Church, February 26th 2006 (http://www.harperfoundation.com/files/The_Waiting_Father.pdf)
Copyright 2019 – Heinrich Grosskopf, Minister of Dayspring Presbyterian Church
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