Sunday, August 01, 2004

re:reading the prodigal

I don’t often put my sermons up on the site, as they are very place (ie Opawa) specific. But I found preaching the prodigal son today very moving.

We are the elder son. Our Western culture is the young son who has runaway from home. The biggest challenge in the parable is not to the young son, but to the elder son, to accept the outrageous grace of God. The shock is that the parable has no ending, the guests wait, the musicians pause and God asks each of us what we will do in response to grace.

My bibliography included Kenneth Bailey’s Finding the Lost. I invited people into a journey of imagination. I ended with power point images of reconciliation and a song by Lucid 3 (thanx Jan and Tony); which way is west … runaway … help me, I do not know which way to go …

Each us are made in the image of God.
God the Creator gives each of us a creative mind.

Today I want to invite you to use your God-given creative mind.

I want to explore the parable of the Prodigal Son. I want to invite you to imagine being a person in the story.

You may want to close your eyes, to help your imagining.

I want you to imagine being a son.
a son who one day goes to a living father

imagine asking your living father for your inheritance.

And to see the blood drain from his face.

Because in the culture of prodigal son,
to ask your father for inheritance,
is to say that you are sick of your family
you are sick of close relationships
and you wish your family dead.

And your father is shocked, for
“There was no law or custom among my culture which entitles the son to a share while the father is still alive.”

The inheritance sale is quick.
Despicable and childish the village negotiators call you.
Sale of land normally takes months, often years.
“Not many days,” for this inheritance sale, it says in verse 13.
A quick sale to get rid of me.

In the culture of the Prodigal Son, they have a ceremony called ketsatsah, the “cutting off.”

If a field is sold to a gentile, your relatives place parched corn and nuts in a jar.
They break the jar before the village and announce that you are cut off from your inheritance.

Only restoration of the land could undo the ketsatsah, your “cutting off.”
So if you lose your inheritance, you are cut off from the village for ever.

And so you leave,
cut off,
from your family, your village.

And in a distant land you spend your money.

Then came the famine.
There were 10 famines in the century in which you live.
10 famines in hundred years.
No media to alert caring countries. No World Vision to feed the hungry.
In time of famine, a person turns to their family.

But you have none. You are a stranger in a strange land. You become hungry.

You could return home.
Home, to shame before your father, to the shame of having to be fed by your brother, to the shame of ketsatsah, of being “cut off” from village.

Instead you do the unthinkable.
“Cursed are those who breed swine” says the Rabbi.
Cursed are you, as you sell yourself to a pig breeder.

It gets worse. Pigs eat pods. Hungry, you gaze at the pods, wishing you were a pig, wishing you could eat.

You, a Jew, wanting to live like a pig.

You realise how hungry you are.

You have an idea. You could return to your village. You could try to run past the village, try to out-sprint the gauntlet of the ketsatsah.

You could negotiate with your father.
You could ask to be a hired hand.

Not a son, not a slave, but a hired hand,
A hired hand does not live at home.
does not join the family
does expect to be paid for all their work

and so, hungry, selfish and independent, you return.

Only to met love.
Now imagine being the Father.

Your son has wished you dead.
In costly pain, you have given him freedom and let him go.

For years you’ve waited.
Heart broken.
Your son has faced the shame and humiliation of the ketsatsah, of being “cut off.”

If he returns, you must get there first.

You watch and wait. One day, while your son is a long way off, you see him.

You must reach him before the village.

And so you run. Middle Eastern men don’t run. Middle Eastern men wear long robes that reach to the ground. To run means hitching up your robe, exposing your legs. To run will bring you humiliation and shame.

Yet you ran. In full view of the village.

You hug and kiss your son.

Relationship is broken.
By rights your son should fall and kiss your feet.

But this is love. You hug and kiss your son.

Your son accepts he has been found.

Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.
I am no longer worthy to be called your son.

In the face of your love his prepared speech changes.
He gives up his plans, his big ideas.
He only has his awareness of his sin,
his sudden sadness at the breaking of relationship.

You act.
After such costly love,
it’s time not for a ketsatsah, a “cut off” ceremony,
but for a ring and a party

You will kill the fatted calf. A calf will feed 200 people.

You have found your son. Now the whole village must meet your son.

Your reconciliation will be public. Everyone must greet your son in your house, knowing your forgiveness. Meeting God changes our relationships not just with God, but will all people.

Time to party, to honour reconciliation and being found.

Now imagine you are the elder brother

You were there from the start. You heard of your younger brother’s request.

You are angry.

You saw your father endure costly pain and rejection
You saw your father endure public humiliation
You saw your father give the ultimate freedom,
the freedom to reject a love relationship.

You saw the word “father” took on a new meaning in your village.

Then you saw your brother sell the land
The law was clear. “If a man assigned his goods to his son to be his after his death .. his son cannot sell them since they are in the father’s possession.”

Your brother broke the law.
Your brother halved your family estate.
Land was your identity, your birthright.
Your brother sold your identity, your birthright.

You were wrong. You should have mediated. It was your role as the elder brother to go-between.
Yet in this conflict, you failed.

Everyone in the village points at you and says
“there is a family that fights. There is a family that can’t forgive.”

In the fields you work.

One day, you hear the music, the flute, and the pounding of the drum.
A party. A loud, boisterous party.

Puzzled, you draw near. Rather than rush in, you stand aloof.

You ask for information.

Costly reconciliation, you are told.
Father, younger son and village, sharing forgiveness joy.

And you are angry. Where is the justice? Where is the repentance?

And so you insult your father.
You refuse to go in, refuse to join the party.

The Rabbis say: “It is better for a man that he should cast himself into a fiery furnace rather than he should put his fellow to shame in public.”

Yet, like your younger brother, you publicly insult your father.

You remain outside. You refuse to join the party.

And so you see your father humiliate himself. In front of his guests, he comes to you.

How low will your father go? What next. Will he also run and also expose his legs?

In shame, in anger, you speak:
For all these years
I have been working like a slave for you
and I never disobeyed your commandments
yet you never gave me even a young goat
so that I might celebrate with my friends

But when this son of yours came back
who has devoured your living
with prostitutes
you killed the fatted calf for him.

And to my anger, my father replied
Beloved son
you are always with me
and all that is mine is yours.
And to celebrate and rejoice was necessary
for this your brother was dead
and he has come to life
he was lost and has been found.

And each of you here this morning are welcome to open your eyes.

Because the parable has stopped.

There is no resolution. There is no reconciliation.

The musicians wait, the guests watch, the servants are poised with more food and wine.

What will happen next?
What will the elder son say?

Or perhaps they wait and watch for us.

Perhaps the next move is ours.

What will we say and do?

Because we too have seen love.

Greater love has no-one than this, than they lay down their lives for a friend.

Jesus has run toward each of us. Jesus has endured shame and humiliation for each us.

We have seen the unexpected love of God the father.
We know that was in Christ reconciling the world: 2 Corinthians 5:19.

Will we act like the elder son and remain outside God’s party?
Refuse to accept the love of God for other people?

Will we be like the younger son, setting boundaries in our relationship with God?
Serving God as servant or hired hand?

Or will we accept the kiss of God, and join God’s party?

Sin is broken relationships, our living selfish and independent of God and our community.

God is the compassionate father who gives us freedom and who runs to us in humility and shame.

Repentance is accepting the fathers love.
God’s love is offered to all, those who go and those who stay.
to those not yet Christian and those who have laboured for many, many years.

During communion, if you want to publically finish the story,
if you are a younger son or an elder son,
who need to be found
I invite you to mark that by coming to the front and sharing communion.
Father of all
we give you thanks and praise
that when we were still far off
you met us in your Son
and brought us home.

Posted by steve at 02:02 PM


  1. Hi Steve,

    I agree. I remember back to when I first became a follower of Jesus. I read the story of the Prodigal Son and instantly saw it as my story. The younger son was me.

    However, now, years later, when I read this story, my fear is that I have become/will become like the heartless and self-absorbed older brother. I reckon Luke 15 is a bit of a wakeup call.

    Comment by Elio — August 1, 2004 @ 4:24 pm

  2. i read ken bailey’s take on the parables years ago in ‘poet anbd peasant’ – one of the most stunning books i have read. great retelling…. i wrote a chapter for a book on preeaching this week and spent the first half explaining why so much preaching doesn’t work. if only there were a few more sermons like this…

    Comment by jonnybaker — August 1, 2004 @ 7:29 pm

  3. I was very moved…….I felt the Father’s pain and continue to wait, and now to anticipate. Thanks Steve.

    Comment by Liz — August 1, 2004 @ 8:24 pm

  4. thanks for putting this up Steve. It was really moving to walk through the story with you.

    I think parable out of all of Jesus’ parables is the one that I continue to come back to and be moved by – whether I see myself as the elder or younger son.

    Another moving encounter I had with this parable was reading Miroslav Volf’s writing on it. In his book ‘exclusion and embrace’ he views the passage from his perspective as a Croatian, as the elder faithful brother, and what it means for the father to embrace a Serbian, the younger brother, the one who has destroyed his family, his land, his people in very real ways.

    Comment by gareth — August 1, 2004 @ 10:59 pm

  5. gareth, Volf’s reading was very much in my thinking.
    the way i did the sermon, i did not want to “preach” or “point” or to contemporise but to let the power of the original story provide the “shock” … however the “village” context and the focus on the elder brother struggle was my attempt to point out the communal implications of redemption, that is speaks to the tribal and ethnic “villages” of our day.
    i love it when scripture becomes so relevant in these deep ways.

    Comment by steve — August 2, 2004 @ 11:43 am

  6. Steve, good visuals might have been a loop of people meeting @ Heathrow on the beginning and end of the movie “Love Actually” starring Hugh Grant and others. It’s quite a powerful scene…thanks for posting your sermon

    Comment by Paul Fromont — August 2, 2004 @ 12:34 pm

  7. re:reading the prodigal

    re:reading the prodigal “Will we act like the elder son and remain outside God’s party? Refuse to accept the love of God for other people? “Will we be like the younger son, setting boundaries in our relationship with God? Serving…

    Comment by +))) God Is a Moving Target — August 6, 2004 @ 4:46 pm

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