The Third Sunday after the Epiphany
22 January 2012
A Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Dr Andrew C. Blume
Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Saviour Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and all the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvellous works; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Jonah 3:1-5, 10
1 Corinthians 7:39-31
This week’s lesson in Sunday School is the Prodigal Son (or, as we prefer to call it these days, the Forgiving Father). I can not now recall why we chose this story for this particular week, although I am sure we had a good reason at the time and I certainly have no reason to question our judgement. Indeed, I might not even have been reminded of the lesson until later this afternoon when I asked William what he learnt about in Sunday School. In fact, depending on his answer, I may have never known, lest I looked it up. Because of a change in Lucy's travel plans, however, I happily agreed to lead class this morning and, therefore, I have had the Prodigal Son and his very forgiving Father on my mind all week. By now, you know I do not blithely throw aside the Proper lesson in favour of one simply on my mind, so I hope you will bear with me.
While I may not remember why I picked today for the story of the Prodigal Son, I do know why I wanted our children to hear it. It is funny, in a way, that I am so committed to it because this tale happens to be missing from a number of Sunday School curricula, including the one we have taken for our model, and it surprised me. In our own planning, I wanted very much to include it because I thought it would be an important lesson to share with our children and one that could capture their imagination. Indeed, Luke’s story of the headstrong son who requests he be given his inheritance so that he may head off to the first-century equivalent of Las Vegas (or Monte Carlo, or Macao) is one that has never lost its resonance in the popular imagination. It is a story that always sounds fresh. It is a story that does not need a great deal of its original context explained to be meaningful. We do not need to know a great deal about first-century shepherding, viticulture, gardening, or economics to make meaning of this tale.
A son leaves home without a care for his family, proceeds to live it up and do whatever he wants until the money runs out. He comes home since he has nowhere else to go, hanging his head in shame. He assumes that his father will be angry with him, might even reject him, and is prepared to offer his services as a servant so that he may at least form part of his family household. The son, however, does not ever get the chance to make this extreme offer, for his father sees him coming from afar, runs to greet him, and embraces him lovingly. He calls for a welcome home banquet to be prepared and orders the fatted calf to be slaughtered. In the meanwhile, the other brother, the “good” brother who has stayed at home and worked hard, is put out by all this fuss paid to someone who had failed to do his duty and who had been so selfish and showed such bad judgement. It seems only natural to us (especially if we wish to identify ourselves with the "good" brother). The father even seems to understand his loyal son’s feeling, as he explains, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found” (Luke 15:31-32).
We instinctually side with the good son, we naturally see what the “bad” son did as wrong. The story is set-up as an object lesson in keeping your head down, working hard, and being responsible. In the end, however, the parable is able to reinforce those very values at the same time as it shows us in a surprising and moving way the depths of God’s mercy and love, of God’s forgiveness, and most importantly of the joy God experiences when someone who has been lost, lost geographically, spiritually, and morally, is found. Rather than berating his son for his mistakes—for it is clear that the son recognises them himself—the father shows him love and kindness. The Father in the story—and we can be very comfortable in saying that this father is meant to show the way of God and his kingdom—provides an example of someone who never loses hope that those who stray will come back. The father is a model of one who stands with open arms awaiting the return of those who have gone away and who themselves had no idea of returning.
Luke places this story in his narrative immediately following Jesus saying, “I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” The forgiving father and the lost son show us a sinner, someone who has turned away from relationship with God and his family and perused his own narrow self interest, and a father-figure, God’s very self, expressing joy and love at his return. To those who know the God of Israel, this is no surprise.
Many of those who heard Jesus tell the story of the Prodigal Son would also have been very familiar with the story of Jonah. Yes, they would have know about him being saved from the belly of the Whale. They would also have known, however, about the episode that followed and that we heard this morning,
how the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord.
They would have know that Jonah went a full day’s journey into that vast city, almost as if he had walked the length of Queens to arrive finally in the middle of Times Square, before he proclaimed, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” They would have known that great city’s reputation for wickedness and they probably had expected that the people take no heed of Jonah’s warning. They had expected that God would visit his wrath on Nineveh, but they knew better, because they knew the story, for in the Hebrew Scripture we read,
And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them. When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God repented of the evil which he had said he would do to them; and he did not do it.
God proclaimed his will that the people should repent and come to the Lord and the people responded, and rather than God holding out their previous sin before them, he saved them and he loved them, because this is what he does.
What Jesus’ hearers would have also known was what happened next: Jonah complaining that God did not punish them anyway (Jonah 4). They would have heard Jonah's complaint in the words of the faithful son and they would have remembered what the God of Israel had done and said, reminding Jonah of the extraordinary thing that had happened, that a city of a hundred and twenty thousand persons (and also much cattle) repented of their sins and came back into the arms of the Lord God of Israel. They were lost and now they are found, as Jesus might have said. The God of Israel loves his people and wants for them nothing other than reconciliation with him, reconciliation with love itself.
And this, my brothers and sisters, is the God who sent his son to preach repentance and the kingdom. Jesus travelled through the country preaching and teaching and, most importantly, incarnating in his very being, the God who rejoices at the return of each of his children. This was the message Jesus preached as he called out to Simon and Andrew, to James and John. Jesus invited them into his work of calling the world to account and inviting them into the bosom of the God of Israel, who waits for them with his arms outreached, ready to order a feast and slaughter the fatted calf. This is the work of the fishers of men, to proclaim the Good News of God in Christ, to say that God is working to achieve his kingdom, and tell these amazing and true stories about how God, our God, who made us and who loves us, will not only always honour the loyal service we render, but also be waiting for us to return to him if and when we might go astray. And so to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost be honour and glory, now and for ever. Amen.
Andrew C. Blume✠
New York City
Fabian, Bishop and Martyr at Rome, 20 January 2012
© 2012 Andrew Charles Blume