Sunday 19th March - Lent 3 - Evensong - Stephen Holmes

Lent 3 2017 – Lk 15: 1-32 Evensong

“He came to himself” – “I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son”

I don’t remember much from my infants’ school days but I do remember being told the two parables in the first half of our readings from Luke, and having to draw pictures of the finding of the lost sheep and the silver coin. I also remember thinking it was all rather pointless and I would rather draw pictures of fighter planes and Greek gods. But I still remember the first time I heard these stories and didn’t understand them.

It’s all a bit clearer now (one would hope so), but they’re still a challenge. They are like a warm-up act to the main band: the story of the father with two sons, the parable of the prodigal son. Matthew’s gospel tells the story of the shepherd who found the lost sheep, but Luke alone adds the woman who found the lost coin and the prodigal son – Luke is always interested in a women’s perspective and people’s inner thoughts. These stories may have been told by Jesus at different times during his life, but Luke has put them together and conveniently given us a punch-line: ‘this brother of yours was dead and has come to life, he was lost and has been found’. Lost and found. Luke also gives us an introduction to show us what it’s all about: ‘the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them. So he told them this parable…’ In these parables Jesus was explaining his radical welcome of people the devout looked down on, people who were ‘lost’. So there’s a challenge to us in these stories.

If we look at the last one, a father has two sons. The younger takes his whole inheritance, wastes it in a far country and is reduced to severe poverty. He realises his father’s workers are better off than him so he sets off home with a prepared speech: ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son’. We said something similar at the beginning of this service, with a reference to the lost sheep: ‘We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.’ When we say that we are the younger son, the lost sheep, the lost coin. But the father sees him coming, is filled with compassion and as the child is stammering out his confession the father ignores it and prepares what the son doesn’t dare to hope for.

If you google ‘the prodigal son’ you’ll find lots of websites for Christian parents whose children have gone astray. They recommend all sorts of techniques for parents to get their children back to their brand of Christianity. They’re really quite depressing. The father in the parable doesn’t use such techniques. He waits and he loves. He loves his son as a person, not as a receptacle for his ideological prejudices. It must have broken his heart to see his son go, he could see all the dangers that would await him; but it is the son imposes conditions on himself, the father rips up all conditions. We are given a model for authentic love, and not just for parents.

We see the inner thoughts and outer actions of the father and younger son, but also those of the stay-at-home elder son. He resents the party for his wayward brother and refused to go in. He was jealous, but his words to his father reveal more about his inner thoughts. He had been the good boy but wasn’t happy, ‘I slaved for you’; he refuses to love his brother, ‘that son of yours’. We don’t even know if he ever joins the party. Perhaps he is the Scribes and Pharisees who have kept the Law and resent Jesus welcoming those who don’t – when Jesus spoke it wasn’t known if they would repent and join his party. Notice that he accuses his brother of consorting with prostitutes, whereas the story only speaks of living recklessly, in Greek asōtōs. In these days of false news it is interesting that his accusation has stuck down the ages, and that the Pharisees of all ages and all churches have loved to concentrate on sexual sins while minimising injustice and uncharity. One might feel the elder brother had a reason for his moans, but he still warns us against a self-pitying righteousness and a refusal to rejoice in the good fortune of another.

But what of the younger son. The positive point of the story is not just the father’s love. That’s only half the story. ‘He came to himself.’ These are perhaps the most significant words in the parable. Luke is interested in our psychology, what goes on inside. The son went off to a distant country, children want to get away, even the Bible says ‘therefore a child leaves his father and mother’. It’s natural. But the younger son also went away from himself, he experienced alienation. His ‘reckless living’ split him in half. His returning to himself was a form of repentance, which in its Greek form ‘metanoia’ literally means ‘after-mind’, a change of mind. He returns to himself in mind, and in deed returns to his father. The Father doesn’t need his words of repentance, ‘I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son’, but the son does. It is these words and the change of mind they express that allows him to accept his father’s love. God won’t force our co-operation. Negative self-image can be destructive, but sometimes we do mess up. Perhaps expressing our unworthiness, as we did in the confession, can help us realise we are loved with an unconditional love; can help us on the path to human maturity in Christ.

Before we made that confession at the start of the service, the younger son was already singing with us, ‘Just as I am (thy love unknown has broken every barrier down), I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see.’ Next we’ll hear the choir sing Purcell’s moving setting of words from the funeral service that recall the son’s repentance: ‘Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts; shut not thy merciful ears unto our prayers’. Finally, we’ll all sing that song of the sinner welcomed home, Amazing Grace: ‘Through many dangers, toils and snares I have already come; 'tis grace has brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.’ May we be that person, and, returning to ourself, may we live the repentance and unconditional love of this parable.