Luke 15:11–35: The Prodigal Son
This talk was given by Paul Wintle on as part of our worship service at Main Street Community Church in the building and over the Internet.
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I wonder what occurs when we wait? Sometimes we become fractious. We can’t sit still. We worry. We try to tell ourselves not to be silly. We try to involve ourselves maybe in doing something to take our minds off the waiting. As my mother would say, “You’re wandering around like a pregnant father!” Is there more to waiting than just passing the time until the hoped-for event finally occurs? Maybe the last year has been a time of passive waiting for us. Maybe we have had times of being impatient or fearful, frantic perhaps, not being sure what steps to take next. When can we leave our home? When will lockdown happen? What what’s going to happen?
We await, wondering what is going to happen. Whatever it is going to be, we’ll be like when we can have a tonic in the pub or to see loved ones. What do we do in our waiting? The father in the parable waits. Jesus, the master storyteller, has this as his central and surprising sentence in the whole parable, “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him, was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, threw his arms around him, and kissed him.” Was it a surprise to the father that he saw his son in the distance?
Was it something totally unexpected that the prodigal was coming home? Is there a sense in the story that each day while he was going about his normal everyday business, that the father kept a watching, rolling, brief hoping, sometimes expectantly, and other times perhaps with lost abandon, that he might get a glimpse of his long-lost beloved son? We often think of the son sitting in the pigsty. When he comes to his senses, he says, “I will go. I will go back to my father and say, ‘Father, I’ve sinned against heaven and against you. I’m no longer to be worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired hands.’ “
I wonder too, whether the father was similarly rehearsing words or actions that he might perform if ever he saw his son, again. I wonder how long was the father waiting? We’re not told. It’s a parable and so time told is probably immaterial to Jesus in some sense. I wonder what emotions the father was going through as he sold his plots of land in order to give up the inheritance that would have been the son’s following the father’s death under more normal times. Would he have always felt compassionate even when he was dividing up his wealth?
Or if it was me, perhaps, if I was the father, might I have felt aggrieved, angry or embittered even for just a moment that this son of mine, who I brought up dutifully, was not going to discharge his familial duties. He was going to leave. He was going to leave us for dead. Perhaps during this time that his son had been away, the father was being a bit melancholy, chewing over the what-ifs and whether things could have been different had he brought his child up in a different way. He remembers that children grow up and they make their own decisions independent of what the parents might want. He doesn’t force his child to stay at home.
He goes to the safe, he gets the money, and without a word, he pays out the share of the boy’s inheritance. He must have his freedom. We remember for the sake of the parable that this is God’s story for us. God forces nobody. Then, wordless, the father watches the son departing. We know the story well, don’t we, that we don’t think about it too much. We know that we are the son and that God is the father in the parable. We know that we have messed up and that when we come to our senses, we can still run home to our Father God. He runs to meet us as we work out that it’s okay to come home. The problem with the passage is that we know it and we read it so well.
We’ve heard it many times so what else can we learn from it? We’ve listened at countless sermons over many years about the prodigal son from the angles we can possibly see it from, from the son, from the father, from the brother, from the servants, even I dare say from the fatted calf and yet, this is the first time that I’ve preached on it ever. We haven’t explored it at Main Street for at least four and a half years. The route that we are taking today is from the father’s point of view. What did he do after the son had left home? What did he do after the son had gone to spend and squander those riches of his? Did the father grieve the loss of his possessions?
More likely, I think he would have grieved the loss of his dear son. Did the father sit there in sackcloth and ashes, as would be an Old Testament way of showing loss and despair? We don’t know. What glimpse we get of the father in this story, which Jesus was telling to the scribes and Pharisees–and not to the tax collectors and sinners that I said He was last week, and for which I became aware as I was reading last week’s sermon. I apologize that I didn’t put last week’s sermon into the correct context–is that whatever the father did, and it took forever, for the sons come home, we know that the father waited.
He didn’t just sit there passively waiting he actively waited. The father chooses not to wait in vain to an extent we can, I guess, fill in the gaps, or make up our own story with the between-times at home because we know what the boy’s up to. Jesus tells us about that. We know that he wastes his inheritance on wild living in far-off lands. We know that he lives it up until he works out that he hasn’t got any friends or money, or food or skills and does the job that no self-respecting Jewish boy would ever do, look after pigs. Oh, yes, we know the story of the boy, but what happened back home where the brother and the father are?
We don’t know from what Jesus says but by now we get a sense of what the character of the father and his environment might be. We learn that he has other people working for him. He’s rich enough to continue perhaps on a farm to make a living and enough to enable others to earn from him too, even with only half his riches. He’s rich enough to have a new coat and a new ring and a fatted calf, just in case a party was needed short notice. Maybe we learn that the father has hoped and planned for this homecoming of his son or maybe somebody else. Maybe the son one day might come to his senses and backtrack.
Maybe this is what the father was doing as he waited the return of his son: he was actively planning. Maybe he knew or at least, perhaps he hoped against hope that his son would one day return. Maybe he didn’t have to feel bad that he brought up such a scoundrel who had asked his dad for his inheritance before dad had passed away. Maybe all the stuff father had arranged was because he waited actively. Now mental wellbeing has been covered a lot over the last year in our lockdown times. The media has given advice about how to keep our heads above water emotionally. The academic and writer Monica Coleman lives with mental illness and writes about it with great insights.
According to my friend Simon Cross, who writes a thought for the day that arrives in my inbox every morning. My friend Simon says this about Monica Coleman. He says, “Among other things, she recognized this seemingly prosaic reality that being ill involves waiting.” She says, “There’s a lot of waiting that occurs in the lives of people who live with depression. In between the desire to get well and wellness is a lot of waiting. We wait to feel better. We wait to get better.” Waiting, for Coleman, is not about passivity; it is something that happens actively in the knowledge or hope that something is coming.
In the parable of the prodigal son, the father whose son has left under a cloud goes out every day to wait for him to return. Similarly, those who garden or farm wait for things to grow, not passively but actively waiting to get better, waiting for things to change. These are times of activity, waiting to get better, waiting for things to change. These are times of activity. Today’s message brings us to the end of a mini-series on seeking. We’ve looked at the words of Jesus in Matthew 6, “Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, His justice.” We looked last week at two parables of lost sheep and lost coins.
We considered the partying and the celebration that resulted when both those lost items had been found. We know the outcome of the parable here as well, that the waiting father throws a huge welcome when his son returns. Imagine what that must sound like to the Pharisees. They were the ones who really, really believed that God had saved them through all their law-keeping. Imagine the Pharisees who didn’t like Jesus the teacher spending time with tax collectors and sinners telling them that they were prodigals. What if they, yes, they, were the ones beyond the boundaries of home having spent the family wealth?
What if they were the ones that father was seeking out, looking out for it, actively searching? What if the Pharisees were the other son who had remained at home and honoured the father? He hadn’t put a foot wrong and yet felt hard done by because the party had never been thrown in his honour. We end this mini-series by bringing together the father seeking his wayward son and reminding the son that dutifully stayed too that this is all about seeking and homecoming. That is all the father ever wanted was that his family came home. That’s what the active seeking was about.
The father was at home, still working hard, still doing everything that he ever did, even when the boy wandered away. When the boy finally came to his senses, he knew that he had to turn around. There was always an active waiting from the father. We talked about turning last week. We talked about how the word repentance means to turn around. It may, of course, involve being sorry. It may involve recognizing sin and that all it takes for the son to do in this story is to turn around. That’s what it takes each of the Pharisees to do too. To each of us to face our stubbornness and just come home.
Helmut Thielicke, the German theologian writes extensively on all the parables of the kingdom. We did a whole series of them last year; you might remember when we looked at the new normal. We didn’t look at the parable of the prodigal then. This is what Thielicke says. “I wonder whether the prodigal can visualize this turn in his life. He knows he has no right to sonship. Now as he remembers his father’s face when he left, suddenly despite all the scruples, he knows that his father is waiting for him. The repentance of the son is above all homesickness, not just turning away from something, but turning back home.”
This bit gets me each time I read it because I understand it to be true. “Whenever,” Thielicke says, “Whenever the New Testament speaks of repentance, always the great joy is in the background. It doesn’t say, repents or hell will swallow you up, but repent, the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” The kingdom of heaven is so important. This is home. Jesus implores us to seek it. It isn’t that eternal kingdom that we call heaven, that faraway place when we die, it’s now partly. I know I’ve said this many, many times before, that’s why you pray, “Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.” We pray for God’s realm to become present here now.
Waiting is hard. When we actively wait, we aren’t just sitting on the sidelines waiting for something to happen, waiting for the football game to start, actually, were in our kit. We’re warming up. We’re ready at any moment to jump into the game. We’re actively waiting to be called up. As we seek God’s way forward for our corner of the world in Frodsham or wherever you are, as we wonder about the safe reopening of activities or the joy of anticipation of something new or exciting that comes out of this impossibly difficult year, let’s not merely return home to the comforts and to the recognizable stuff that we call church.
Let’s see what possibilities are out there. Yet within our grasp, as we pray, “Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven,” let’s dream together those wacky dreams of how that kingdom might actually be realized here in Frodsham, wherever you are. To close, what’s the most important thing that you want your neighbour to know or you want your loved ones to know? What key ingredient about this life is it that they need to appreciate, see, understand or experience? Of course, it’s the love of God.
How can this happen, through bringing of the kingdom, through the ever-seeking father who looks and looks for the son, who cares for the son who is already at home, but he’s already on the lookout for the other one to come home. None of this is merely letting God and letting go, or letting go and letting God. It isn’t only praying that God would do something. To quote Thielicke again as we end our thoughts today, “The ultimate theme of the story is not the prodigal son, but the father who finds us. The ultimate theme is not the faithlessness of men, but the faithfulness of God.” The ultimate secret of the story is this, There’s a homecoming for us all because there’s a home. There is a home and many of us know that there is a home. Many people don’t yet know that there is a home to come to.
References and sources
Thielecke, Helmut. Trans. John W. Doberstein. The Waiting Father: Sermons on the Parables of Jesus. (Cambridge: Lutterworth, 2015).
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