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Fourth Sunday in Lent

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent

Readings: Joshua 5:2–12; 2 Corinthians 5:16–21 & Luke 15:11–32

When I was in my early teens, my friend’s sister, who was a few years older than us, became estranged from her parents. She moved out of home and shared a flat with a girlfriend who was a couple of years older than her. This girlfriend was associated with what you might call some rather unsavoury types of people, and it was wasn’t long before my friend’s sister was involved in drug and alcohol related activities, and her life began to spiral out of control.

One evening, when several of these unsavoury characters were causing trouble and refusing to leave the flat she was sharing with her girlfriend, my friend’s sister rang her parents and asked them to come and help her. Risking physical injury to themselves, her parents went to the flat to intervene, and fortunately the troublemakers left before the situation became violent.

Immediately after this experience she moved back into the family home, where she remained for a number of years until she met, and eventually married, her now husband. Her parents, while angry with her for putting herself in a position of danger, didn’t labour the point and make her feel any worse about herself than she already did. They welcomed her home and supported her to get her back on her feet, which she eventually did.

I’m sure everyone here probably knows someone who has been through a similar situation, and for those of us who are parents ourselves, we can probably relate to my friend’s parents, who were prepared to put themselves in danger in order to protect their child, even though she had become estranged from them of her own choice. They were only too pleased to go to her aid, and then do whatever they could afterwards to help her get her life back on track.

In today’s gospel passage, Jesus tells the ‘Parable of the Prodigal Son’, a story that we are probably all familiar with, and a story which shares some similarities with the story of my friend’s sister. The people that Jesus is talking to are the Pharisees and teachers of the law, who are complaining about Jesus sharing food with tax collectors and other non-desirables, who are referred to as “sinners”. In Old Testament times, it was taken for granted that people of God did not associate with sinners, and this was alluded to in the Hebrew Scriptures, for example in Psalm 1: “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night.” (Psalm 1:1–2 ESV) 

However the Pharisees and teachers of the law took it even more seriously than that, so for Jesus to not only welcome these “sinners”, but to share table fellowship and hospitality with them, was totally unthinkable to these religious leaders. 

In response to the Pharisees and other religious leaders, Jesus challenges them firstly with the ‘Parable of the Lost Sheep’, and then with the ‘Parable of the Lost Coin’, before finally sharing the ‘Parable of the Prodigal Son’ with them. At the heart of all three parables is the theme of celebrating when something which has been lost, is then found. The point that Jesus makes, is that God celebrates whenever someone who has been estranged from Him, such as one of those who are termed “sinners” by the religious leaders, decides they want to be reconciled to Him. This is exactly what has been happening with these tax collectors and “sinners” who have heard the teaching of Jesus and chosen to follow him.

Through the ‘Parable of the Prodigal Son’, Jesus teaches us something of the grace of God’s forgiveness. He tells us that if someone willingly chooses to be estranged from God, but then acknowledges their mistake and genuinely wants to be reconciled to God, God will immediately forgive them and welcome them back into relationship with Him. 

Jesus contrasts the attitude of God (as depicted by the attitude of the father in the story) with the attitude of the Pharisees and teachers of the law (which is represented by the attitude of the older brother in the story). Jesus forgives and welcomes back the so called “sinners”, while the Pharisees and others refuse to accept them. Like the older brother in the story, the Pharisees and others see themselves as the righteous ones who deserve salvation. The question they no doubt ask themselves is why then should these “sinners” now also be offered salvation? 

It’s fitting that we read this passage in church during the Season of Lent. Lent is obviously a time when we are all encouraged to reflect on our own lives and to see where perhaps we may have become estranged from God in some way. It is perhaps also a time when we are more mindful of the need to ask God for forgiveness.

The ‘Parable of the Prodigal Son’ is an encouraging reminder of God’s grace and love, and we can be comforted by its message that God will always forgive us and welcome us when we genuinely seek to be reconciled in relationship with Him.

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