There are two main challenges with creating a sermon on today’s parable. The first one is its renown; so much high-quality artwork and literature have been produced that my attempts can only be extremely dwarfed. The second challenge is the parable’s richness. Once I delivered a 30-minute sermon, touching various aspects of the story. Rest assured, I’m not going to make you suffer for such a long time today!
Jesus tells this story in response to the accusations made by the Pharisees and the scribes. They are appalled by Jesus’ openness towards those of ill-repute. The Pharisees were popular among common folk, regarded as much closer to them than the elitist, Hellenised priestly cast of the Jerusalem Temple. The Pharisees offered certain religious practices that gave their observants a sense of religious fulfilment. Generally speaking, those practices could be boiled down to fulfilling fine-detailed laws and traditions. In their opinion, Jesus’ approach offered an unwelcome, undesirable shortcut for those who have failed to meet those laws and fulfil the traditions. Instead of an arduous and rigorous way back to the fold, Jesus seemed to prefer something like a simple declaration and act of repentance. The Pharisees’ fear was that such an approach could lead to watering down the Mosaic faith, already endangered by foreign influences.
This parable is commonly entitled ‘The Prodigal Son’ – which is patently wrong. Jesus apparently contrasts two sons, clearly representing both sides of the argument. But the main, pivotal character of the story is their father and his attitude towards each of them. Both sons have failed – though in different ways – and both are in need of forgiveness. Neither of them understands their father. The difference in their own and their father’s perspective is shown in their respective attitudes towards earthly goods. When the younger son requests his share of the estate, the Greek word used there can be translated as ‘wealth’. In response the father divides between his two sons bion – the Greek word that we can translate as ‘livelihood’ or ‘means for living.’ The older son’s grievance at the end of the story reflects identical attitude as his younger brother’s – wealth is for entertainment and he felt deprived of it despite having slaved for years. The only difference between the two brothers is that the younger was audacious enough to put his desires in action.
Two thousand years have passed since the parable was told, but it remains relevant as ever. We, regular churchgoers, are in danger of developing unintentionally an attitude similar to that of the Pharisees’. I know it’s a bold statement. Please, don’t get upset yet; don’t reject such a possibility as an insult. The Pharisees’ problem was that they didn’t even consider themselves as in need of forgiveness and reconciliation. Consequently, they were judgmental and looked down on those inferior to them. Have we not built effectively a community of good people who can pat themselves on our own backs and self-congratulate for having virtually achieved sainthood? Now, when you’ve heard these words, they sound ridiculous. The word ‘Pharisee’ was derived from the Aramaic word that means ‘separated’. We are in a real danger of virtually separating ourselves from the sinful world around us; we are in danger of effectively becoming the Pharisees of the 21st century. The point of coming to church is not to close ourselves in a community besieged by the pagan world. The point of coming to church is different: after having experienced the Father’s forgiveness we are send out to proclaim that forgiving love of the Father to those around us.