Sermon preached by the Reverend Anna Matthews
I have a clear memory of being lost as a child. I was about 8, and it was on the beach in Scarborough. I’d gone to paddle in the sea with one of my little sisters. It was summer, or at least what passed for summer with a brisk wind blowing off the North Sea, and the beach was busy. One family shivering behind a wind break looked very much like another when I turned back to return to my parents, and I couldn’t see them. We walked, my sister and I, along the shallows, hand in hand, eyes scouring the beach for our family. I don’t know how far we walked, but I remember feeling alone and anxious. It was a relief when a hand landed on my shoulder and I heard my mum’s voice, even if she was giving me a firm telling off for wandering away.
I hadn’t got lost on purpose. Few people, I think, do. In that instance it wasn’t wilfulness or a desire to be elsewhere that led to me getting more lost, but inattention, or an inability to find my way back. I had to be found.
I have been lost since then many times. Not being blessed with a good sense of direction means that before the dawn of satellite navigation and my heavy over-dependence on my phone to tell me where I’m going, I would often end up in the wrong place, unclear about when and how I’d gone wrong but recognising that whatever industrial estate or back street I’d ended up on was not where I was meant to be.
Realising that we are lost requires a recognition that we are in the wrong place. Today’s gospel, although usually called the parable of the prodigal or lost son, is actually the tale of two lost sons. The younger one doesn’t realise he’s lost until his luck and his money run out. His behaviour in asking for his share of the inheritance from his father was an outrageous and shameful breach of custom and manners, the equivalent to wishing his father dead. Jesus doesn’t tell us why the younger son wanted to go off on his own. Perhaps he thought he knew best, or he wanted something different from life, or he wanted to be independent and see more of the world. He would have known the breach in relationship his actions would cause: he’d have known it would reflect badly on him and on his father, cause scandal in the village, and quite possibly cut off any way back home. Whatever it is he wanted, he decided it was worth all that. Only when he’s squandered his inheritance does he realise just how far off he is. Whatever pleasure and fulfilment he found in the life he led, he discovered they brought no lasting happiness. Instead, he found himself hungry, desperate and alone, cut off from friends and family and from his roots: a Jew working on a pig farm is a symbol of real separation from home and faith and culture.
Then, says Jesus, ‘he came to himself.’ He realised he was lost. I don’t think it’s a full realisation yet – there remains an element of selfishness and calculation in his plan to get back into his father’s good books – but it is a start, a reorientation, a desire to go home. The younger brother is like us at those times when we strike out confidently on our own, determined that we are on the way to whatever it is we think will make us happy – wealth or reputation or sex or security or whatever it is that we desire – only to come, rather belatedly, to the realisation that our true happiness lies elsewhere, that all the while we thought we were going in the right direction, we were being led away from our true home. Often it takes a crisis to make us realise this: illness or redundancy or bereavement or a breakdown. Sometimes it’s just a nagging sense that there must be more to life than this. Whichever it is, it’s a prod to change direction, to reorient our desire, and to begin the journey home.
The elder brother, by contrast, may not look lost at all on first reading. He’s already at home, and has never left. While his brother has been off squandering his inheritance, he’s stayed put, dutifully obeying his father, working hard and doing what needs to be done. But as his outburst at his father at the end of the parable shows, underneath is a simmering mass of resentment. He is just as estranged as his brother – his very language, in calling his brother ‘this son of yours’ indicates a refusal to acknowledge the true family relationships, and he likens his own relationship to his father to that of a slave toiling without reward.
The younger son returns home with the plan to ask his father to treat him as one of the hired hands. The older son, it turns out, feels like he is already treated like a slave. They are both estranged from the father’s love, from the relationship in which their true happiness lies.
The difference is that the older son doesn’t realise he’s lost. He thinks that duty and obedience and hard work is all there is to this relationship – that if he does his bit and bides his time he will get what he deserves for keeping on the right side of his father. If the younger son stands for us when we go off chasing our desires, the older son stands for us when we settle for less than our heavenly Father wants for us, when our desires aren’t big enough. I know there have been plenty of times in my life where I have mistaken the abundant life and love God offers for the obedient exercise of duty. But God wants more, offers more, loves us more than that. He made us for relationship with him, a relationship not of grudging duty but of love and joy. As the father in the parable delights in his sons, and does all he can to draw them back to his love, so God loves and delights in us. He wants to be in relationship with us simply because he loves us.
Jesus addresses this parable to the Pharisees and scribes, the religious insiders of his day who were scandalised by the company he kept. There remain plenty of religious insiders in the Church today to whom Jesus speaks in this parable. And we need to hear the good news of it: that relationship with God isn’t one-sided, with us offering him our duty and obedience in order to get a promised inheritance or persuade him to like us. It is a journey into the open arms and open heart of the Father, who first loves us. It’s love that propels the father to run out to greet his lost son, taking on himself the shame and the scandal the son’s actions have caused, refusing to treat him as a servant and restoring to him his identity as his beloved son. It’s love that makes the father leave the party to seek out his other son, and travel into the far country of his resentment, to draw him from duty into joy, from reluctant obedience into love.
The good news Jesus gives us is that there is no lostness into which the Father will not reach out to find us, so that he can bring us home rejoicing. Our actions, our resentments, our past and our fears cannot stop God loving us. As Holy Week approaches, we see God in Jesus Christ journeying into the heart of the far country of our estrangement to bring us home. Whether we are like the younger son who has travelled far off, or the older son who is heavy with duty but light with love, God waits with open arms to be gracious to us, and to draw us into his embrace not as servants, not as hired hands, but as beloved sons and daughters.