Enter Into Joy

by | Mar 27, 2022 | Sermons

Enter Into Joy

Why is it so difficult for the older son to see and experience the joy of the situation in the Parable of the Prodigal? Who do we identify with in this story, the Father who welcomes his son back, the son who squandered it all, or the son who remains bitter?

Scripture: Luke 15: 1-3, 11b-32

This is a parable about repentance. It is the third, and the longest, in a series on repentance which take up Luke 15.

We meet three characters in this passage:

  • The younger son who demonstrates the actions of repentance, but does he actually?
  • The father who demonstrates grace, welcome and forgiveness? Maybe not forgiveness, but compassion.
  • Older son who fails to act graciously or who perhaps simply doesn’t know how to act.

It’s easy to read the role of the Father as being God, but I’m not sure we should do that even those his actions resemble God’s grace. In the shame-honour culture that existed this family would have suffered great shame by the actions of the son and further shame through the actions of the father in welcoming him back. It’s the older son who upholds the values of the time and culture.

Asking for inheritance was and likely still is the equivalent of wishing your parent was dead. It’s surprising that the father gives the inheritance. This is beyond all cultural norms, the first hearers of this story must have been beside themselves in shock!

Why did Jesus tell this parable? Because he was trying to make a point when the Pharisees and high priests criticized him for hanging out with a bunch of sinners. This parable is also part of a series, the third on repentance and it is the only one that doesn’t end with the words reflecting on the need to repent.

It’s a story we know so well we wonder what new thing it might teach us? A story so familiar our eyes might glaze over as we read it, we know how it goes. Younger son takes money, losses it on wild living, comes homes full of shame, is received with love and loathing and we don’t know if the older son ever had understanding.

The story is open ended, there is no bow tied around the story as there is with the previous two repentance parables.

There is plenty of ambiguity in the parable. The younger son doesn’t ask for forgiveness, the father acts out of compassion but never says I forgive you and the older son, well we all identify with that character far to readily.

We never discover if the older son actually joins in the festivities or if he sits and stews with his resentment. The text doesn’t tell us that, it doesn’t tell us that everyone lived happily ever after. We might surmise, based on the previous two repentance stories in Luke 15 that the son returning is a sign to rejoice. This is demonstrated by the slaughtering of the fattened calf and the clothing for the younger son. However, we aren’t given a neat closing and object lesson. Jesus doesn’t say, “there is rejoicing in heaven over the one sinner who repents.” That line doesn’t happen here.

This parable has so many moments where we can just get stuck. It is also so familiar that we read it and think we know what it means. It’s a parable where we can easily read our own life into the characters and reflect on how we acted or were treated. As a result of being so familiar with the story we don’t stop and peal back the layers.

In her commentary on this passage Karoline Lewis writes that she gets stuck on the lack of joy that the older son demonstrates. He’s just got nothing. He can’t see the joy in the situation. She writes, “There is just so much right now—for all of us—personally, professionally, communally, nationally, globally. It doesn’t seem like the right time, the right place, the right circumstances to choose joy. But isn’t this when we need God’s grace the most? Not grace as reward for repentance. Not grace as forgiveness. But grace as no defenses. Grace as letting go of all our reasonings for refusal and resistance. Grace as interrupting our rehearsed speeches. And grace as walking through the door and sitting down at the banquet when it’s the last thing we can imagine doing.” (Karoline Lewis)

I really like how Lewis frames this. Because there is so much right now. The end of Covid or is it? War on the European continent. War still in Syria and Yemen and countless other places. Hunger, poverty, concern about how much a tank of gas talks. It’s all so much and we’ve become so guarded these past few years we’ve forgotten how to accept God’s joy and grace. We’ve forgotten about the banquet prepared. We’ve forgotten that we’re forgiven and it doesn’t matter.

Did the younger son actually apologize and repent? It doesn’t matter because the grace, the banquet and the joy which should be apparent in our lives is always there. The father who had his family ripped apart over greed, still seeks to give. And the older son, the one who sits in judgement and asks how is this even fair? He forgets that the gracious joy of God has always been present.

We get stuck on the particulars of this parable and we forget the context in which it was told. The first three verses I read this morning. Jesus was sitting with tax collectors and sinners and the Pharisees and teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Well thank God for that.

To that Jesus told three parables about welcoming the sinner back, the one who repents back. And the third of these stories ends in ambiguity with no neat ending. The older son complains that it isn’t fair, why should my brother get all this? That’s the Pharisees and high priests are going on about, why are wasting your time with this rabble? Why are offering teaching and healing to those people?

Here’s a wake call, God’s grace isn’t fair. It doesn’t pick and chose, it doesn’t ask if you are worthy, it doesn’t ask how hard you work, it doesn’t pay attention to how much you pray, it could care less how much you give to the church, and it doesn’t care if you’re a model citizen. God’s grace isn’t fair. It’s simply there, waiting, and available for you.

The Psalmist writes, ‘Enter into God’s presence with thanksgiving, make a joyful noise.’ (Psalm 95 paraphrase).

That’s really all there is too it. Again, thanks be to God. Amen.

St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church

St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church

St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Cobourg is part of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. The congregation was established in 1833 and continues to serve the community.

St. Andrew’s supports the gathering of community agencies, providing space for the Affordable Housing Committee. Rev. Ellis’ voice is key in advocating for improvements in awareness, empathy and action on key determinants such as housing, income and food security. 

Kristina Nairn

Public Health Nurse, HKPR Health Unit

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