I first prepared a sermon on this passage as a first-year theological student. In the subject “Introduction to Preaching”, one assignment was to write a sermon based on one of a number of passages. I chose this passage and wrote a sermon that was pretty forgettable – as forgettable as most sermons prepared by first-year theological students. I don’t think I ever preached that sermon … and just as well really.
I wrote my second sermon on this passage while I was still a theological student, at this point a second-year student. This time, I prepared the sermon, not for a classroom assignment, but to preach in my field education church. The sermon was a dramatic monologue, telling the story of this passage from the perspective of the elder brother. At the time, I thought it was pretty good.
This sermon became my “travelling sermon”, maybe even my “party piece”. For a number of years, whenever I was invited to preach anywhere where I hadn’t preached before, I trotted this sermon out (regardless of the lectionary).
The point I made in this sermon, as I acted (overacted?) the part of the elder brother struggling with his decision whether or not to join the party for his younger brother was this: Through God’s grace, we are a forgiven people. God also calls us to be a forgiving people.
(And, of course, to forgive someone does not mean that everything is emotionally OK between yourself and the person who wronged you. Far from it. It means that you seek to promote the well-being of the one who wronged you, even if things will never be emotionally OK.)
A few years later, when I was considering the same passage, I had recently read the book Poet and Peasant by Kenneth Bailey. Bailey was involved in research in villages around the Middle East, telling the parables of Jesus to peasant farmers. After telling the story, Bailey asked the question “What would happen if someone in your community did this?”
Bailey always received the same reaction when he told this story, whatever the religion or the culture of the people to whom he told it: “This would never happen here.” When he asked the villagers why it would never happen, some of the frequent responses were:
· A son never asks his father to receive his inheritance early. This implies “I’m looking forward to your death.” This would be unthinkable.
· A son would never refer to his brother as “this son of yours” when speaking to his father. That phrase would implies “He’s your son, but I’m not.” While a parent may disown a child, a child would never disown a parent.
· No parent would ever beg their child to do anything, as the father did when he tried to persuade the elder brother to join the celebration.
· Neither would a man of high status run in public, as the father did when he saw the younger son returning.
The point I made in the sermon was this : Even when people do shockingly (and scandalously) hateful things, as both sons did in the story, God’s grace enables us to do shockingly loving (and scandalously loving) things, as the father did a number of times in the story.
Another time was shortly after the death of Dr. Benjamin Spock, who wrote the classic book Baby and Child Care. Dr. Spock taught generations of parents that it is better for children to love their parents than it is to fear them, and that (as a result) it is no sign of weakness for parents to show their love to their children.
I used the example of Dr. Spock – alongside the image of the father in Jesus’ parable - as a jumping-off point to say that our own views of God are often dependent on our responses to the ways our parents raised us.
· Those who grew up with the care of warm, loving parents often find it easy to appreciate the loving care of the Living God.
· On the other hand, those who perceive their parents as having been cruel, harsh, selfish, erratic, or merely absent, may have problems coming to terms with a loving God. Instead, they may find themselves worshipping a god of wrath, … rejecting a god whom they see as nonexistent, … or ignoring a god whom they regard as irrelevant to their lives.
(And, of course, it may not be terribly helpful to use this as an excuse to play the popular game of “My family’s weirder than your family.”)
Another time, I preached completely off the cuff, for the first – and only – time in my life. It was on one of my visits to Bangladesh, visiting Christmas Bowl projects.
One Sunday afternoon, I attended worship in a Baptist congregation in a poor neighbourhood of Dhaka. I was told by the Bangladeshi staff person who had brought me to the service that I’d be asked to give a brief greeting to the congregation on behalf of the churches of Australia.
The service was in Bengali. The Bangladeshi staffer was translating parts of it for me. After about half an hour or so, the staff bloke translated the minister saying, “And now our Australian visitor will preach the sermon.”
I asked “Are you sure he said ‘… preach the sermon?’”
I thought for a moment. I had no sermon with me. The only Bibles I could see were in Bengali. I had to say something. It had to be on a passage of scripture I knew well enough to talk about off the cuff with no warning. I asked the minister to read the fifteenth chapter of Luke’s gospel.
“The whole chapter?” asked the minister.
While the minister read (in Bengali) the parables of the lost sheep, and the lost coin, and then the one about the two lost sons, I thought about what I’d do.
I’d retell the story of the man with two sons and hope that the congregation found there was sufficient vitality in the story itself. So, after the minister read the passage, I started to re-tell the story. Periodically, after every few sentences, the minister would translate my English into Bengali. That gave me sufficient time to re-gather my thoughts to tell the next part of the story. And, yes, in this ancient story that Jesus told, there was sufficient vitality for the story itself to suffice for that congregation in Bangladesh.
And, today, I still believe those things I learned on those previous occasions:
· Yes, our own views of God are often dependent on our responses to our parents.
· Yes, through God’s grace, we are a forgiven people. God also calls us to be a forgiving people.
· Yes, even when people do shockingly hateful things to us, God’s grace enables us to do shockingly loving things in return.
· Yes, there are some sermons written by first-year theological students that are better left unpreached.
· And, yes, in this ancient story that Jesus told, there is still great vitality in the story itself.