Sermon for High Mass – Lent 4 Sunday 31 March 2019
Sermon preached by Fr Alan Moses, Vicar
Readings: Joshua 5.9-12, 2 Corinthians 5.16-21; Luke 15.1-3, 11b-32
There’s a prosperous businessman; let’s say he lives in the North. He has two sons. The younger, who does not much care for working in the family firm, – or working at all for that matter, – comes to him one day and demands his inheritance, here and now. He doesn’t want to wait until his father is dead to come into his share of the family fortune. He wants to be able to enjoy now, while he’s still young.
Surprisingly perhaps, for he must have been deeply hurt by this thoughtless act of rejection on his younger son’s part, his father agrees to the request; even though it meant liquidating family assets at short notice. As soon as the funds had been transferred to the younger son’s account, he’s off on the first train to London. He moves into a suite at Claridges, takes himself to Saville Row for some new clothes, buys a Lamborgini, eats in Michelin starred restaurants and spends his evenings in posh Knightsbridge clubs and Mayfair casinos; that is when he’s not jetting off to ski in the Alps or Colorado, or sail in the Med or the Caribbean with his new chums. All that conspicuous consumption can be so exhausting you know. You really do need a lot of holidays to cope with being permanently on holiday.
Then one day it all comes to crashing down. His gold cards are no longer accepted. Doors which had always been open to him, when he had money to spend, are now closed in his face. The friends who had been happy enough to help him spend it, no longer return his calls. The hotel’s security staff escort him to the door. The Lamborgini is repossessed. There’s no more champagne or cocaine. He ends up doing odd night jobs in shady Soho clubs for a lot less than the London Living Wage. He’s so hard-up that the only warm place he can find to sleep is at the back of a church in Margaret Street.
It’s there that one day, he wakes up to hear a priest reading the parable of the Prodigal Son as Mass. “That’s me,” he thinks, “that’s my story, he’s talking about me.” The story gives him an idea: “I’ll go home, too. I know I’ll have to eat a large slice of humble pie, but maybe Dad will give me a job in the business. It won’t be in management like before – but dad treats his workers well so I’ll get paid enough to eat and have somewhere decent to stay.”
So he hitches lifts up the motorway. He’s dropped off at the end of the long drive up to the family home. Trudging towards the house, he’s so absorbed in rehearsing his penitent’s speech, that he doesn’t notice someone coming to meet him, until his father throws his arms around him in welcoming embrace. His oft-rehearsed speech is brushed aside and he is swept into the house where the staff are summoned to run him a bath and get him some clean clothes; while his dad gets on the phone to organize the catering and the guest list for a welcome-home party.
Then the older brother arrives back from work. He gets out of his sensible mid-range company car – no “Top Gear” super-car for him – hears the sounds of a party in full swing. He wonders what on earth is going on. Nobody had told him anything about a party. Then one of the staff appears, so he asks him. He tells him that his brother has come home and their dad has thrown a party in celebration.
He’s livid: seething with righteous indignation; he storms off in a sulk. Someone tells his father who comes out to persuade him to come in and join the party. But he’s having nothing of it. His pent-up resentment comes pouring out. He’s the one who has stayed at home and worked hard for the business. He’s never had so much as a night out in Leeds with his pals, let alone a party like this one. But this wastrel whose blown so much of their hard-earned cash on wine, women and song – why should he get a party? He’s only come home because he’s desperate. That pretty little speech of his doesn’t mean he is genuinely sorry; he’s just pretending so he can wheedle his way back into the family. It’s just not fair.
His father assures him that his position in the family and its business is secure: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life, he was lost and has been found.“
Now, I suspect, that few of us here this morning have had an experience like the son we call the Prodigal. Although there are occasions when we do get people turning up in the confessional who’ve done really stupid things in Soho. But we’re all far too hard-working, sensible and respectable for that. In fact, these are the very characteristics which pre-dispose us to be more like the older brother than either the young wastrel one or his father.
The father is, of course, God, and this is the way he treats us, even when we have deeply offended him by rejecting his love and squandering his gifts. In the ancient Middle East, inheritances were not usually divided until the father was dead, so the younger son’s demand is as good as saying to his father, “To me, you’re as good as dead.” So, for the father to welcome him home, not just quietly, through the back door, and on probation but restored to the bosom of the family with a great celebration would seem quite extraordinary to Jesus’ original hearers; even more shocking than it does to us.
And let’s be honest most of us have felt that way at some time, if not all the time. I grew up in what used to be known as the “respectable working class”. A variety of indicators marked us out from those who weren’t respectable; those the Victorians called the “Undeserving Poor”. These were hard work, thrift, loyalty to marriage and family, respect for education, and steering well clear of the roads to ruin to be found in the pub or the betting shop.
But the downside of this was a censorious. moralising attitude to those who had chosen the road to ruin: the feckless and improvident; those whose lives were a mess. We are more likely to demand that the younger brothers of this world get their just deserts: punishment not rehabilitation; condemnation not compassion, banishment not welcome.
The parable ends without telling us if the older brother accepts his father’s plea to come inside and join the party or stays adamantly outside, nursing his wrath and resentment. Does his father’s compassion and joy rub off on him? Is he changed by it? We’re not told. The parable leaves us with the same challenge. Will we join the party which celebrates the gospel’s truth that there is more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety nine of the righteous who need no repentance – or think they don’t? Or will we stay outside?