Wembley Downs Uniting Church
Current Sermons
A True Penitent? (Revd Dr John Shepherd) 30.10.2016
Reading: Luke 15:11-32

Today`s passage from Luke`s gospel tells the story of the Prodigal Son (15: 11-32). And as I read it again, what leapt out at me was a phrase that took me back through the mists of time to when I was actually young.

And then I thought to myself, I wonder if there will be anyone in the congregation today for whom a particular phrase will have the same resonance. Anyone who would have been brought up on Morning Prayer as the main Sunday service.

With a sermon, of course. And a choir, all robed, singing the Venite, the Te Deum and the Benedictus.

This was Morning Prayer in the good old C.of E.

None of your Parish Communion, or English Hymnal, or Sung Eucharist, for us, in those days.

And the clergy wore choir habit - surplice, hood and scarf. And we all stood up as the choir entered, and sang the opening hymn - usually Bishop Ken`s `Awake my soul, and with the sun,` even though by then it was eleven o`clock.

The hymn ended, we put down our hymn books, we picked up our prayer books, and the clergyman said those words from Luke that jolted me back through those mists of time -

I will arise and go to my Father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven and before thee, and am no more worthy to be called thy son.

Then he went on, in a passage we never really understood, and actually made quite a lot of jokes about:

Dearly beloved brethren, the Scripture moveth us in sundry places ….

We all had our own pretty irreverent images of the places the Scripture might actually move us.

And when he finished that, we were on our knees, and the phrase I will arise and go to my Father was the invitation to repent and confess our sins.

We must do what the younger son did, because we had done what the younger son had done. Left home, spent up on ourselves, and ended up in shame and misery.

The prodigal son was our model, and we believed that this model was above criticism. This model did what was right. That`s why it was a model. The prodigal son was the archetypal penitent.

But all this was long ago and far away. For my family and teachers, it was in the years before the war with Hitler. For me, it was in the years before the Vietnam War, before the cynicism of the Cold War, and certainly before any thought of the terrorism we endure today.

Looking back, I suppose we might say it was an age, not so much of innocence, as an age of ignorance. Or perhaps naivety is better.

We were optimists. The United Nations would solve all our problems. Things would get better. And special people would make them better.

It was possible to have heroes. And the Prodigal Son was a religious hero. He was the man who did the right thing. He repented, and came back home. And his father welcomed him.

Well, the more I think about it, the more I think this way of looking at the story of the prodigal son was alright then, because we were so naive.

But it won`t do now. Things have moved on, and we can`t go back to what it was like then, as much as we might like to. We know more about humanity now - about concentration camps, about the holocaust, about carpet bombing, about nerve gas, and AIDS, and famine, and of course, we know about terrorism.

About people who leave bombs in cars and haversacks in crowded cities, and detonate them from miles away. And we now know about suicide bombers.

In short, we`ve come to know about the seemingly inexhaustible manifestations of human depravity.

And it could be that the effect of all this on us is that we are losing the confidence to think we can actually truly repent - that we can say we are sorry, and really mean it. We are critical of ourselves, and not completely convinced about the integrity of anybody else.

No more heroes for us, we think. Not now. Not after all that`s happened. We know now that those sorts of heroes are impossible. Because we know that everybody is limited, diminished, fractured, not quite what they should be.

But the thing is, if that is how it is for us, then what about the Prodigal Son? Should we think about changing our view of him, in line with what we now know about human nature, over and above what we understood before?

And if we must revise our interpretation of the Prodigal Son, should it go more like this -

The boy is hungry. Really hungry. He`s desperate. He`s so desperate, he`s ready to eat pig`s food.

But he`s actually a pretty shrewd customer. He has an eye out for the main chance. He`s open to a good deal, if he can get it. He`d have been a terrific dealer in futures, in derivatives.

So, silly to hang around hungry, he thinks, when the food in the servants` cafeteria is better than his.

I know what I`ll do. I`ll go back, and say I`m sorry.

And I`ll offer to work off my debts by doing odd jobs on the farm. But with a little bit of luck, I can wriggle out of that. If I seem contrite enough.

So, summing up, we can put the penitence of the Prodigal Son down to self-interest, pure and simple. He`s looking for a better life for himself, and what he says is designed to cover up his embarrassment, at seeing his father again.

The father is a silly, besotted old man, who is just glad to have the boy back. He`s unreal. But the older brother isn`t. The older brother is a realist. He knows that the boy is shamming, and he says so. He sees right through the Prodigal Son. He sees him for the fraud he is. And he`s not going to go to any dinner in celebration of a con-man.

And to make matters worse, it was his fatted calf that the old man had killed, without ever asking him.

This parable is in Luke`s gospel, and it`s only in Luke`s.

It`s in Luke`s gospel, too, and almost only in Luke`s, that people talk to themselves in the parables - the parable of The Rich Fool, The Unjust Judge, The Unjust Steward, the Pharisee praying with himself, and The Prodigal Son.

And an interesting thing to notice is that all these people who talk to themselves are broken, faulty, fractured, mixed-up people. People who are pleased with themselves, caring only about themselves, not caring about anybody else. They are all obsessed with looking after Number One.

The Rich Fool actually talks to himself about talking to himself. He says, `I shall say to myself, `Soul, you have plenty of good things in store - eat, drink, and enjoy yourself.``

One thing we know we know about Luke is that he knows people. He`s been around. He`s met them on ships and in inns, we`re told. And I think it`s true to say, well, pretty true, that it`s when people are travelling and staying away from home that they talk most indiscreetly about themselves, and about others. People on holidays in camps and guest houses in foreign lands say things, and say things to complete strangers, they`d never dream of saying if they were back at home.

And what`s more, we know that Luke rubbed shoulders with top people. So, all in all, Luke knows what makes people tick. He has no illusions. He knows people`s motives are always mixed. And that no matter how much we deny it, there`s always a fair bit of self-interest driving most of what we say and do. Which means that, in his parables, he doesn`t even bother pretending that we act always for good, unselfish reasons.

Despite all our best efforts, we`re still all tottering on the edge of being the same muddled, broken, twisted, grasping, selfish people that we have been for as long as we can remember.

Which is why the story of the Prodigal Son, or the Forgiving Father, is so important.

It gives us this assurance. We are not saved by having good intentions. We are saved by God, who has his own reasons for accepting us. Reasons which defy even our own over-heated imaginations.

The shepherd wanted to find the lost sheep. But was it because he cared about the sheep, or, say, because the sheep were financially valuable to him?

The woman wanted to find the lost coin. Was it because she was obsessed about completeness, or was it because it was one of ten, and the set would be deficient without it, and therefore worth less?

However we cut it, the bottom line is that they both had their own reasons, which we can only guess at. Who can tell what was really going through their minds? What their motives really were?

In the same way, the Father had his own reasons for wanting his son back. And the boy`s motives didn`t matter. Nor did his reckless living. It simply didn`t matter to the Father that his son was pulling the wool over his eyes. Or that his other son was poorly treated.

Which tells us that God is indiscriminate. God is totally without scruples. He couldn`t care less what it is that brings us to him. He doesn`t reject us because our motives are impure. He won`t turn us away, even though we are not entirely frank with him. Even though we hold things back. Even though we are still muddled, insincere, conniving, and less than straightforward.

Even though our repentance is partial, impure, incomplete.

The thing is, God wants us, no matter what.

Thanks be to this God, now and always.

130 Calais Road, (crnr of Minibah Street)
Wembley Downs, Western Australia.
Phone 08 9245 2882

Ten kilometres northwest of Perth city centre,
set amongst the suburbs of City Beach, Churchlands,
Scarborough, Wembley Downs and Woodlands