Preacher: The Rev’d Canon Jenny Wilson, Precentor

In the name of God, creating, redeeming, sanctifying, … Amen.

Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ (Luke 15:1-2)

Last week, as we continued our exploration in this sermon series of Jesus as the one sent by God to bring us home, we explored the idea of Jesus’ meals as images of home, images of God’s embrace. We saw Jesus, the one who knows himself to be utterly at home in God, eating with tax collectors and sinners, with those whom society shunned. We discussed the meaning of meals in Jewish culture, we explored the ideas of scholars, we wondered about the part we played in making some feel outcast and we even pondered the idea that some aspect of ourselves is outcast too.

Jesus did none of this. In response to the religious leaders’ protestations at the company he kept, Jesus told stories. In chapter 15 of the Gospel according to Saint Luke, we see Jesus respond to the grumbling Pharisees and scribes, by telling three parables, the parable of the lost coin, the parable of the lost sheep and the story we heard in our churches this morning, the parable of the Prodigal Son, or, as it is sometimes known, the parable of the two sons.

Jesus drives the point home, in these three stories, that God is almost ridiculous in the efforts he will put in to search out those who are lost. A shepherd has a hundred sheep and loses one. Which one of you, [Jesus asks], having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? (Luke 15:4) Which of us, indeed? The question is telling. For many of us would find ourselves wondering if we would, in fact, go after that lost sheep. These parables are told not only to give us insight into the nature of this ever searching God, they are told to shine a light onto the nature of human beings, the ones who grumble when the lost are embraced, the ones who probably would not engage in the relentless search.

What woman having ten silver coins,* if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? (15:8) Again Jesus’ probing question. This is what God is like; but what are you like? The woman’s response is critical and matches that of the shepherd; not grudging relief, but delight, joy, the gathering of friends and neighbours to celebrate. Grumbling, rejoicing – two responses placed in sharp relief in these three parables. Not least in the third, the parable of the two sons. A son takes his father’s inheritance and when, on this son’s return, his father rejoices, and extravagantly so, his brother’s response matches that of the religious leaders, he is angry and refuses to join in the celebrations. His father speaks with him and that is where the stories end. Jesus leaves us to ponder the possibilities of joy and resentment as responses to our witness of God’s embrace of those of whom we might disapprove.

We need to be careful, though, about assuming that Jesus’ parables are easy to interpret. Many of them are baffling. I was most helped in pondering the parables by a lecturer who told us to find what it was in a parable that we didn’t get. What most irritates us? Sit with what keeps you awake at night. Is it Jesus’ pointed question about whether we would search out the lost? Is it the time wasted by the shepherd looking for the hundredth sheep? Is it the utter lack of pride in the father who races to great his ungrateful son?

We don’t have to look hard to find what baffles us in the parable read as our second reading tonight from the sixteenth chapter of Luke’s Gospel. The parable of the dishonest manager is staggering. What can Jesus possibly mean by a story that concludes…?

[The] master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth* so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes. (Luke 16:8-9)

When I had to reflect on this parable in a Friday morning service a few months ago I ran in desperation to the commentaries for assistance. How could one make sense of a parable that seemed to encourage dishonesty? The scholar John Shea made a fascinating point. He compared the parable of the dishonest manager with the one immediately preceding it, the parable of the prodigal son. Although we may struggle with the generosity of the father in this parable, or with the behaviour of either of the sons, we have a certain comfort with this story as giving real insight into the nature of God and human beings. John Shea shows that these two parables have the same structure.[1] It works like this. The prodigal son and the dishonest manager are both given property and they squander the property. (15:13, 16:1) The phrase is the same. After a little while, the prodigal son came to himself (15:17) and after the manager is told that he will be dismissed he said to himself (16:3) … Both engage in reflection about their situation and take on some responsibility for it. They both develop a plan, not motivated by goodness but selfishness, a plan that will ensure their survival. (15:18-19, 16:3-4) They both head for home. This is clear in the case of the prodigal son. Jesus explains it in the case of the dishonest manager as he praises his shrewdness. He says, “Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth* so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” (16:9)*

The issue is getting home. Do anything to get home. Rush home and offer yourself as a hired hand for your father, make friends dishonestly if that is what it takes. Whatever you can do to get yourself home is honoured by Jesus. The dynamic of these two parables is our dynamic, the human dynamic. We squander the property, the life, God gives us at times. And then, nurtured by God, we might “come to ourselves”, we might remember who we are, made by God, loved by God, and then we might realise that all that matters is getting home. If Jesus is saying anything in this strange parable it might be this. Do anything to get home. For God will be there, God will be rushing to greet you, God will forgive before you even ask for forgiveness, if you even ask for forgiveness, and God will rejoice in your homecoming. Do anything to get home.

I have a confession to make. I found myself thinking, when I read this interpretation of this oh so difficult parable and that what seemed to matter was the desire for home in God, that, really, it needed a long run up. That to be convinced by this interpretation I found myself wondering if one mightn’t explore the whole of Luke’s Gospel in the light of the theme of home. And so that is where this sermon series came from. The desire to explore surely one of the most difficult parables using the idea that God sent Christ to bring us home.

Jesus told stories. Rowan Williams, in his book The Edge of Words, which he explored ways of speaking about God, put it this way …“We can speak, as Jesus does in the gospel parables, through calling up a sequence of events, reactions and relations as a sort of complex metaphor. What is God like? ‘There was a man who had two sons …’ … God is represented by a whole narrative; to enter into the story and discover where you as a hearer fit and what role is possible for you to adopt imaginatively, is to become able to offer a representation that claims truthfulness …” [2]

Jesus told stories. What of us? Shall we see that, at times, we squander the life God gives us, shall we, like the prodigal son and the dishonest manager, come to ourselves, shall we do anything to get home? And then? When we get there? Shall we tell stories too? Shall we tell God our story? Shall we pour out the story of our life to him, that life, God-given and God-blessed, shall we pour out our story too? Shall we tell of our times of failure, tell of our guilt for sins committed? Shall we tell God of the times where we didn’t let God be God? Shall we hear God’s words of forgiveness? Is that what home’s about? Shall we tell of our struggles, of those we love who are suffering? Shall we ask God to send healing upon them? Shall we pour out our gratitude to God for all the blessings given to us? One mystic,[3] remember, said that if we have said “thank you” we have said all the prayers, told all the stories, perhaps. Shall we thank God for the very blessing of life itself? Shall we tell God our stories?

Shall we do anything to get home and tell God our stories too?

[1] John Shea The Relentless Widow pp263-271

[2] Rowan Williams The Edge of Words p149.

[3] Meister Eckhart