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Lent 4, Year C, St Mark's, 21/3/04
Joshua 5.9-12: after crossing Jordan, Israelites kept the passover in Gilgal in Canaan
Ps 32: You, O Lord, are my hiding place, saving me from trouble, forgiving my sins
2 Cor 5.16-2: God was, in Christ, reconciling world, making him to be sin...
Luke 15.1-3, 11b-32: Prodigal son
Collect: Lord absolve people that we may be delivered from chains of sins we have committed
Post Com; (like your Son) give us grace to endure present sufferings w. confidence in glory to be revealed (1788 - 332 = 1456)

Summary: The whole of Luke 15 calls us to rejoice together at welcoming the 'outcast'.

Today's gospel is about rejoicing - rejoicing that the lost have been found.

Usually we hear this 15th chapter of Luke's gospel broken up into two separate readings read on two separate occasions, but that is not at all what St Luke intended, as we shall see. At least the Revised Common Lectionary has kept the link between this morning's parable and the opening of the chapter, for it is the opening of the chapter which sets the context in which Luke intended it to be heard. But let us consider the whole chapter, because then we can catch the intensity with which Luke calls us to rejoice.

Luke opens the chapter by telling us that "the tax-collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear Jesus" (15.1), and these are the very people that pious and patriotic Jews would avoid at all costs. The tax-collectors were known for farming out or sub-contracting the actual collection of the taxes and then creaming off their share or more than their share from the top. Besides which, they were collecting taxes for the hated Roman oppressors. The hatred of them was not unlike the attitude of many Palestinians to the Israeli control of their land today. As for the sinners, if one wished to avoid ritual impurity, then one had to have nothing to do with them if at all possible, and certainly not eat with them, for the merest contact with them could make one ritually unclean. So it is no wonder then that the Pharisees and their scribes were muttering among themselves in disgust and revulsion, saying, "This man receives sinners and eats with them" (15.2). Thus it is in answer to their muttering that Jesus addresses the Pharisees and their scribes.

First Jesus tells the story of the lost sheep. We also find this story in Matthew's Gospel. But there the shepherd alone rejoices at having found his one lost sheep. It is very different here in Luke, for here the shepherd does not rejoice alone but rather calls together his friends and neighbours to rejoice with him.

The next story Jesus tells is about a woman who probably wore the ten silver coins that were her dowry on a thong about her forehead. The thong broke, the coins fell and scattered, and she was quickly able to pick up nine of them, but the tenth one she had to search for diligently, using a lamp, hoping to catch the glint of the silver, and a broom to sweep every corner until the coin was found. Once again, Luke tells us that when she found it, she called in her friends and neighbours to rejoice with her at having found her lost coin.

And so we come to today's story. Jesus now tells the story about the man who had two sons, one very obedient and diligent son and the other one a young upstart who can't wait for his father to die to get his inheritance. We usually call this the story of the Prodigal Son, but that is to miss its real point, as we shall see. The younger son asks his father to give him his inheritance in advance, and then he goes off and squanders it in riotous living, to put it mildly. He sinks so low that he is not only feeding ritually unclean animals, namely, swine, but he was even ready to eat the pods that were food for the pigs. You can imagine the revulsion at this point of the Pharisees and scribes whom Jesus was addressing, for he has made the young man to be the lowest of the low: a real sinner and as ritually unclean as it is possible to be.

It is this young man who comes to his senses, realises he has forsaken any right to be called a son, and heads for home, tattered and barefoot, ready to confess his sins against God and his father, and hoping his father will so relent that he will let him be one of his hired servants. And the father, as soon as he sees him afar off, has compassion, runs to him, and embraces and kisses him. Only then is the young man able to blurt out his confession. But the father immediately tells the servants to bring quickly the best robe and put it on him, put a ring on his hand and shoes on his feet, and bring the fatted calf and kill it for a feast of rejoicing that his son who was lost has been found. And so they have a party with food, music and dancing.

Now the elder son, who has been labouring in the field, approaches the house. When he hears the merrymaking, he asks one of the servants what it means, and the servant says, "Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf because he has received him safe and sound" (15.27). He receives this news in anger and refuses to go in, so his father comes out and pleads with him. But he angrily reminds his father that he has been a faithful son, serving and obeying his father for years, but he had never been given a kid to make merry with his friends. And then he says, "But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your living with harlots, you killed for him the fatted calf!" The father replies, "Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead and is alive, he was lost and is found." When the elder son speaks of "this son of yours", the father replies "this your brother". And there the chapter ends, with the point having been made emphatically that we are to rejoice in fellowship with those who have been lost and are found. We are to have joyful fellowship with them, but before we can do that, we must have real fellowship among ourselves as an open and inviting congregation.

Over forty years ago I was curate-in-charge of a daughter church in a dying pit town in County Durham. When I arrived there they had not had a resident priest for five years, and there were four adult women just waiting to be prepared for Confirmation. In our evening sessions together in one of their homes, as we examined the Christian faith and practice together, I emphasised, as I had always done with previous classes elsewhere, the deep, supportive loving fellowship we are called to share in Christ. Unfortunately, as I soon found out, there was a long-standing split in the congregation. There were two women, a 70-year old and a 90-year old, who had started it were still keeping it going. So as soon as these four women I had presented for Confirmation joined the worshipping congregation each side of the split approached them and said, "You work for us in the sale of work. Don't work for them." Not surprisingly, the only one of the four women who stuck it out was the one who truly held onto Christ. And when I re-visited the village over twenty-five years later, she was still an active Christian. But if that had been a loving, accepting congregation, she might not have been the only one of the four who continued as a follower of the Lord Jesus.

So let us first look to our fellowship together to see where we can deepen it in the bonds of the love of Christ, and then let us ask ourselves about how we treat strangers in our midst. If strangers come to this church on a Sunday, what effort do we make to welcome them, to help them feel at ease with the service, to speak with them afterwards? Perhaps to find out where they live, to offer a visit, etc. In short, what do we do to give them value as individuals by making them feel part of our loving fellowship in the Lord. If we know of individuals in need, who may be lonely or shut in, do we, both as individuals and as a congregation, reach out to them, no matter who they are? For us to do any less than that is to be untrue to the unbounded love of God in Christ. To do less than that would be to stand muttering with the Pharisees and their scribes at the company that Jesus keeps rather than fulfilling our calling to rejoice together with everyone who needs to hear of and to respond to God's love as made known in Jesus of Nazareth, our Messiah and our Lord.