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Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.

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Lent 4, Year C
South Sydney Uniting Church
March 6, 2016

Psalm 32; Luke 15: 1-3,11b-32

‘Our own homecoming’

There’s a Spirit to the Gospel – a force at work in the text – to provoke and to comfort. God be with you …

 In this Spirit, the 17th-century Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn understood what it was like to be a prodigal son. He was, for a brief and glorious time, a very popular and wealthy artist – brash, hedonistic, arrogant. Prodigal indeed – that is, wastefully extravagant.

 He then knew the pain of losing his beloved wife Saskia, and his son Rumbartus. He knew unhappy affairs with his housekeepers. Financial problems became so severe that in 1656 Rembrandt was declared insolvent. His son Titus also died.

Rembrandt was close to death when he painted “The Return of the Prodigal Son”, seen by many as the last will and testament of a turbulent and troubled life.

The prodigal son – in many ways a self-portrait – is dressed in rags. His head is shaved. He is wearing one sandal – the bare foot a symbol of servanthood.

The 20th-century Dutch writer Henri Nouwen pays particular attention to the father’s hands in the painting. The left hand, he sees, is strong and muscular. It holds the son close, with a firmness, a certain pressure. “How different is the father’s right hand! This hand does not hold or grasp. It is refined, soft and very tender. The fingers are close to each other and they have an elegant quality. It lies gently upon the son’s shoulder. It wants to caress, to stroke and to offer consolation and comfort. It is a mother’s hand.”

The Spirit is at work in the parable to draw Nouwen and Rembrandt to the love of God who is both a father and a mother. And the love of God is a love that exceeds the conventional patriarchy of first-century Palestinian life – as it exceeds the conventional patriarchy of much Christian piety.

It’s there in the text – a father acting in a non-patriarchal fashion: willing to allow freedom in face of insult (granting the young son his share of the family property before the father has even passed away – it’s like the young son has wished the father were dead); running to meet a son who has brought such shame upon the family (there is no moralizing, no punishment); pleading with his other son in the Spirit of compassion. “You’re with me always, and everything I have is yours. But we have to celebrate and rejoice! This brother of yours was dead and has come back to life. He was lost and now he’s found” (vv. 31-32).

No references here to sin or law. Simply to life, to reconciliation!

The Spirit at work here is the same Spirit at work in the Hebrew Scriptures, lest we think the Gospel contradicts the Older Testament. This is the Spirit of the psalmist inspired to sing of a “mercy [that] encircles us”.

But let’s stay with the Gospel. We can say that the Spirit reveals a Compassion that desires freedom; a patient Forgiveness (a giving first). The Spirit animates the Love of this father, reaching out to his lost sons. To both of his sons – each differently lost – each regarding the father as a banker, a source of money, rather than a person who wants a relationship with them.

And the Spirit won’t allow the younger son to remain in despair or shame (a Jew feeding the pigs; a wholly humiliated person), but stirs in him a repentance that entails honesty with respect to his real needs (he “came to his senses”, literally “came to himself”) and the strong desire to be with his family again.

The Spirit won’t allow the elder son’s self-righteousness or resentment to go unchallenged. Just as Jesus won’t allow the self-righteousness or resentment of the religious scholars to go unchallenged. Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with them because, as he says, “The Spirit of God is upon me: because the Most High has anointed me to bring Good News to those who are poor … liberty to those held captive, recovery of sight to those who are blind, and release to those in prison …” (Luke 4:18).

There’s a Spirit at work in the church; in us. And this Spirit raises questions for us – in and through the Gospel text.

What kind of questions are raised for you? With whom do you most closely identify?

Will the elder son decide to join the celebration for his lost-and-found brother? Will you join the celebration of acceptance for those you might regard greater sinners than yourself?

Will the father go on pleading with the elder son? Will you go on pleading – hoping – with the very religious, the moralistic, the ones genuinely shocked at a love that welcomes sinners and eats with them?

The Spirit raises questions at the edges of the text, too – prompting us to notice what has gone unnoticed.

Where is the mother of the family? Is it enough that the father bears a motherly tenderness? Or is this a parable for men only – for men as property owners, heads of families/households – commanding wealth, overseeing business ventures, overseeing moral and religious learning? Where is the mother? Are there sisters? What roles do they play? What roles might they yet play? In the family? In the church? In society?

And what of the hired hands and the servants/slaves? Can the story of divine compassion be told without raising questions as to their rights and desires? Must they, as opposed to the sheep and the coin and the sons, remain lost – minor characters, non-persons? Are they required for contrast with the children of God? And whom do we cast in such roles – silenced, hidden, non-persons – that we might tell the stories of our own coming to be, our own being loved and reconciled, our own homecoming?

Candidates may include non-Christians, non-citizens (foreigners, aliens, refugees), non-Westerners, non-humans; the un-born, the elderly, the mentally ill, the physically handicapped, the uneducated, the unmotivated, the criminal, the homeless; very sadly, the Aboriginal; the labourers who cut and sew our clothes, grow our coffee beans, assemble our computer circuit boards …

Whom do we cast in such roles – silenced, hidden, non-persons – that we might tell the stories of our own coming to be, our own being loved and reconciled, our own homecoming? What might the Spirit be revealing to us today? Where might the Spirit be leading us or pushing us? How might the “slaves” and “non-persons” become part of the story we tell – or better, be invited to the celebration – or better, be gathered into the family?

In a register subtly Franciscan – consider the “fatted calf” – one commentator says: “If we are God’s children, then all others are sisters and brothers” (Chris Budden).

In silence, let us receive what the Spirit brings … Amen.