Monday, March 4, 2013

Don't Overpreach It!

Of all the parables, Jesus’ tale of the prodigal son has taken on a life of its own. It has inspired paintings. It has become the basis for the plot of several movies. It has been told and retold—both within and outside the Christian context—so many times that people sometimes forget that it is a parable. In other words, the story has become so important that we sometimes forget that it was originally just a story.

The authors of the lectionary keep verses 1-3 of Luke 15 as a way of forcing us to remember the context of the story of the prodigal son: “All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ So Jesus told them this parable.” Jesus, the wise storyteller, comes up with a brilliant tale just in time to stymie his critics.

What the casual listener on Sunday morning may not realize is that Sunday’s gospel omits two other parables in verses 4-10—the parables of the lost sheep and lost coin. The three come one after another without interruption. None of them is intended to be Jesus’ entire reply to the Pharisees and scribes. All three, taken together, are supposed to underscore the fundamental nature of God as one who searches for the lost. Sheep, coins, and a wayward son—all three of them are images of the lost who are found.

I think the biggest mistake preachers can make with the prodigal son is to over interpret it. I’ve heard clergypeople identify this parable as a summary of the gospel. But it isn’t presented to us as the prototype for faith. Sure, it has elements of repentance and forgiveness. Yes, it contains evidence of God’s unconditional love and grace. Some might call it a tale of salvation, but I think it has more power in its original context.

God seeks the lost. God welcomes back the estranged. Although there may be implications for those of us who have gone astray, the real thrust here is a message of further inclusion to those who are already included. Jesus isn’t preaching to the tax collectors and sinners whom he welcomes back. He’s telling the religious elites to open their hearts.

Sunday’s sermon on the prodigal son shouldn’t be aimed at the people who aren’t in church. It’s a message to those in the pews. “Look around you,” a preacher might say to his congregation. “Who isn’t here? Whom have we excluded?” Whether we intend it or not, we shut out the divorced, the unemployed, the elderly, the disabled, the poor, the noisy, the rabble, the punks, the druggies, the drunks. What sort of person welcomes them to their table? Jesus. Then why are all the people in the pews like you and me—people who have their act together?

1 comment:

  1. "All three, taken together, are supposed to underscore the fundamental nature of God as one who searches for the lost." This point stands out to me. The context is important and none of the three stories give a full picture of the way God seeks us. I never can overlook that the parable of the Lost Coin gives us one of the few images of God as a woman, not that that has relevance in this sermon. While putting the parable in its context is something I typically do, one additional contextual note you made struck a new chord in me.

    Jesus is not preaching to people who cannot hear him. Your point that people should look around for those who are not there stands out as profound. This is a great way to challenge the Church's typical practices of hospitality and evangelism. In your list of who is missing I would also add children to many mainline denominations' services, as kids are bored in church, told to be silent, or are taken outside. How do we welcome the lost seems a crucial Lenten message.