Uniform Lesson for March 5, 2023
Scripture passage and lesson focus: Luke 15:11-24
This week we begin our Spring series Jesus Calls Us. I can’t help it. I immediately add the next words in Cecil Frances Alexander’s hymn with the same title: “o’er the tumult of our life’s wild, restless sea.” But maybe, given our first unit’s emphasis on Called from the Margins of Society, we should focus on this hymn’s final stanza: ‘Jesus calls us: by thy mercies, Savior, may we hear thy call.’ For, like the shepherd who has lost one sheep out of a hundred and the woman who has misplaced one silver coin out of ten, the first and most extravagant call in our story for this week’s lesson goes toward the son who has wandered away versus the son who has stayed at home. Make no mistake, Jesus’ call goes out to all. But it usually begins with those who need it most.
The parable of the lost child
It’s interesting how much time and ink have spilled naming this famous parable. Most of my life it’s been named “the parable of the prodigal son.” Here ‘prodigal’ is used in the sense of “profligate” or “reckless,” with the emphasis on the extravagant sinfulness of the younger son. He rudely and improperly demands his inheritance from his father while his father is still alive. He wastes or “squanders” this property in unspecified “dissolute living”, the details of which many a preacher has been quite eager to supply (v. 13). He then finds himself not only in hunger, but feeding with the pigs; an outcast, and an unclean one at that, cut off from the provisions and the blessings of life within the covenant family. This becomes primarily a parable of sin and forgiveness, of wandering away and finding one’s way back, the perfect set-up for either a pulpit call or an opportunity for moral hectoring — pick your favorite sin.
But for the sake of our series and for the sake of this parable’s placement in Luke chapter 15, let’s remember that this is the third parable in a collection of parables dealing with lost things. Just as we should not worry over how the one sheep became lost, or how the one coin was misplaced, we should not wax too eloquent over how the younger son ended up in a pigsty rather than working the back forty. Jesus is telling these stories to a group of people who consider themselves found and worry over Jesus spending so much time with those they deem lost: “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them”(v. 2). They cast the categories as “sinners” and by implication the “righteous.” Jesus re-frames the stories as “lost” and “not lost.” His point seems both simple and profound. God’s heart and actions are tuned toward those whom the world considers lost, even at the risk of turning God’s back and running in the other direction – speaking metaphorically! – from those who consider themselves found. Regardless of the details, all three parables portray an actor/actress whose primary energies are directed toward the marginalized or lost.
The parable of the prodigal parent
For this reason and others, many have re-named this parable as the parable of “the prodigal parent.” “Prodigal,” in this case, means “extravagant” or “overly-generous” — regarding the parent’s grief, grace and generosity. Any parent of multiple children knows this dilemma: Who gets the lions-share of a parent’s worry and attention and generosity, the child who’s doing well, or the child who’s hurting? No competition. We’re only as happy as our least happy child! The same goes for God, for Jesus and should, by implication, for the church. Even before the prepared speech is said, out goes the father, robes flapping, to hug the “lost” child. It’s not the sins of the younger son that take center stage in this parable, but the joy of the parent. That joy shows up in all three parables, when what was once thought “lost” is “found.” This parent is all-in for such “calling.”
The parable of the un-prodigal child
Though it’s not in our lesson, we must continue to the second act of our parable, which connects us to the prologue for them all. The elder son, though called and claimed by this same parent, chooses to stay outside the celebration of this “brother,” now termed “this son of yours” (v. 30). Why? Because he, like the Pharisees and scribes at the beginning of the chapter, can’t abide a parent whose heart leans toward those most hurting. He’d rather serve a parent whose heart leans toward those who are most helpful. Quoting our hymn once more: “by thy mercies, may we hear thy call.”
How would you entitle today’s passage?
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