I’ll give the RCL half-credit for doing something right this week. Maybe even 2/3’s. The Gospel lesson for Sunday is, as you’ve probably noticed by now, fairly long. Realizing that all we get is an hour each week, and no more, they wisely cut the OT and Epistle lessons short. I’m apt to agree with the Sermon Brainwave gang in thinking that the Joshua lesson doesn’t make much sense, but I’ll give the RCL credit for making prudent, time-oriented, decisions. They also did a smart thing in including verses 1-3 of chapter 15 in the lesson for Sunday. Could they have skipped Joshua and given us all of Luke 15? Probably. Would the story be richer with the Parables of the Lost Sheep and Lost Coin? Certainly. At the very least, however, they gave us some clue as to why Jesus is telling his longest parable in Scripture.
The audience, you see, matters. It matters very much as we attempt to understand where we fall in the story of the Prodigal Son. Jesus, Luke tells us, was motivated to share this parable with the Pharisess and Scribes after they finished “grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.'”
This story isn’t really meant for us. Well, not for all of us, I suppose. There are plenty of Christians who, like the Pharisees, grumble and complain that the Church is too focused outside its walls. They complain that clergy and lay leaders spend too much time thinking about, praying for, and lifting up the situation of those who don’t call their congregation home. They wonder what why we waste our time preaching the Good News of God’s mercy, when everybody inside the walls already knows about God’s good and gracious gift.
But that’s not the majority. Or at least, I hope it isn’t. Most of us get it. Or at least, most of us are beginning to get it. Jesus ate supper with sinners and tax collectors. We should too. God is prodigal, recklessly extravagant, with his love and mercy. We should be too. The Spirit is at work in the lives of young and old, rich and poor, disciples and agnostic alike. We should be too. Those of us who get it, or who are starting to, hear the Parable of the Prodigal Son and say, “yeah, sure, that makes sense.”
We believe that God longs to be in relationship with every lost child: those who take his gifts and go off and use them recklessly and those who stay close by the Father, but refuse to believe that it can really be that good: that his grace, mercy, and love can possibly be given so prodigally (did I make that word up?). The Pharisees and Scribes chose to stay as lost children. We did not, and that makes all the difference. In the story, yes, but also in the way we hear the Parable. The audience, you see, matters very much.