(This sermon was preached in Christ Church on June 28, 1998 at the 6.00p.m. service. It is based four-square on the work of Dr Kenneth Bailey, and his book `Poet and Peasant, which may be purchased on-line by clicking here.
Dr Bailey lived and worked for more than two decades among isolated peasant communities in the Middle East. He stayed in villages which until 10 or 20 years ago had never seen a motor vehicle; where time and tradition have stood still for centuries, even millennia. As he learned of their traditions, his eyes were opened, so that he saw this and other parables as they would have been heard in 1st century Galilee).

We're all probably fairly familiar with the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15:11-32. It would probably be better called the Parable of the Prodigal Father. There's a prodigality shown by the father, a prodigality of grace which is sadly lost on our 20th century ears.

Let's first note the setting of the parable. The Pharisees were, not for the first time, objecting to Jesus eating with 'sinners'. THEY were the respectable, the righteous, the religious. Surely this upstart of a religious teacher should be eating with them. Note that they complain that Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with them. Jesus was hosting a banquet-and that was a prophetic action on the banquet he will one day host- of which he warned in Luke 14: not one of those men invited will get a taste of my banquet. (v24) At least Jesus is dealing with two categories here:
-the 'sinners'; the social outcasts, tax-collectors, prostitutes.
-the Pharisees; those who (v8) were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else- and it was against their attack that Jesus was defending his action.

V12. "Father, give me my share of the estate". So he divided his property between them.
We think the man just wanted a taste of the high life; he wanted the kicks of life. But to have made that demand would have been scandalous. Among hundreds Bailey questioned, only two knew of such an event. In one case his father hounded him out of house and home. In the other case an Iranian pastor died three months later, of a broken heart, and his widow said "My husband died the night our son left home" His son had, in effect, said "Drop dead! I wish you were dead!" And both sons in the parable, let's note, accepted their share of the property
  Such was the grace of the father that he refused to stand on his rights. He allowed his sons freedom. To those who say the Cross is not in the parable- there it is, right at the heart of this parable of the Gospel. God's love, God's grace bore our sin, our rebellion, on the Cross of Calvary. When we sin we're saying to God, "I wish you were dead. I wish you weren't around to restrict me".
  Worse still, the son not only wanted his share of the property before his father's death: we see in his subsequent action that he wanted the right (not normally given) to dispose of the property in his father's lifetime, for (v13) not long after (he) got together all he had and set off. His haste was probably occasioned by the hatred engendered in the local community.

And then of course things go wrong.
We get in trouble and we want home. By the bye, the parable is about how the father treats two sons- how the Father treats His children. It's aimed at us who name the Name of Christ. Let us not lose sight of this fact. The father had two sons. One went off into the world, the other went off into religion.

V18. I will set out and go back to my father and say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no more worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men"
  The son was not only cruel. When things went wrong he was calculating. In a first century Jewish estate there were three levels of servant:
-the bondmen, part of the estate
-slaves, of a lower class
-hire servants, who lived in the village and earned a wage.
A hired servant was a free man, with his own income. The son would be his own man, and would pay off his debt. He wanted the best of both worlds: acceptance by the father he despised and worse, an equal status and the ability eventually to buy his way back into favour with the family. He could lay the ghosts of the past to rest.
  He wanted salvation by works. How appealing a gospel of works is, because we can retain our own dignity and pride. But Cranmer in his superb liturgy reminds us
    We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table.

But now, as the son returns home, we see the magnificence of grace writ large.
  While he was still a long way off, the father saw him and was filled with compassion for him;
  he ran to his son, threw his arms round him and kissed him.
What we miss here is the village reaction; we tend to think of a private return and reunion. The village would have known, and they would have kept watch to see the son return, as sooner or later he must, as a beggar. The boy would have been taunted, physically abused, even lynched, as he tried to re-enter the village.
  The father sees him and runs to him. For a nobleman to run would have been indignity indeed! He runs out to his son to shield him from the judgment of the village, to let the village see his son was accepted. The son can now enter the village protected by his father. And his father hugs him and kisses him. By custom, the son would first have kissed the father's hand, or even his feet. The father's love is too profound for words.

Then the supreme surprise. The son starts his prepared speech. We know what he's going to say, but he doesn't complete it. There's no bit about being a hired servant. Nearly everyone assumes his father cuts him short, but that misses the crucial part of the story.
  No! The son has repented. He agrees to return as a son. He's seen his father's expression of grace. He now gives up on his 'rights' as a hired servant- on earning his way back. His father's acceptance shatters him into humiliation. The son acknowledges he can offer nothing. He can't repay. Money cannot remake the relationship. He can only accept the new relationship the father offers.

Let's remember there are two sons in the story. One was a sinner and knew it. The older son, of course, was the Pharisee- the person who trusts in their own righteousness and despises everyone outside their religious pale. But it's a religion of law-keeping and calculation, not of loving relationships. Right at the start, the elder son betrays his true attitude. He should have remonstrated with his brother and acted as reconciler. But no. We must conclude that as the father divided his property between them that the elder son was content to receive his portion.
  And when his brother returned, tradition would have required him to welcome his brother, socialise and join the feast. Rather when he finds out what has happened he refused to go in, and effectively humiliates his father in public. But for the second time the father ignores convention and goes out to invite his older son in and join in celebrating his brother's return. He comes, not as might be expected, to rebuke. Rather, he comes pleading. And his son only adds insult on insult; insult to injury. He accords his father no title, he complains untruly that he has been his slave. He accuses his father of favouritism and attacks his younger brother: This son of yours, accusing him without knowing the facts.

The elder brother completely misses out. In this parable we see five themes: sin, repentance, grace, joy and sonship. The sad part is that, to the elder son, these are concepts of which he knows nothing.
  Does he return? We don't know. The religiously complacent are that, and object to grace being extended to those they see as 'sinners'.

I hope we see here afresh, maybe even anew, the magnificence of God's grace in Christ. The Father gives us freedom to live life for pleasure. He gives us the freedom to choose the selfish way of religion. What his heart desires is that we come to him for that relationship of honour which he offers.