Visit Hershey, Pennsylvania and you know you’re going to experience chocolate “up close and personal.” The town makes that easy for you by providing a large emporium called simply “Hershey’s Chocolate World.” The first time I walked into that place I was amazed by the variety of ways the company packages the delightful brown confection. Its website simply declares the whole truth by saying this store “stocks a huge selection of chocolate.” I would add that the challenge is to make your choice and stick with it.
Today’s Gospel selection, which is the entire 15th chapter of Luke, also invites preachers to make a choice. Which of the three parables of Jesus would he or she prefer to reflect on and apply to the congregation? All three have a lot to say. But the third and most famous one almost shouts from the page: “Preach about me!” Yes, it’s the “Prodigal Son.”
By serious reflection, we soon realize that we should be calling the story that of “The Loving Father.” That makes a better fit with the other two illustrations Our Lord uses. Dare I say that the ensemble makes for a “sweet” relief for our troubled consciences and the guilt that comes with our sinning? Jesus is telling us that “God’s mercy breaks through all the restrictions we come up with about how God should act toward sinners.”
In ascending order of creation, Jesus offers us the stories of the lost coin, the lost sheep, and the lost younger son. He is telling us of the fact that God’s mercy may look foolish at first glance. As foolish as a woman who turns her little house upside down to recover a near worthless coin like our penny. As foolish as a shepherd who abandons 99 valuable sheep to potential predators just to save one. Or as foolish as a Jewish father who joyfully welcomes home a prodigal younger son who has abandoned his faith and becomes a Gentile. If you look again, Jesus is telling us that His Father is no fool, and He loves us the most.
The well-known Protestant scholar William Barclay offers his own take on the matter. No matter which of the three parables we choose to remember, we will understand them more fully if we remember that the strict Jews, namely the Pharisees and scribes at that dinner where Jesus spoke, held not that there will be joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, but over one sinner who is obliterated before God. Jesus’ whole new outlook was a challenge to that bitter way of thinking.
When you’re preparing for your next confession, it is always a good thing to recall these parables, especially the third, and that loving Father. I like to picture him at twilight each day, watching for that familiar silhouette of his lost son against the setting sun, with that recognizable way he walked, and his father’s heart filling with joy as he ran to hug him.
Barclay presents a more modern story to complement the Lord’s. Once Abraham Lincoln was asked how he was going to treat the rebellious Southerners when they had finally been defeated and had returned to the Union. The questioner most likely expected that Lincoln would take a dire vengeance. Instead the great man replied “I will treat them as if they had never been away.” It is the wonder of the love of God that He treats us like that! As our young people might react with their slang: “Sweet!” I would hasten to add: “Yes, sweet! Like chocolate –but much, much better!”