“The Gracious Father–and the Two Lost Sons” (Luke 15:1-3, 11-32)

Fourth Sunday in Lent
March 31, 2019

“The Gracious Father–and the Two Lost Sons” (Luke 15:1-3, 11-32)

“This man receives sinners and eats with them.” So the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling against Jesus. They didn’t like the fact that Jesus was welcoming tax collectors and other bad, disreputable people when they came to hear what he was saying. “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” “Such a disgraceful thing this Jesus fellow is doing! We certainly wouldn’t do such a thing! We’re better than that!”

The Pharisees and the scribes didn’t approve of what Jesus was doing. So Jesus proceeds to tell them a series of parables in which they ought to see that, instead of grumbling, they really should be rejoicing with him! If heaven is rejoicing over these lost sinners being found and brought back home, then how come you guys are grumbling? That’s the message of the three parables in Luke 15, the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son–that last one more commonly known as the Parable of the Prodigal Son, which is our text this morning.

The Prodigal Son, or the Lost Son: But, as we’re about to see, perhaps a better title for this story would be “The Gracious Father–and the Two Lost Sons.” Because, really, the point of the parable is the amazing grace of the father in dealing with both of his lost sons.

The story starts out: “There was a man who had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them.” The younger son is lost even before he leaves home. It shows in his request–his demand, really: “Give me!” The son wants right now what normally would come to him only upon the death of his father. This is like saying to his dad, “I wish you were dead!” So Jesus’ audience would expect a certain reaction from the father: Surely he will explode with anger at this wicked son and punish him severely! But surprisingly the father grants the request and lets the son go his way. The father is willing to endure the agony of rejected love.

The story continues: “Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.” The young man cuts himself off from his family and goes off to a far country. There he blows his resources on excessive, unwise living–hence the term, “prodigal,” which means “wasteful.” When a famine comes, he has no support system to help him, like he had back home. He’s forced to lower himself to working for a Gentile, which is bad enough, but even to the point of feeding pigs. For the Jews, pigs were unclean, so this was as low as you could go. The young man even envies the coarse bean pods that the pigs eat. So we see the depths to which he sinks. He starts out with a heady sense of freedom and independence, but he ends up in degradation and despair. The lost son loses both his fortune and his dignity.

Now as this story goes along, keep in mind the interplay that’s happening between Jesus and his hearers. The Pharisees have been grumbling that Jesus is soft on sin. But here Jesus makes it clear that sin is a serious matter, not to be taken lightly. The sad consequences of running away from God are seen in the miserable situation the prodigal finds himself in. So at this point in the story, the audience is saying, correctly, “Well, he’s just getting what he deserved.”

Back to the parable: “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”’ And he arose and came to his father.” The prodigal proposes a plan to solve his problem. He will work himself back into favor. He will go to his father and offer himself as a hired man, a wage-earning worker. But the young man is missing the point. It was never about the money. The problem was that he rejected his father’s love and caused him great pain. He cared for nothing and no one but himself. So it is with all sin. At its root is a rebellion against God and a selfish turning inward on oneself. And there is no working one’s way out of that.

But a working-it-off scheme would have appealed to the Pharisees. They would agree that if there was any hope for a sinner, it would have to be in working off his sins. And this notion comes naturally to us all. Our tendency is to think we can buy off God by piling up our works to offset our misbehavior. We think we can go to God and bargain with him, as though we had anything to offer. That’s what the prodigal is thinking as he heads back to his father.

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.” The prodigal is “still a long way off,” it says. If the working-it-off plan is on his mind, then he is indeed “still a long way off” from a real return. Nevertheless, the father has been waiting for him, watching for his return. Again, the audience is surprised by a father who does not do what they expect. He does not make the son come crawling back. He does not publicly humiliate him. Instead, the father humbles himself! It was undignified for a man of rank to run in public. Yet that’s what this father does. In a self-emptying demonstration of costly love, he runs out to greet this son who had so shamed him and pained him. In the warm welcome he gives his wayward son, we see the tenderness and forgiveness of this gracious father. All this before any kind of a confession by the son!

“And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’” Young man, you are right in that! Rightly do you confess your sins. But notice, now there is no mention of the working-it-off scheme. That has melted away in the warm embrace of the father. No mention of any payback plan now. You see, the father does not want another servant. He wants his son back. And a son is what he will have.

“But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.” With robe, ring, and shoes, the prodigal is restored to full sonship. Instead of well-deserved punishment, there is undeserved honor and celebration. In place of famine, a feast. The father claims the boy back as his own. “This my son,” he says. “No longer is he dead to my love, but now he is alive–really living!” The gracious father has succeeded in finding his lost son. So now it’s time to celebrate!

Brothers and sisters, God has found us lost and condemned sinners and made us his own dear children. In the person of Jesus Christ, God comes running to meet us and greet us. With self-emptying, costly love, Christ humbled himself and took the shame and punishment that we deserved. While we were still a long way off, “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us,” it says in Romans. And Galatians says, “in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” In Holy Baptism, God claimed you as his own and clothed you with the robe of Christ’s righteousness. And in the Lord’s Supper, Jesus welcomes us to his table and gives us a feast to celebrate, a foretaste of the feast to come in our heavenly home. “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”

Well, the younger son has been welcomed back, so he is no longer lost. But we said there are two lost sons in this story. And one of them has been lost all along. Now we come to that part of the parable: “Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’”

This is the other lost son. Lost even while living at home. The older son, too, dishonors his father. By refusing to go in, he causes him public shame. Even so, the father once again humbles himself and goes out to see his son. Once again, the father does not beat or berate when he well could have. The father entreats him, but he is met by the cold, hard response of the son. This son doesn’t even begin his remarks with a respectful “Father.” Instead, he jumps right in with a gruff, “Look!” He complains that all he’s been doing is slaving away for his father. And there’s no love for his brother, either. He doesn’t even call him “brother.” Instead, it’s “this son of yours.” Then he accuses his brother of spending money on prostitutes. But all we’ve been told so far is that the younger son wasted the money; we’re not told how.

Well, if ever in this story you would expect the father to explode in anger, it is now! But how does the father react? “And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’” No rage, no rejection. Only the most gentle of rebukes. The father tenderly addresses him as “son.” And he gives him an open-door invitation. “Come on in and celebrate with us!”

Here the parable stops. But it doesn’t end. It’s an open-ended story. The ending will be supplied by the hearers. How will the Pharisees standing there, listening to Jesus, respond? Will they rejoice and enter the party? Then the father will have won back two lost sons that day. Or will the older brother turn his back on both his father and his brother and thus remain the truly lost son?

And this is where the parable applies to us today. Today God is reaching out in costly love to us–to all his lost sons, both runaways and stay-at-homes. Have you been the younger son, wasting your life away in a far country? Then come to your senses and come back home. No work-it-off scheme needed. Or have you been like the older son, slaving away–in your own mind at least–slaving away here in God’s house for, lo, these many years and thinking that therefore God owes you bigtime? In either case, God doesn’t want a slave, he wants a son. Either way, then, today receive God’s love and rejoice in his grace toward all his lost sons.

“This man receives sinners and eats with them.” What the Pharisees meant as a slam against Jesus becomes for us the most gracious of invitations and the cause for great praise. “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” The party is happening right here, right now. Rejoice! It’s time to celebrate!

Published in: on March 30, 2019 at 3:48 pm  Leave a Comment  
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