[This message was shared this morning during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]
The story that Jesus tells in today’s gospel lesson is often called the parable of the prodigal son.
But one scholar has said it would more aptly be titled the parable of the waiting father. Another refers to it as the parable of the running father.
What they’re both getting at is important: The central character of the parable is not the son who leaves family and home behind. It’s the one who stands in for God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit in the parable: the father.
Just like the father of the parable, God lays aside His dignity to save the lives of all the prodigals of the world, who, absent His intervention in Christ, would die in our sins. The father in Jesus’ parable is the God we meet in Jesus of whom Scripture tells us: “...though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant…” (Philippians 2:6-7). We see this self-emptying God Who willingly divests Himself not just of dignity, but of life, presented in fictional form by Jesus in this parable. As you consider it remember that He did all of that for you.
We couldn’t do this parable justice if we spent ten Sunday messages on it, or fifty, but let’s take a look at it. Verse 11: “[Jesus says] 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.”
In those days, the property usually only went to the oldest son. Younger sons would work for the eldest until they acquired enough money to buy some land and move out on their own. But in Jesus' parable, is a father prepared to split his property equally among his sons.
That wasn’t enough for the younger son though. He wanted the inheritance, the price it could fetch him on the market, and the freedom that the cash would give him to do what he wanted right now. These days, children leave home to seek their own lives all the time and they should. But in those days, the customs were different. The younger boy would have been seen as disrespectful. It was as though he was saying he couldn’t wait for his dad to be dead so that he could move on.
The father knew all of this, yet did what the younger son requested anyway.
A man once came to me, his life a mess. He recounted how he had made one bad decision after another and then, in all seriousness asked me, “How could God have let me do those things?” He blamed God for the rotten decisions that, had God not let him take them, he would have resented God restricting him. Either way, he was likely to blame God. Look: God never forces His way on any of us. He never forces any decision on us. Unless God gives us the leeway to say no to Him and to His love, our confession of faith in Him, when and if it comes, will mean nothing. The Father gives grace so that when we say yes to Him, it really is in faith.
Verse 13: “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.”
You don’t have to be a Jew, as Jesus’ original hearers were, to understand how far this son has fallen. He’s a slopper of pigs so hungry that he envies the pigs their feed pods. Of course, Jews regard pork as particularly filthy. Things are bad for this young man.
Verse 17: “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.”’
The son has no thought that his father could ever again treat him as anything like a son. But he realizes that his dad’s servants live well. He’s going to throw himself on the mercy of his father and hope to be a hired servant. Even now, the son underestimates the love his father has for him. “I could never ask God for his forgiveness,” people sometimes tell me. “I’ve done too much wrong.” Listen: God’s grace is big enough to cover all our sins!
Verse 20: “And he arose and came 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. 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.’ 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.”
Notice: The Father doesn’t stay in the house, watching for the son to lay prostrate before him and recite all of his sins: all the prostitutes he’s been with, all the drunken nights he’s spent wasting his time and his life, all the dissipate days. The Father sees the boy and--once again--laying aside the dignity that fathers were supposed to effect in those days, runs to the son. He has his arms wrapped around the boy before the son could stammer out a confession! Jesus says, “I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance (Luke 15:7).” Every time we confess our sins and are renewed by God’s grace in our relationship with Him, there’s a party in heaven led by God. (I’m the reason for parties in heaven every day!)
Grace, you know, is God’s charitable forgiveness for repentant sinners. It isn’t earned, any more than the son in Jesus’ parable earned the forgiveness and reception home of his father. Grace, salvation from sin and death, is a gift from a God too busy loving us to worry about His dignity...and because of that deserves more dignity, honor, glory, gratitude, and praise than the whole Church of forgiven sinners could muster for all eternity. Ephesians 2:8-9 reminds us: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Grace is hard for us to get, especially if we think that we’ve always led an upright, wholesome, commendable, religious life. Which leads us to the older son.
Verse 25: “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!’ 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.’”
The oldest son refuses to enter his father’s house, refuses to join in the party for the one who has returned. He’s confident of his goodness and so certain of the younger one being undeserving of his father’s favor that he keeps himself outside. The father has to come outside to him, once more laying aside his dignity, and beg the older son to come inside. Listen: There are so-called Christians who have spent their lives in the Church, but have never entered the kingdom of God because they have refused to believe the gospel message that all of us are sinners who, need to turn to the Father we know in Jesus, humbly acknowledging our sin and our need of grace, and join the heavenly party.
Grace is free. But unless we are willing to lay aside our dignity, our pretense of being “good people,” we will never experience that bearhug of grace, forgiveness, new life that God has in mind for every human being! In Holy Baptism, God has turned to you and made you His own. He has also given us the freedom to turn away: to leave Him and His Church behind, to be contemptuous of Him, to ignore Him, to turn our backs on anyone who doesn’t seem companionable, who doesn’t look like us or think like us. But God never gives up on us. He offers us grace when we simply turn to Him, trusting that what Jesus did on the cross in dying for the sins of the world, covers our sins too, fills our need, bring forgiveness to us. Whenever we humbly turn to God in Christ, there’s a welcome that God wants to keep giving us for all eternity. Don’t be afraid to admit your need of God. Turn to Him each day and let the party begin again. Amen
[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]