One of the insidious things about “growing up in the church” or being so familiar with the Bible is that we can romanticize things that actually aren’t all that cozy or nice. Take, for example, the degradation the young son in this parable submits himself to. No good Jewish boy would ever do that — and if he did, he’d have to be pretty hard up. That comes from hunger. It makes the Father’s grace all the sweeter in the end.
The scariest part of the parable, for me, was looking at the older son and seeing his refusal to accept his father’s gracious love. That refusal, even by someone who appears upright and hardworking, is far worse than a wastrel’s throwing himself on his father’s mercy, as the younger son did. That kind of refusal is also far more prevalent inside the church than outside it many times — hence the urgent need for that part of the parable to be preached in all its implications. I don’t think the older son realized how terrible his refusal to respond to his father’s love, which he’d had all along, truly was. Even though this is a parable, it still rings awfully true — in families and in respect to God. Lenski was right to refer to this as the parable of the two lost sons. God keep us from the older son’s self-righteous refusal!
“Now the tax collectors and “sinners” were all gathering around to hear him. 2But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
3Then Jesus told them this parable: … There was a man who had two sons. 12The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.
13“Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
17“When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.’ 20So he got up and went to his father.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
21“The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
22“But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
25“Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
28“The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
31” ‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ ” (Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 niv)
Our gospel for today is one of Jesus’ best known parables. It’s been depicted countless times in art. It’s even entered our language. We talk about prodigal sons because of this parable. Yet we usually pay attention to only half of the story. There were actually two brothers. They each chose different paths, but they were more alike than either would care to admit. In his own way, each one would come to find out something about himself, and about his father. We too learn something about our heavenly Father from this parable of Jesus. Through it, we experience A Father’s Unceasing Love.
First, the younger son. He wants to get off the farm and do some living. So he asks for his share of the inheritance. The father gives it to him, and not too long after that he takes off. He wants to see the world and have some fun. Boy, does he have fun. He carouses and lives it up. His money is going every which way – he’s spending it like it’s going out of style. The good times last about as long as the money does. One day he finds himself broke and alone. All his new friends have disappeared. He’s hungry and he’s got a splitting headache. So he goes and looks for a job. All he can find is a job feeding pigs. Now, raising pigs is a fine occupation, but for a good Jewish boy, that was the absolute worst possible job. Pigs were unclean animals, and here he is wading through the muck under the blazing sun and listening to his belly growl. It’s hard to know what’s worse: being so hungry that you’re seriously considering eating what the pigs eat, or not getting to eat what the pigs eat.
Then he reaches a turning point. There in the pigpen, he realizes what he’s lost and he longs to return home. “I will set out and go to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.” This is a concrete example of the Biblical definition of repentance. Repentance consists of two parts: contrition and faith. That’s it. Contrition is realizing your sins, realizing you’ve offended against God – sorrow over your sins. Faith is turning to God for forgiveness, trusting in his promises that he will take you back and not punish you like you deserve. That’s all that’s required: contrition and faith. We see contrition in the younger son’s frank admission of sin. Yup, that was me. I did that. I was wrong. He realizes what he’s done and doesn’t want to live that way anymore. We see faith in the young man’s resolve to go back home to his father. He trusts that his father won’t shut him out or refuse to welcome him. He trusts that his father will treat him well again. He decides to throw himself on his father’s mercy and see what happens. We also see something else in the younger son: the human compulsion to make amends. We want to make it up to the person we’ve sinned against, whether it’s a friend, a relative, or even God. We want to make it right. We want to work our way back into God’s good graces. Having decided what he’s going to say, he starts walking home.
That trust is not misplaced. Even before he gets to the house, while he’s still a long way off, the father comes tearing out to meet him. He’s been waiting and watching anxiously the whole time he’s gone. Every day he looked out the kitchen window at the road, hoping to see his son. Now the father runs out and bear hugs his son. He almost tackles him! He grabs on to him like he’s never going to let him go. He’s so happy to have his son back that he doesn’t even speak. The son gets out the first half of his rehearsed speech, but it’s almost like the father doesn’t even hear him. The son’s offer to work for him as a hired man doesn’t even sink in. It goes in one ear and out the other. The dad doesn’t care, because his son that was lost now is found. His boy that was dead is alive again. He calls for the servants to come with presents for him, and for the celebration to begin.
We see God’s grace in the father’s love. When we decide that we’ve had enough wandering far and alone and enough wallowing in our sin, when we finally resolve to return to our God, we come to him with our rehearsed repentance and our offers of our own merit – only to find that God the Father is already running toward us, already embracing us in a bear hug, already covering us with kisses and laughing with happiness and greeting us, calling to the servants to start the celebration. He’s already accepted us back, even before he hears our offers and the deals we want to make with him. His love embraces us as we are – spiritually hungry, disheveled, flat broke, disgraced, not worthy to be called his children. He’s already taken us back and given us forgiveness and love enough to drown our sins and our offenses against him in the depths of the sea forever. God’s ready grace has already wiped out all our sins and welcomed us home again, made us part of his family again. We don’t need to make any deals. We don’t need to offer to work off our disgrace or earn his love. It’s already ours, all of it. Part of us has a hard time believing that it’s just that easy, but it is. No deeds we do can atone for our sins. Nothing we can offer God can cover over what we’ve done. He’s already forgiven us. God is always ready to take us back. He loves it when we come back to him. God’s forgiveness is instant and total.
Everybody forgets about the older brother. That’s part of his problem. He’s worked hard his whole life. He always did what he was supposed to and never broke the rules. He denied himself pleasures and fun that others –like his brother – took for granted. He never felt quite like he was good enough, so he had to work harder. He feels overworked and underappreciated, used and ignored. When his bitterness and resentment break out on the surface, there’s no stopping him. He all but accuses his father of being ungrateful. He complains bitterly at all the good things his younger brother is getting. He shows that he was really trying to earn his father’s love all along, when it was always his.
One son left home for a far country; one stayed on the farm, but left inwardly a long time ago. Because the older son tried to earn his father’s love, he very nearly lost it. He put all his efforts into making his father love him, and in the process drove himself farther and farther away from his father. He was so intent on being good enough for his father that he missed the fact that he didn’t need to be – he already had all his father’s love all along. That’s what self-righteousness does. When we are so intent on pleasing God by ourselves, we run the risk of losing his love entirely. We can try so hard to earn God’s favor that we miss the grace of God. The seeds of self-righteousness grow slowly over time, until they choke out the light of God’s Word and we are too far gone to listen. Self-righteousness is so dangerous because it turns our virtues into vices. The older son was hardworking, reliable, and loyal on the outside. Inwardly he was proud and so focused on earning his father’s love that he missed what he had all along. We’re not so different when we look down on others for living what we consider to be subpar lives. Their lives may indeed not measure up to God’s standard, but neither do ours many times and we dare not forget that. Or we complain about the unfairness of God’s grace even to notorious sinners. The stubborn older son’s refusal to go in to the party could become our refusal to go in to the kingdom of heaven the only way God allows – through his grace and mercy. We could lose the very thing we’re working so hard to earn, the very thing that God freely gives – his love and grace.
The father does the same thing with the older brother that he does with the younger. He goes out to the him with the same heart full of grace that led him to run and greet his younger son. He leaves the party and pleads with him to come in. He doesn’t want him to miss the celebration. He reminds his son that he’s always had everything he owns anyway. The father doesn’t want to lose either son again. We saw how the story ended for the younger son: he and the father were reunited. How did the older son’s story end? We don’t know. Which son are you? Are you the lost and desperate sinner who turns to the Father and finds more grace and love than he could ever imagine? Or are you the stubborn older son who keeps insisting, “I’ve done everything and you’ve given me nothing,” right up to the moment that God truly does withdraw his grace from you? God comes to us with all of his love and grace every day. How will we respond? Will we insist on earning what he freely gives away? Or will we turn to him and accept his love for us? The party’s just beginning again. Will we gladly join in, or sourly refuse? God grant that we never push away a father’s unceasing love. Amen.