4th Sunday in Lent (C)
Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
March 6, 2016
Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
The text that I have chosen for this morning’s sermon is the Gospel reading, Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son.
Like most words in the English language, the word “prodigal” has several different meanings depending on the speaker’s intention. Well, if anyone said it anymore. I haven’t heard it used except in Jesus’ parable, but it’s in the dictionary, so that’s good enough for me. Even if you don’t hear “prodigal” on a regular basis, you hear plenty of its synonyms: generous, imprudent, reckless, extravagant, wasteful, and shameless, just to name a few. I want you to keep these words in mind because not only do they fit the three men in the parable, they fit you and me.
Jesus begins His parable by saying, “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.” Now I know that sometimes parents give away their wealth before they die to help their children or to avoid certain tax obligations, but can you imagine how you would feel if your child said what the younger son said? What the son was asking for wasn’t just rude, it was nasty. This imprudent young man was basically telling his father that he wishes he was dead so the son could get what was coming to him. He doesn’t care about his father or his father’s feelings, he cares only about himself. Many of us would’ve told him to take a hike. “You’ll get nothing and like it!”
The father though does the unexpected. He fulfills his son’s command. He’s obviously a very generous man because he gives both sons their inheritance. The younger son gets his third and the older son gets his two-thirds. It doesn’t make a lot of since but the father recklessly gives everything away. He gives wealth to the rebel son and to the faithful son because that’s just the kind of father he is.
I don’t think any of us would call God reckless, and yet from a human standpoint, He is. Jesus says of Himself, “He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” God pours out all that people need to support their body and life. He’s a generous Father who doesn’t pick one son over the other, He just gives His wealth and blessings away. He doesn’t cut off those who take Him for granted, or who speak so brazenly to Him, or who He knows are going to waste what He gives. Like the father in the parable, He just generously gives it all away.
This parable is familiar to most of us, but even if you didn’t know it, what the younger son does next isn’t exactly a surprise. Jesus says, “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.” He sells off his inheritance and then gives it all away in decadent living. He shows what he thinks about by spending it on wine, women, and song.
And then something happens that he didn’t expect, or at least plan for, he ran out of money. He had plenty of friends when he was throwing parties, but now, we hear that no one will give him anything. He’s broke, starving, and far from home. This reckless young man must now work as a caretaker of pigs, a job that no self-respecting Jew would ever do. And yet, he’s still hungry and worse than that, he’s despairing.
What’s wonderful to see is that in his hunger and despair, that young son does the first rational thing in, maybe, his life. He realizes that he’s completely messed up, that he lost his mind. He left behind the father who loved him and cared for him for a freedom that wasn’t real. He left to find himself and got lost. He went off to live it up, and he died. But now, he comes to himself, “I will say…, ‘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.’”
Jesus’ parables were never just interesting stories, rather He told them to make a point to His hearers, then and now. Think about this young man, do you see yourself in him? Have you taken what God has generously given you and just run off? Have you left God’s house to find you own brand of freedom? Are you despairing? Are you lost? Then repent! See your condition for what it is, sin. Realize that you can’t live on your own God and that you need Him. He has riches beyond what you see, and He wants to give them to you because you are His child. Yes, you may have run away, you may have said that you can make it on your own, but He still waits for you to come home.
Look at the father in our parable, which if you didn’t know already, is God. Jesus says, “While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.” His father was waiting for his wayward son and when he sees him, he doesn’t wait for him to get home, he runs to hold his boy once again. The son thought he had to earn his father’s care by working as an employee, but not with this father. This father restores the young man’s sonship. The father, extravagant once before, now gives away his wealth again. He commands that the best robe be put on his son, a ring on his finger, shoes on his feet. He throws a huge party and invites friends and family. And while all this is good, what the father shows most of all is his extravagance in forgiveness. Yes, his son hurt him but that pales in comparison to the love he has and the relief he feels his son is home safe and sound. There’s no talk of the past, just forgiveness.
Isn’t this wonderful? It is, and not just because the father loves his son, but because this is how God looks for you. Our Father in waits for you to come to yourself and when He sees you coming, He rushes to hold you in His forgiving arms. What you’ve done in the past, matters. You sinned, you rebelled, you offended your Father, but He doesn’t hold your sins against you because Jesus took care of it all. His death satisfied the Father’s anger and now you are forgiven. You are welcomed home as one of His children. And even though God blessed you before, the blessings that come now are worth so much more. You receive the wealth of forgiveness; you receive your eternal inheritance. It’s yours! Christ earned it and now He gives it to you. And when you come home, all of Heaven rejoices! Whenever a sinner repents, whenever the lost find their way home, whenever the dead live again, there’s a celebration in Heaven that is second to none.
This parable is called the Prodigal Son, but there’s actually two prodigal sons. For while the first son wastes his inheritance, the second wastes his position as eldest son. He received two-thirds of his father’s estate. It is just given to him, but he wants more. He thinks he’s special because he didn’t run off like his no good brother, he didn’t waste his money on booze and prostitutes. He thought he should be rewarded for being faithful, in reality though he was just as sinful as his brother. The son acts like he’s been treated as a slave, that he was so good because he obeyed, and that he never did anything wrong. He needed to repent for his false obedience. He says to his father, “Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command.” He was unappreciative of what he was given and now that his brother has returned all he thinks about is himself. He should be celebrating, instead, he’s pouting.
If you don’t relate to the younger son, if you’ve always been faithful to God, can you relate to the eldest son? Do you look down on those who’ve repented because they’re sinful and you’re not? Do you expect to be given more because you’re more faithful than others? This is what the Pharisees were grumbling about that led Jesus to tell this parable and two before it. They thought they were better and that sinners didn’t deserve God’s grace. By thinking this way, the Pharisees, and those of us who think this way, are missing out on the wealth that the generous father has to give to us. When we think of ourselves like this we’re missing the important fact that all of God’s children must repent. The Pharisees thought that they were okay, but in reality they were as lost as the sinners they condemned. We often think we’re better than others, but we’re just as lost.
It’s at this time that we see the Prodigal Father one more time. The father shamelessly begs his son to come into the party. He offers his wealth one more time by telling the elder son that everything that belongs to the father belongs to the son. Everything father earned after giving away his estate the first time is offered once again to his son. He wasn’t withholding anything, and he never would. He shamelessly tried to convince his son to come celebrate because regardless of the younger son’s sins, it was good that he had found his way home.
So if you’re not the younger son, but the elder son, the Father comes to you as well. He shamelessly pleads for you to rejoice with your brothers and sisters in Christ who have repented. He shamelessly begs you to join Him and receive the inheritance that He has for you. He urges you to put aside your sin, and receive the forgiveness that His Son has earned for you as well. All of us have sinned, all of us have hurt our God, and all of us are welcomed home by our generous and loving Father.
When the parable comes to an end, Jesus leaves us hanging. We don’t know how the eldest son responded. Did he join the party? Did he stay outside and sulk? We never find out how it ends. However, you can know how it ends for you. It ends with a heavenly party, with a celestial celebration, for you were lost, but now you are found. You were far from home, and now you are back. You were dead, but now you are alive. And why? Because our God is the Prodigal God, for He is gracious and extravagant with His love and forgiveness, and He is always ready and willing to welcome you home.
Now the peace which surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen