Trinity 3 – Luke 15:11-31 – July 10th, 2011
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost +
Our Gospel Lesson this morning is the story of two sons, neither of which understand their father. This is important- both sons are bad, both sons are foolish, both sons don’t understand their father. We call this the parable of the Prodigal Son, which is a shame. We hear the word “Prodigal” and we think it has to do with wayward, or wondering. It didn’t use to – prodigal meant overabounding – it is related to prodigy, or prodigious – and the “Prodigal” was the Father – who was overabounding in love, who was a prodigy of mercy and compassion to his two sons. But, we forgot what the word Prodigal meant, and we assumed it was describing the younger son, and the rest is history. No, today what we will do is this text – we will look at both sons and see how both of them fail to understand their Father’s great, prodigious love for them.
So, to begin, the younger son. He is at home, in comfort, in wealth. But he is not satisfied – he wants more. He says to his father, “Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.” Do you realize how insulting that is? When do sons inherit property? When dad is dead. Well, dad, since you won’t do me any favors and hurry up and die, just give me stuff. And why does this son want stuff? So he can go out and blow it in “reckless living”. Old dad was a killjoy – he would tell me not to do things that I wanted to do. That old fogie doesn’t know what real living is. The son thinks the dad is foolish, lame, uncool – all so he runs off on his own. And becoming broke and being forced to work slopping pigs – the lowest job a Jewish man could do, the son realizes that pops was right – what the younger son wanted to do was foolish.
So, now what? “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.”’” Almost right. This son is right – he has sinned. He’s right, he isn’t worthy. But at the end... treat me as one of your hired servants. If this son thinks that his father is going to be content to treat him merely as a servant, he doesn’t know his father! If he thinks his own works will make things up and somehow get him back into his father’s good graces, he doesn’t know his father!
The son heads home, and we hear this, “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.” This is perhaps the most astonishing verse of the story, and we don’t recognize it, because we aren’t living in the 1st century. No self-respecting Jewish man would do what this father does. It is unthinkable. The son has squandered your wealth – you don’t give him the kiss of peace that says that everything is fine. You don’t hold on to the one who threw away what was yours. And you certainly don’t run – because if you are a Jewish man, you’d be wearing a tunic – a skirt. You’d have to hike up your tunic and expose yourself to the world to run – you just don’t do that! But this father is so overwhelmed with love and compassion and joy that his wayward son has come home that he does not care about shaming himself, about getting his due. He will show love to his son, come hell or highwater – nothing will stop him. And the son confesses his sin, and the father quickly restores him. No son of his will be treated as a servant – get the best robe, get a ring. Now, that ring is important – a ring is a mark of authority, it means the son has legal access to the family stuff. He is back, he is no mere servant, he is my son, and we will rejoice at his return.
So often we treat God like the younger son does his father. We act as though we do not understand God. The son didn’t like being at his father’s home, thought dad was just being a spoilsport who wouldn’t let him have any fun. Isn’t that how we treat God and His Law? Isn’t that the reaction we have when God’s Word tells us that we shouldn’t do something that we want to do? God’s Law is given to us for our own good. When God says, “Thou shall not” He’s not just trying to spoil your fun, but he knows that something is bad for you. He knows that it will harm you. Sin always wounds and harms and kills. When I preach something out of the law – let’s say, “Don’t hold grudges” – it’s not because I don’t understand how hurtful so and so was to you… it’s because holding on to that anger inside is bad for you, and your grudge hurts you! The fifth commandment about not killing, not hating your neighbor is not only for your neighbor’s benefit but also for your good, because breaking it harms you. It leads to the gutter and depression and sorrow and anger that consumes everything. But when we are in the moment, we forget ourselves, and we can forget that God’s instructions are for our own good.
And then, even when we do come to our senses, what’s the temptation then? To try to earn our way back into God’s good graces. Oh God, I know I was bad, but I’ll try really really hard to do better, and I’ll make it up to you. No you won’t. You can’t make your sin up to God. And even if you do better, even if the son worked as a servant – wouldn’t change the past. You don’t get to earn God’s forgiveness… rather, the God who loves you freely gives it. He comes down, becomes Man, is bruised, beaten, humiliated, even hung naked and exposed upon a cross to suffer and die all so that you might be forgiven and restored to Him, all so that you might be baptized and declared His child once again. Don’t you understand God – you don’t have to make your sin up to him – forgiveness isn’t about your works – it is about His great and overwhelming love for you. Let God be God – confess your sins and then just let God give you mercy, for this He delights in doing.
Now, let us consider the older son. Sometimes we get this idea that the older son is the good son while the younger one is the bad son. Nope. Neither one of them understands their father, and in fact, the older son frustrates me more. So, the party commences for the younger son, and the older son was out working in the field, and when he finds out that younger brother’s come home and is getting a party, what do we hear? “But he was angry and refused to go in.” Oh, that older son, he’s the good obedient son? Really? He throws a temper tantrum out in the field and refuses to come in, refuses to celebrate the things his father celebrates. And then, when his Father comes out to him – and note, the Father goes to both of his sons – when the Father comes to him, what does the elder son say? “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!” Now pause for a second. What if your son, your daughter, spoke this filth to you – for this is nothing but sinful filth. Do you hear how vile these words are? Look here, I’ve served you, I’ve never disobeyed you? Oh really, then how come you are out here pouting and refusing to come in, mister “I never disobey”? And do you hear what else he accuses his father of? You don’t appreciate me and how good I am! You aren’t generous, you don’t take care of me, you don’t give me what I deserve, you are stingy. This son acts as though he’s been poorly treated. Oh, and dad, you’re stupid, look at how you treat that other son – did you catch that – the older son didn’t say, “my brother”, he says, “this son of yours” – how petulant. You treat this son of yours who is a jerk and a fool better than you treat me. What hatred, what bile.
This older son doesn’t understand his father. He too thinks everything should revolve around his works. Look at me, dad, look at what I’ve done for you, you need to treat me better! But you don’t, because you are mean and stupid, unlike me. Now, let me ask the hard, hard question. Are we not tempted sometimes to treat God in the same way? I’ve been a good person, God – I’ve never done anything really bad – so why is this happening to me? Why do bad things happen to me when my life is so hard? You don’t take care of me like you ought – blah blah-blah blah-blah. Can we not, whenever things don’t go the way we want, treat God as though He is cruel and indifferent? Can we not, when we see our neighbor get something, become insane with jealousy and even blame God?
The Father is prodigious in showing love and care. If I had someone speak to me like this elder son did, I’d be tempted to back hand him. The Father though, he speaks words that are gentle and full of love and care. “Son, you are always with me, and all that I have 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.” How had the father treated the older brother unjustly? He hadn’t treated him unjustly at all. Everything belongs to the older son already – it’s all yours – these fields, these goats, these are yours, because all that is mine is yours, and you lack for nothing. Moreover – your brother, not just my son, but your brother is restored, good has happened to him, and it is fitting and good to rejoice when good happens to him. The Father show such patience and love and kindness to this elder son – instead of just smacking him down, he teaches the son about love and compassion.
Likewise – I would ask you – in reality, is there anything you lack? Christ Jesus has won you life and salvation, has seen to it that even should you die, yet you shall live, and not just in this lousy place but in the life of the world to come. All that He has is yours, He pours it out upon you in His Word, in His Sacraments – you are forgiven. Don’t let Satan distract you from this truth – don’t let Satan play off of your pride so you neglect and forget the riches that Christ has given you. The elder son had everything – yet was pouting and angry with his father because he didn’t have a goat. A goat. Everything – a goat. This is the same temptation Satan will try to work on you – where you will get upset and angry and jaded about some trifle in this life, some stupid petty thing that you don’t get, some stupid petty slight someone has done against you, and then self-righteous indignation will blind you to the true riches you have in Christ Jesus. Repent of this, for this would cut you off from the Father just as much as the younger son was – even more so. The younger son at least came home – indignation would make you stand out in the field pouting. Turn away from this – turn away from the self-congratulating of works – and rather, remember who God is. He is the One who loves you, who gives you all that He has – and not only that – He is the One abounding in love and mercy, who restores you not only to Himself, but who restores you to each other by His great and wondrous forgiveness. He establishes His great feast of salvation and life – His Supper, the eternal feast of the life of the world to come, and He brings us to it – whether we have wandered and fallen into great shame, vice, and stupidity, or whether we have fallen victim to stubborn pride and jealousy and self-righteousness. God calls us all away from this, and He holds before our eyes Christ Jesus and Him Crucified, so that we might know His great love for us, His mercy, His life and salvation. God does not treat you how you deserve to be treated – instead, He shows you mercy and care and love – and He always will call you to His house so that His mercy might be showered upon you once again.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost +