This morning’s parable, dear friends in Christ, isn’t just about the foolish younger brother – it isn’t just the parable of the Prodigal Son. No, we see three people, two sons and their father – we see a family full of discord and strife. If anything this is a parable about the father who continually has to struggle to keep his family from imploding – who goes to any length to try and mollify his sons. And of course, we understand that this parable is really describing the ways in which God treats us, the lengths He goes to for our sake. So let us dive into this parable this morning and see what we learn.
The main problem that arises in this parable is that neither son understands their father. The younger son doesn’t get his father. The elder son doesn’t get his father either. Both really don’t seem to know him, each ends up wandering away. We know about the younger son – the one who wants his inheritance early. You know what that is – Dad, I want my inheritance is the same thing as saying, “Why don’t you just hurry up and kick the bucket, you old geezer, you are only good to me for money.” Kind of crass. And then we know what the younger brother does with that money. He blows it. Squanders it on reckless living. And you know what that means – suffice to say the kid hits rock bottom. And this is the point we can shake our head at – oh, how horrible this kid is, look at all that he’s done. Yeah – bad stuff – he’s foolish, he’s hateful towards his father in demanding the inheritance. But that’s really about him, that’s about him being stupid. But it’s when the guy is standing slopping pigs we see that he doesn’t know who his father really is.
Listen. 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.” We’ll what’s wrong with that! It’s about time that he comes to himself, comes to his senses – admits that he’s been horrible. Yeah, he’s dead on about himself, he has sinned, he isn’t worthy to be called the man’s son. But here is the problem. He thinks his dad will treat him like a lowly servant. This young kid is afraid, thinks that his father will be cold, and heartless, thinks that his father will say, “You dirty rat, I oughta, go sleep in the barn and I’ll find some mean and nasty chore for you to do tomorrow – you make me sick.” That’s what the young man thinks his father will do. That’s why he’s so afraid and nervous about heading home. That’s why he’s ready to beg to be a servant. He doesn’t expect compassion from his father. And he was wrong.
The elder son, he doesn’t understand his father either. The elder, dutiful son, is out working in the field, and he hears music and dancing, and he calls to one of the servants and asks what is going on. He hears that his brother has returned, that his father has killed the fattened calf, that the party is a celebration over the return of that money wasting, worthless, no good brother of his. The elder brother doesn’t understand his father either. He storms off into the night. He fumes, he sulks outside. And even when his father comes out to him, this elder brother doesn’t understand who his father is. This elder brother goes on a rant, says words just as despicable as the younger brother’s wretched living.
“Look, these many years I have served you, and I never once 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!” What vile words. I’ve been good, and there’s been nothing in it for me! You, heartless old man, have never given me anything good! How horrible, how heart-wrenching. The elder son, always working, thinking he’s going to earn blessings from his father by what he himself does. He doesn’t understand his father’s generosity, his father’s love. I bet he never even asked the father for a goat – because this father would have freely given one. But no – the son is bitter – the son thinks more of his own hard work than the father’s love. The son thinks of himself, what he’s earned and what his brother might be sponging away, and he fails to rejoice over the redemption of his brother.
Do you see, dear friends, how neither son really understood who their father was? The younger son thought his father would be cruel and callous to him – the elder son thought his father a harsh tyrant who never showed love and generosity, who had to be impressed with hard work and labor – the elder son thought that he had to earn everything on his own from his father. Both of these sons just don’t understand who their father is, and what the father does.
Now, this is instructive for us today, because the sons illustrate the two terrible ways in which we Christians, we who are of God’s Household, we who are of God’s family, can begin to misunderstand God. How many of you have had thoughts similar to those of the younger brother? How many of you have seen some of the wretched things you’ve done in your life and then thought, “I’m horrible, I have sinned – God couldn’t possibly forgive me!” It’s the last part that’s the problem – there’s nothing wrong with seeing your sin, in fact, it’s something that we need to do – the problem comes in when guilt and fear makes us think that our sin is too big for God to handle, too big for God to forgive. The problem is when we end up approaching God doubting that He will forgive or even being afraid to approach God. Just as the younger son forgot that his father is merciful, do we not as well sometimes forget that God is merciful to us? That is one of the dangers, one of the traps we can fall into.
And then there is the trap that the elder brother falls into. The elder brother starts looking at everything in terms of what he does. Look at all I’ve done for my father, I deserve better in life. I’m such a good, dutiful son, why doesn’t he treat me better! Are there times when you can end up treating God this way as well? If you’ve ever thought, if you’ve ever said, “Well, I’m a “good” Christian” you have. The temptation here is to approach God on the basis of what you’ve done – look at me God, see how much I’ve done for you! You owe me. How wretched and sad – treating God as though he were a petty tyrant, a miserable god who could be bribed with a few things that we do. And yet – is that not how we sometimes can end up dealing with God? Why did you let this happen to me – I’m a good person, I don’t deserve this! Can we even sometimes brag about ourselves to God?
These are two errors we can fall into, two dangers Christ warns us of. We can in our guilt over sin forget God’s mercy – we can in our arrogance forget our need for God’s mercy. We can forget that this is who God is – the God who shows mercy.
Look at the father in the story – there is something remarkable that he does with each of his sons, that we can overlook. First, with the younger – But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion and ran and embraced him. Now, with the elder – His father came out to him and entreated him. Did you notice what the father does – what type of person he is? In both cases the father goes out to his wayward child. The father seeks out the son. The father’s love to his younger son pre-empts that son’s plea to work as a servant – the younger son merely confesses his sin and is welcomed back into his father’s house. The father’s love seeks out the stubborn elder brother and turns his eyes off of his own works – 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. In both cases, the father tenderly goes to his wayward sons, goes out to them, and strives to bring them back into the home. And in both cases, what the Father does is… well, it would have been viewed shamefully. Good, upstanding men didn’t run – you wore robes, if you were running you had to hike up your skirt – and you just didn’t do that in public. Nor would you leave your own party to deal with a pouting son – that older son should be coming back to you! But in both cases, the Father, in His zeal suffers shame and scorn to comfort his children.
Dear friends, hear this and know who your Heavenly Father is. Your heavenly Father is the One who continually comes, who continually reaches out to you to show you mercy. Whenever you fall into error, be it great shame and vice, be it wretched pride and arrogance, your heavenly Father always desires that you be forgiven and restored, brought back into the family, brought back into the household, brought to the feast. God desires you here in His house, receiving His forgiveness, that forgiveness which He provides for you through His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. God is not too proud to redeem you – God’s good and true Son Jesus Christ will endure the shame of the cross and death to see that we are restored to the family. And this is the call that goes out every week – return to God’s house, be forgiven. Return and rejoice in the Father’s mercy. Our Lord even calls you to a wonderful feast, given whenever we partake of Christ’s own Body and Blood in His Supper. This is who God is – the One who has mercy upon you, the One who desires to restore you continually, the One who wants you always to remain with Him, to be with Him in His house and in His worship. God’s Word will always seek to show you mercy – and for that, we who have wandered and gone astray many times are right to give Him all thanks and praise. To God alone be all glory. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit + Amen.