In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost +
Today’s parable is now known as the parable of the Prodigal Son. Son? As in only one? There’s not just one son in our story today, there’s two, two sons who wander away from and despise their father… two sons who are richly forgiven and welcomed by their father. You see, the focus of this parable isn’t really upon either son – but upon the Father, the Father and his great, overwhelming, indeed, prodigious love, love for his two wicked sons.
And yes, I did say two wicked sons. Both sons in this story are troublesome and in the wrong. To begin, the younger son. And the younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.” Think just how insulting this would be. Dad, I can’t wait for you to die so I can inherit stuff, just give it to me now. And we know what this young son does – he runs off, he blows it on wine, women, and song. And the way the story goes, it doesn’t seem to take him too long. Think about that – burning through half of a rich man’s life’s work in just a short time. Must have been wild. Must have been wretched and wicked. So we see that this younger son is off base, we get that. But what about the older son – in reality he’s just as bad.
Oh surely he’s not that bad! He stays at home, he works hard, isn’t he a good kid? When the older son hears that his brother has come home and there is a celebration, what does the older son do? But he was angry and refused to go in. The older son runs away too – runs off the fields. Then when his dad comes out to “entreat him” – to beg him kindly to come back in, this older son tells his dad off. “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!” Do you see just how wicked this son is? Think about this – he snubs family, snubs his brother. If I had snubbed my family like this, my mother would have tanned my hide. And then consider how he talks to his father. “Look”. Those are fighting words. And then he brags – I’m wonderful – but you dad, you are mean and unfair and you never gave me anything, not even something to share with my friends – not only do you treat me unfairly but you make me look bad in front of my friends too. Do you see how lousy this older son is behaving – I mean, this is nasty rebellion – this is a guy dressing down his father simply because his knickers are in a bunch because his brother got some attention.
They are both lousy – and at least the younger son has the good grace to recognize this fact. Granted, he doesn’t realize it until he’s broke, stuck feeding pigs – and for Jewish folks, who thought pigs were unclean – this is about as low and bad and nasty as a job as you can get. So you have the younger son who is wild, could care less, and hits bottom and realizes he needs help. You have the older son who is prideful in himself, who is hateful, angry, and mouthy, just completely willing to dress down his dad. I feel bad for the father in this text – both his sons treat him like dirt. The one says, “I wish you were dead” and the other says, “You’ve never done anything for me, all you make me do is work.”
But what does this father do? When the younger son comes home, does he make him slave away in the fields? Does the father become the cruel taskmaster the older son accuses him of being? No. Before the younger son can even apologize, can even start to beg, the father sees him coming and runs to meet him. In Jesus day they wore tunics – they basically wore robes, dresses that went down to mid-calf. He had to hike up his hem over his hips and run. It would have been a spectacle, an embarrassment. Dignified men didn’t run, and they certainly didn’t run to meet lousy no good brats like that younger son. But with joy, without concern for his own pride, the father runs to meet the younger son. What love!
And then, there is how the father deals with the older son. Here this father hasn’t seen his younger son in who knows how long. And we know the father is so excited, so overjoyed to have this younger son back. But then he hears that the older son, his other son, is upset. So what does he do? He leaves his younger son’s party, leaves the son whom he hadn’t seen in who knows how long, and goes to see this older, pouting son. And when the older son is vile to him, lambastes him unfairly and unjustly, what does this father do? Does he give him the back of his hand? No. Out of his great love for the older son, he speaks kindly, he speaks gently, he seeks to restore the love between brothers and remove this brother’s hate. Do you see how this father is prodigious in love, how he is overflowing with love for both his wayward children, how he is patient and kind with them?
The point of the parable is that this is precisely how God is with you. Consider again for a moment the two sons, for they are pictures, images of how we ourselves might fall into sin. You have the younger son, and he is greedy, he falls into gross sin, he could care less. That happens. He just seeks to serve his wants, his desires, “I’ll do whatever feels good” and cares for no one else. That’s one way Satan will tempt us – and that is a way of pain and suffering. It breaks us and we fall until we hit rock bottom. A lousy thing, but how many of us here have had to hit bottom with something? This happens. And then there is the older son. He’s arrogant, he’s prideful, he thinks so well of himself – and what does this do? It cuts him off, it isolates him. Think about it – everyone else is celebrating together, having a wonderful time – and he’s off sulking in a field. That’s what pride and arrogance do – if you walk around thinking you are better than other people, you end up alone. How many of us have been there? Just so sure that we were right and we were going to tell people about it, and we look around, and we are off by ourselves because we in our pride were wrong. These sons show us simple, typical ways of sinning, and the end result for both of them are lousy. One is down at rock bottom, the other is stuck off on his own. Those aren’t good places to be. So I will say this – be wary of your desires, for often they are bad and will lead you astray. Be wary of your pride and arrogance, for that will lead you to kill relationships and drive you away from people.
And note also how these two sons end up having flawed ideas of how they relate to their Father. The younger son messes up twice – first he runs away from his father and doesn’t care whatsoever. Can we all agree quickly that running away from God and ignoring Him is a bad idea? But then, even when he has hit rock bottom, he still is messed up in how he wants to relate to his father. “I will arise and go to my father and say, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your servants.’” It was good for a bit – you are right young son, you have sinned, and you aren’t worthy. But did you see where he goes too far? Treat me as one of your servants. He wants to tell his dad what to do, and he wants to work things out on his own. That’s not the way it works. He doesn’t get to work his way back into his dad’s good graces. The father will have none of it – he welcomes back his son, brings him good clothes, a ring and good shoes, prepares a feast – all without the son doing anything.
Dear friends, this is the picture of how God forgives you freely. God’s forgiveness, God’s welcoming you back into His family, into His House, to His table and Supper never has anything to do with what you are going to do for God. Works flow from forgiveness, but our works never cause forgiveness. God’s forgiveness is all about His complete and pure love for you. God loves you, plain and simple, and He desires to have you be with Him, forgiven and restored. He’s not going to make you jump through hoops first, He’s not going to hold you at arm’s length – rather, when we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. In fact, God is the one who does everything. It is Christ Jesus who comes running down from heaven to you, who suffers the embarrassment and shame of the Cross and the grave so that risen again He might welcome you with open arms to your heavenly home. This is God’s love for you.
And again, the older son doesn’t understand how he relates to his father. He too thinks it is all about what he himself does – look at how I have obeyed you and you never give me anything. Listen to what the Father says, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” Son, how do I give you something when it’s yours already? I am with you, and everything that is mine, the house, the fields, the goats and calves, they are yours already – don’t you see? And the older son had been so worried about working, about earning his father’s respect that he failed to see that the father had given him every blessing already. Now, do you see how this too can be a way that we misunderstand God? God is not some cruel taskmaster – it’s not as though we must slave away and hope that God gives us something. Has not Christ Jesus our Lord told us that He is with us always, even to the end of the age? Have we not received so much goodness from God even before we think to ask for it? This is God’s love for you – for He is with you, and all that He is, His goodness, His righteousness, His holiness, His love – this is yours. And the problem is that so often we get focused on what we in our pride are going to do that we forget, we overlook what God has given to us already. But the most beautiful thing is that when we sulk, when we pout – God comes to us and says, “You’re baptized, you are joined to Me, I am with you always, and everything, heaven itself is yours now. Remember this, rejoice in this – rejoice in the good that you have and rejoice in the good that your brothers have.”
This, dear friends, is the picture of God’s love for you. Love that is overwhelming, love that is full, love that is complete. There is nothing left for you to do to earn it – simply rejoice in the blessings of forgiveness and life and salvation that are yours, for Christ Jesus our Lord has won us all these things, and He gives them to us gladly and freely. In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost +