Fourth Sunday in Lent (Laetare) – The Parable of the Prodigal Son
Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him.
And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying,
“This man receives sinners and eats with them.”
I know that must feel like a remarkably underwhelming start to a sermon;
Especially a sermon on the prodigal son, the prince of the parables.
And yet it’s necessary.
The audience today matters so much because this is a parable for everyone.
The tax collectors and sinners could hear this parable and comprehend their low estate.
The pharisees could hear this parable and reflect on their misplaced anger and jealousy.
Together they could hear it and enjoy being restored to God and one another.
All of that is beautiful and true.
And yet, that alone is not what makes this parable so brilliant.
The truth is that this is is not a cautionary tale about the dangers of reckless living.
Neither is it a story about the futility of envy.
Despite the title we’ve given it,
This isn’t even a parable about a prodigal son or his jealous brother.
Of course it involves them, and they are key components in it;
But above all else,
This parable is about the father whom neither of them truly knows or understands.
You can tell that they don’t understand their father based on the way they act.
The younger son thinks his father is stingy and ungenerous.
Thus he asks his dad for the share of the inheritance that is coming to him.
Commentators agree that this means he is asking for one third of everything.
That’s all the prodigal son imagines his dad has for him: one third.
The same goes for the older brother.
Despite his faithfulness and years of tireless labor and obedience
He would have settled for a young goat and a sleepover with a few friends.
Clearly neither of them understand their father or his generosity;
For he himself says later: “..all that is mine is yours.”
But because they would not see this, each of them asks for less and not more.
Now the part you know best:
The younger son squanders what’s given to him,
And he wastes it in pursuit of his own pleasure.
In his despair, he decides he’ll go home, but for the wrong reason.
He still doesn’t understand his father.
In addition to being ungenerous, he also thinks his dad is gullible or naive.
That’s why he cooks up what he hopes will sound like a sincere confession,
And he practices it the whole way back home.
He hopes that if dad is convinced of his penitence,
His father will let him work for a living like the servants, which would be several steps up for him.
He thinks that whatever he has he will have to earn.
Note how the father rescues his son from this.
Firstly, he won’t let the son come home on his own two feet.
He runs out to meet him,
Lest the son get the idea that he made it home according to his own reason or strength.
Secondly, by divine grace and mercy, the father tells the son to shut-up.
He stops his confession right in the middle.
The father lets his son say the one true thing:
Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.
But he is saved from the rest.
He was about to ask dad to treat him like a hired servant.
But by interrupting him,
The father protects the son from a false confession that asks for a false mercy.
The son could never be a hired servant
No servant is given the best robe, which belongs to the father.
No servant is given the family ring and the privileges of the family name.
Without any merit or worthiness in him, the son is restored as family.
This has major implications for the Church.
People come here for all sorts of reasons.
Sometimes people have been wounded, and they have no idea how to be healed.
Sometimes people just feel desperate and hungry.
Sometimes folks mistakenly think that this is the first step in working their way to heaven,
Even if they wouldn’t say it that way.
For all of them and for you, whose motives are never completely pure, the Church does this:
At the beginning of every Service, the Church gives you a confession.
The Church actually gives you words to say and protects from words you shouldn’t say.
I know the confession isn’t all that specific
– and if you are ready to be specific you can come see me –
But it isn’t specific for a reason:
Because a pastor can’t quite interrupt or guide at that moment,
We only want to say what is true, and avoid a false confession,
One that ends up making excuses or offering ideas on how we can work it off on a payback plan.
Because we don’t properly understand our Father,
We might come up with all sorts of silly things to say.
We might think that He’ll hear us because we are so good at saying “sorry.”
We might think that He’ll let us work our way back home.
But He won’t. His reply is so much better:
Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet.
And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate.
For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.
Though you have squandered much, your Father is not poorer for it.
And all He has is yours.
I suppose at this point, if you were hearing this for the first time and without context,
You might get the idea that the father is a pushover;
And that nothing matters to him.
The events of the weeks to come make the opposite point.
Tax collectors and sinners, rulers and pharisees, wayward sons and daughters, you and me;
In the weeks to come, we will behold the cost of our wayward journey.
Having wandered far from home, far from the Eden we once knew,
Jesus has had to come get us.
He has left behind everything that belongs to Him in the house of His Father,
And he has come to find you, lost and poor in a distant land.
Jesus has joined you in filth and in hunger,
And through His passion, death, and resurrection,
He has brought you home again.
The Path home stands before us, for Christ has that said He is the Way. (Jn 14.6)
It is a costly endeavor,
But on the cross, Jesus buys you back –
Not with gold or silver, or anything you could earn as a servant,
But with His holy precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death. (SC)
The robe of His righteousness has been placed on you in Baptism,
The family name belongs to you as sons and daughters.
There is no room for jealousy or comparisons.
One Price was paid for all,
And so all that the Father has is yours:
Forgiveness of sins, life and salvation, now and forever.
All that’s left is to have a party.
For this Man receives sinners and eats with them.