March 27, 2022
Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
For our Gospel reading today, we hear a very familiar parable. Listen for God’s gracious Word as it speaks to you.
If I were to guess… I would say this is likely the most well-known of the parables in Luke’s gospel. This one and the parable of the Good Samaritan… are probably tied for first.
With this parable, it’s always important for us to remember the audience. Jesus is welcoming those who are coming to listen to him… and that’s the problem… or at least that’s the problem the scribes and the Pharisees are having. All manner of people are coming to listen. Jesus is welcoming anyone and everyone who are interested in listening. Jesus is even welcoming… gasp… those types of people… and… bigger gasp… those types of people… and even… gasp almost to the point of swooning… those types of people.
This welcoming angers the witnessing Pharisees and scribes… men whose beliefs about those people have dulled their sense of compassion for their fellow sinners. The very act of welcoming… just showing that kindness and meeting these people wherever they were in their lives… meant that Jesus was forgiving too easily… and what good did that really do for these sinners? Repentance is a means… a process in which one earns their forgiveness… an opportunity for the truly penitent to learn his or her lesson. Forgiveness given so freely… like what Jesus had been doing… well, what type of message does that send? How did such easy mercy help the sinner? Especially the one who would find their resolve later weakened… and who would easily give into their temptations again… simply because forgiveness was so easily given… because they hadn’t paid a heavy price the first time around. Understand that the good scribes and Pharisees feel that Jesus isn’t doing these sinners any favors by not taking their sin seriously enough. If repentance is really going to take hold, it needs to extract a cost from the one who is repenting. And they couldn’t see how that might happen with Jesus welcoming them… and being with them… taking the time to talk and to eat with them. This lenient Jesus was only giving permission to sin greater with his welcoming… because he had taught by his actions that there were no consequences for sin. That’s the way they saw it.
To this gathered crowd of Pharisees, scribes… sinners and tax collectors… Jesus tells this parable.
Now… let’s forget the unofficial title of the parable. Don’t think of this as the parable of the Prodigal Son or even the Lost Son as some of the editors and publishers of our Bibles may title it. The younger son captures our attention and our imagination, but the parable is not really about him. Or maybe it would be better for me to say that the younger son is not the center of the story. In the same way, the older son is also not the center of the story. This parable is not necessarily about him or his inability to welcome back his younger brother with joy. The two sons obviously represent the audience listening to Jesus… the tax collectors and sinners… the scribes and Pharisees. Right?
“There was a man who had two sons.” This parable centers on the Father… so that’s where we need to put our focus. The Father’s first action is to let his younger son go. The younger son comes to the Father full of impatience. You are dead to me. Give me what belongs to me now. The Father does. Now the Father doesn’t have to… most fathers of that time and culture would not… but this one Father does… and without argument or warning. The Father allows his younger son to make a bad choice. The Father gives the younger son what he wants and the Father lets the younger son suffer the consequences of his decisions. The Father lets the younger son go… and become lost. This whole parable is full of freedom… and choice.
As a result of his own free choices, the younger son blows his fortune and he hits bottom. Starving among the pigs, he finally comes to himself saying, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up 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 like one of your hired hands.’” And I’m sure the Pharisees and the scribes in the crowd were nodding their heads in agreement with this part of the parable. The boy was finally coming to his senses. Now I know we want to take the younger son at face value… we want to give him the benefit of the doubt… but for me, the younger son is no fool… he knows what must be done to earn his father’s forgiveness. This son… as I see it… is as selfish as he ever was. Don’t trust him. Don’t be fooled by him. He knows how the system works. Telling his father how he no longer expects to be treated like a son… that makes a nice touch to his apology, doesn’t it? How could his father not accept him if he tells him that? It is sure to tug on the old man’s heartstrings. There among the pigs… coming to his senses… deciding what he is going to say… I really don’t believe the younger son experiences have humbled him. Truly… I don’t think that happens until he encounters his Father.
Because remember this parable is about the Father… and not the two sons.
We have to pay careful attention with what happens next in the parable. While the younger son was still far off, his Father sees him… and his Father is filled with compassion; his Father runs and puts his arms around his son and he kisses him. By the time the younger son even gets to his Father, he has already been forgiven. He has already found mercy because the love his Father has for his son never died nor diminished. Before the younger son even gets a chance to open his mouth… before he can even let fall the first word of his well-planned contrition speech… before he can show any form of repentance… the Father has been filled with compassion and he has forgiven him. That’s the thing that finally humbles the son. The Father loves his son… and he loves him unconditionally. Even though the younger son still says his words of repentance… they fall on deaf ears. The Father completely ignores what his son says to him. The younger son in the parable does nothing to earn his Father’s love… the Father has always loved his son… and he will always love his son. This kind of love cannot be earned. To finally understand that is humbling.
And then here comes the part that often gets overlooked… the Father loves both of his sons unconditionally. There are no winners or losers in this story. Here is a parable where Jesus is not only saying that God loves the sinner… but God loves the Pharisee and the scribe as well. We’re so used to casting the Pharisee and the scribe as the enemy of Jesus… and subsequently the enemy of God… that it can be hard for us to hear that Jesus… and God… loves his enemies… just like we were taught to love our enemies back in the Sermon on the Plain. For us it was just a month ago that we heard Jesus say, “But, I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” Here is Jesus saying clearly that God loves the Pharisee and the scribe as much as God loves the tax collector and the sinner. That ought to be humbling to us.
In the parable it’s no real surprise the older brother has gotten angry and refused to go in to the celebration. The Father goes out to the older son… meets him where he is… with the same compassion with which he welcomed back the younger son. I don’t think the older son necessarily begrudges the return of his brother… but that there is a celebration… that his Father has thrown a party marking the return… that’s what hurts. That the younger brother doesn’t have to pay some sort of special penance… that he doesn’t receive any real punishment from the Father for his actions… that’s what hurts. The older brother would think it fair that the younger brother be treated as one of the hired hands… at least for a period of time… suffering the humility would be good for him. See… that’s the lesson that’s still so hard for us to grasp. We still believe that being humbled only comes from suffering… comes from being humiliated. Even today, we can’t fully trust that being humbled can come from an overwhelming and intense experience of love. When Jesus teaches love for enemies… he also teaches… quite clearly… “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” The younger son may have been humiliated by the outcome of his decisions… but he is… and will continue to be… humbled by the merciful love his Father so freely gives. That experience of grace will change who he is… the person he wants to be… the choices he will freely make going forward.
Because the older son can’t tell the difference between being humiliated and being humbled… the older brother fears his Father’s forgiveness will come to mean little to his younger brother. The older son fears that his Father will be seen as the fool again… just like when he gave the younger son half his fortune. This is the sin that separates the older son from his Father and his brother. Was he foolish for being the faithful son… for thinking that his faithfulness somehow mattered… got him more or meant there would be more love for him over his sinful brother? The older brother feels as though his faithfulness has been taken advantage of… that it hasn’t been appreciated as it should… that it has earned him nothing. Isn’t that the Achilles’ heel of faithfulness done with expectation of reward? The act of faithfulness is always secondary to the anticipated reward that will come… so when doubt is cast on that expected reward… faithfulness alone isn’t enough to justify itself. Although he has always been surrounded by the same love from his Father, the older son cannot see it… doesn’t understand it… and is on the path to losing this greatest inheritance from his Father because he believes he is being humiliated by what is going on.
Yet, how does the Father respond to this older son? “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” It’s not said as an angry chastisement to the older son… although we often read it as such. It’s said as a simple truth from a loving Father. The Father does not welcome one son back at the expense of the other. There is no cursing or sending away of the older son. He loves them each for who they are… as his sons. The Father wants only to love his sons and to have them near. Maybe one day that love will be enough for the older son… and he too will be humbled by it.
Two lost sons… the same love of the Father freely given to each and all. Amen.