The Pharisees were grumbling, as the religious are want to do, over the outrageousness of God’s grace. The charge against Jesus: “This man receives sinners and He eats with them.” That charge is the best news you and I could hear. Jesus receives sinners and He eats with them. There’s room for you, if you see yourself as a sinner. It would be great news for the Pharisees too, if they would hear it. But they would have to see themselves as sinners, too, something the religious are not want to do.
Jesus told them this parable. Actually He told them three parables in a “tryptic,” a three paneled piece of parable art – a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son. The parables of the lost sheep and coin set the pattern and prime the parable pump. A sheep is lost, and a shepherd recklessly leaves 99 sheep alone in the wilderness to seek and save the one. Not the way you and I would manage sheep, but then, we’re not the good shepherd, are we? And when the wayward sheep is found and returned to the flock, there is rejoicing and a party, where another sheep was likely barbequed for the event. You do the math.
A coin is lost, and a woman turns her house upside down looking for this coin, worth about an hour’s work. And when she finds her lost coin, there is rejoicing and a party, which probably cost more than the coin was worth. You do the math.
You get the pattern: lost, sought, found, rejoicing. Jesus says, “There is more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous who do not need repentance,” as if there actually were such a thing. Lost, sought, found, rejoicing. Now you’re ready for the main event: the parable of the man with two sons.
A man had two sons. The older son stood to inherit the land, the younger son stood to inherit enough money to buy some land of his own. That’s how it worked in those days. The younger son couldn’t wait for the old man to drop dead, and so demanded the inheritance ahead of time. And the father agreed. He dropped dead to his assets, divided his property between them – the older son got the land, the younger son got the money.
As is typical of young men who come into money a little soon in life, he wasted it. The text says he squandered it recklessly. Could have been bad investments, who knows? There was a famine, which wasn’t his fault. His brother says it was on prostitutes, but what does he know? Regardless, the kid winds up slopping hogs on a Gentile’s pig farm, which is about as low as it gets for a good Jewish boy. About the time pig food began to look good, he comes to his senses. I’ve found that to be the case myself. Sometimes our young men, and not a few of our young women, need to spend a little time in the pigpen in order to recover their senses.
He has a pla – confess his sin, strike a deal. “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your sin.” That’s a good confession. Tells it like it is. Sin is not only against others, but against God. Then he has a bargain, a deal to strike: “Make me one of your hired hands.” And off he goes with his confession and his deal back to his father’s house.
As he comes over the crest of the last hill, while he is still a speck on the horizon, his father comes running down the road to meet him. This is never done in middle eastern society, by the way. Wayward sons walk every inch, and they grovel the last few. But this father, in full view of the neighbors and the whole community, runs out to meet the son that wanted him dead. And if that wasn’t outrageous enough, he embraces and kisses the boy, who still reeks of pigs, before he even gets a word of confession out of his mouth.
Pause the video for a second. Let’s talk.
We make our confession within the embrace of our Father’s forgiveness. That’s what the Bible calls “grace.” Undeserved, unmerited kindness, love, mercy on the part of God all for Jesus’ sake. When you confess your sins, when you admit that you are a poor, miserable sinner, when you acknowledge the worst of what you’ve done, you are doing it in the embrace of a Father who has already run down the road to meet you with open arms. You confess within the embrace of God’s acceptance in Jesus. Got it? Now back to the parable.
While the father is embracing and kissing is lost and now found son, the boy starts his little speech. “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” The father is barely listening. He’s ordering servants to bring the robe and the ring and sandals. He’s calling the caterers and getting ready to party, “for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.” Let the party begin.
Pause the video again, and listen.
A note about Gospel dads. Gospel dads don’t necessarily go running off to pull their wayward sons out of the Gentiles’ mud. (Mothers are more likely to do that.) Gospel dads are patient and long suffering. And Gospel dads always welcome their sons home with open arms. Notice that the son never got to his little deal about being one of his father’s hired hands. And even if he did, the father wasn’t listening. Robe, ring, and sandals belong to sons not servants. There is no bargaining with God’s grace in Jesus. No deals to cut. There is only the Father’s outrageous acceptance of sons who smell like pigs and want them dead. That’s the undeserved kindness of God toward sinners for Jesus’ sake. No deals.
We see the pattern again, sort of. A son is lost, a son returns in repentance, rejoicing and a party. Unlike the sheep and the coin, no one went searching for him, but we’ll get to that in a second. There’s still another son to deal with.
He’s the older son, the firstborn son, who behaves like most first born sons (many of whom grow up to be pastors, by the way, including this one). He’s the rule keeper and the book keeper, the religious one. He’s just inherited the family farm, but he’s hopping mad at his father. “All these years I’ve served you, worked like a dog, obeyed your every command, yet you never gave me so much as a goat much less a fattened calf. And then this deadbeat son of yours comes home after chewing up your money on prostitutes and you roll out the red carpet.” Not fair!
We hear the father’s heart pouring out to his other son, whom he also loves: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. We had to celebrate and rejoice, because your brother (don’t you dare disown him!) was dead, and is alive; he was lost and is found.”
Now imagine the camera rolling back over the field, the sound of music off in the distance, the smell of BBQ wafting in the air, and a big question mark hangs over the whole scene. Will the older brother join the party? Will he get the joke? Will he embrace the outrageous grace of a father who will forgive his sons anything? Will he embrace his brother?
Will we? Will we rejoice in the notion that Jesus receives actual sinners and actually eats with them? Will we get that outrage of grace. Grace that’s earned isn’t grace. If God is undeservedly kind and forgiving to us for Jesus’ sake, if He embraces us reeking from the pigpens of our lives, then He must embrace all the same way, or it is not grace. And yes, it is refusable, as all gifts are. The older son does not have to go to the party; there is no loaded gun pointed at his head. He can stay in his own self-chosen hell of bookkeeping religion, if he so chooses. But his rightful place, and the will of his father, is that he be with his brother at the party.
We have two shining examples of the Father’s grace this morning. Audrey Elizabeth, Logan Alexander. Baptized as children of the heavenly Father before they knew any better, before they learned the trick of bargaining with God, before their “inner sinner” comes to full expression, though brother Logan is on his way, I’m sure. Some will say, “This is outrageous. You have to decide, you have to make the commitment, you have to be obedient, then you get baptized.” But we call Baptism a “means of grace,” a means by which God reveals and shows Himself to be gracious to us poor sinners.
You and I are that lost son in the pig pen. And the Father embraces us as we are, reeking, rebellious, lost. He puts that robe of Jesus’ righteousness on us, covering our sin with Jesus’ perfection. He slips the son’s signet ring on our finger, marking us as family. He embraces us in a love that doesn’t ask for deals or bargains. 200-proof, 24-karat grace – undeserved, unmerited, unconditional, amazing, outrageous grace – which may seem a stiff drink in a world of watered-down religion, but it’s a drink you all need.
The shepherd sought out the lost sheep; the woman searched for the lost coin. No one sought the lost son, though the father obviously was looking down the road every day. Some suggest his older brother should have gone, but I think Jesus breaks the pattern to leave room for Himself. He is the older brother of us all, the first-born of all creation, who sought and saved us from the pigpen even before we got the bright idea to make a confession and try to cut a religious deal. He joined us in the slop of our sin; He became our sin. He died our death, and rose from the dead. He became lost so that we might be found in Him. And the Father had to celebrate, because His Son was dead and is alive again. And the same Father rejoices and celebrates over you in Jesus, because in Him you die and live too, you were lost in sin but now you are found in Jesus. There has to be rejoicing and a party.
And there is, right here in your midst. “Take and eat, this is my body given for you. Take and drink, this is my blood shed for you.” This man, this Son of God named Jesus, receives sinners and eats with them. Simply outrageous.
In the name of Jesus, Amen