When you think of your heavenly Father, what sort of “father” do you have in mind? A kindly father perhaps. Or a stern father? A harsh disciplinarian? A lenient father? When you pray, “Our Father, who art in heaven” what images run through your mind? I suppose a lot may depend on what sort of father you had while growing up.
Today’s parable of the man with two sons gives us a picture of the Father who rejoices in the return of his sons, who is prodigal with his forgiveness, who is quick to throw a party, and who is outrageously lavish with his grace.
The parable of the man with two sons is the third of a three-part parable. The first two lead into the third. The lost sheep and the lost coin. The pattern is set – a sheep or a coin are lost, the sheep or coin is found, there is rejoicing and there is a party. The message is clear – there is more rejoicing in heaven over a single sinner who repents than over a bunch who think they need no repentance. The wayward return, the lost is found, and there is rejoicing. That brings us to the man with two sons.
The younger son tells the old man to drop dead. That’s the effect of demanding his inheritance money early. Incredibly, the father does just that. He legally drops dead. He divides the property between them. Gives the older son the property and the younger son the money. You know how it goes with young men and inheritance money. It rarely goes well. The money was gone before you knew it, wasted on “reckless living.” Prodigal living, hence the name of the parable as “the prodigal son.” But it’s a mistake to focus entirely on the younger son. The man has two sons, and both play a part in this parable.
Out of money, the younger son takes up work in a Gentile’s pig pen, which is about as bad as it gets for a Jewish boy for whom pigs were considered unclean. About the time that pig food started to look good, the young man came to his senses. That’s the case with most of us, I’m afraid. Until we spend a little time in the pig pen, so to speak, we won’t come to our senses and repent. Your Father in heaven knows this, and He’ll often let you wallow in the mess you’ve made for a while until you too come to your senses.
We often overlook this facet of God’s fatherhood. We expect Him to bail us out of every bad situation we’ve gotten ourselves into, even when we have no one but ourselves to blame. And then we get mad at God for not doing something about it.
Well, the younger son starts to realize that he had it much better under the roof of his father than his current situation slopping hogs for a Gentile, and so he devises a little plan to get back home again. He would confess his sins – “I have sinned against heaven and before you.” And he would cut a little deal, a transaction – “I’m not worthy to be your son; let me be your servant instead.”
That’s the way we expect this story to go. It’s what Jesus’ hearers certainly expected. They expected the young man to return to his father’s house groveling, begging, pleading with the father to let him back as a servant. And they expected the father to be hard and indifferent, turning his back on his wayward son until he was good and sorry for what he had done and for the insult he had sustained. They would have expected the father to go along with the plan and make his son a slave, probably on the lowest rung of slaves just to make the point.
The last thing they would have expected is for the father to go running past the neighbors down to the road to greet his wayward son. The last thing they would have expected is for the same father to embrace his son, still reeking of the pigpen, and place the robe and the ring of sonship on the boy even before he gets his little confession out. The last thing they would have expected is for the father to kill the prize fattened calf and throw a party for this kid, who until recently wished his father were dead so that he could get his grubby hands on the inheritance money.
So it is in the world of religion too. The last thing the religious expect is for God to be merciful and gracious, slow to anger, an abounding in love. The last thing Religion expects is a God who justifies the ungodly while they are still sinners. In the religions of this world, the father of this parable is not a hero but a dupe, a softie being pushed around by a brat son. But in the economy of God’s grace, this is a picture of God’s undeserved kindness toward sinners for Christ’s sake. Notice that the son doesn’t even get to his confession before the father is putting on the robe and the ring and the sandals and ordering servants around. It’s in his father’s embrace, as the father is kissing him, that the son squeaks out his little confession. And amazingly, he never gets to his deal! There is no transaction in the embrace of this father.
That’s one of the several take-home lessons this morning. There is no deal-cutting with God. This is the God who drops dead to save sinners. This is the God who dies for His enemies, who seeks and saves the lost. This is the God who becomes our sin. He doesn’t simply bear our sins or the guilt and punishment of our sins, though He does that too. He becomes our sin. As our older brother, Jesus, the Son of God, left His father’s home to join us in the pig pen of our sin and misery. Jesus did what the older brother in the parable did not do. He went out to seek and find us, to rescue us from the muck, to bring us to the Father. To lay down His life as a ransom to save us, and to buy us back from our servitude to sin, death, and the Law.
So the celebration begins. The steaks are on, the music is playing. The lost son returns to a party.
The man had two sons. The older son is out in the fields, working dutifully. He smells the barbeque, he hears the music. He asks a servant what was going on. He hears the news. “Your brother has come, and your father has thrown a party.” And the older son is enraged and refuses to take one step toward the house. How could he do this? Throw a party for that deadbeat kid who wasted his inheritance money with prostitutes?
Again, it’s the father who comes to his older son. This father stops at nothing to gather his children. He pleads with him to come join the party. But the older son would not. He’s the religious one. The commandment keeper. He has dutifully served his father, never disobeyed a single commandment, and he is keeping book on everything. “You never so much as gave me a goat so that I could have a party with my friends.” Unlike the father, he disowns his brother. “But when this son of yours came….” Son of yours. Not my brother, but son of yours. It’s so much easier to point the accusing finger when we disown each other, isn’t it? When we refuse to admit that we are connected and are really in the same gracious boat?
It’s a burr under the saddle of religion that the obedient older brother and the rebellious younger brother are both under the same umbrella of God’s undeserved kindness. We think we have to earn our way into the kingdom, and we devise religions that attempt to do just that. It seems a bit unfair, doesn’t it, that the younger son gets a party after the way he treated his father, while the older, obedient son, gets left out in the field. But then, whose fault is it if he never joins the party? Who’s to blame if he spends the day out in the field instead of joining the festivities?
What the older, religious son fails to recognize, is that he is really in the same boat as his brother. Everything the father has is his, not by earning it (that’s how it is with the servants in the house) but simply for being a son, without any merit or worthiness in him. And until he recognizes the sheer prodigal outrageousness of his father’s grace and goodness, he will never join the party, he will never taste and see the goodness of his father, he will never do a single chore or task out of .
Jesus told this parable because the religious types – the Pharisees and scribes – were grumbling over Jesus’ keeping company with tax collectors and sinners. And the parable applies as much to us today, whether as rebellious younger sons or religious older sons. Both are in need of repentance, of seeing their father in a new and different way. The younger son saw his father as a vending machine, a source of inheritance money. And the older son saw his father as a transaction, a deal to be cut, a bargain to be made.
In his repentance, the younger son learned something, and he teaches us something too. There is no bargaining in the embrace of God’s mercy in Jesus. There is only confession within the embrace of a forgiveness that is already ours. That forgiveness comes by way of Jesus, our older brother, who kept the commands of His Father perfectly, and who joined us in the pig pen of our sin and death to rescue us, to seek and to save the lost, all the rebellious sons and the religious sons. There is joy in heaven over the repentance of a sinner. When a lost son is turned home again. When you come to the Lord’s Supper this morning, imagine yourself as that rebellious, prodigal son returning home to his father, walking down that road that leads to home. Imagine the Father saying to the Son as you receive His Body and Blood: “It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother, was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.”
In the name of Jesus, Amen