In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Let’s not hear this as a parable, told by Jesus, in the Bible. Because sometimes when we hear things that way we can sort of skim over the surface, and never allow ourselves to be plunged into the dark, cold shock of the deeper water of the Scriptures. Like this story, which we’ve heard a thousand times, we hear it as sort of a good, old-fashioned, American story of hard luck and hard work. This younger son, who was never going to be inherit the family business anyway, he doesn’t really know what he wants to do with his life, so he asks for some money, goes off and wastes it. And then, when he’s come to his lowest point, when he hits rock-bottom, he finally comes to his senses. He picks himself up, and goes back home to make it right. There’s a joyful reunion, a celebration—there is that small part with the older brother, but we sort of skim over that, because it’s a good story; it’s a nice story of redemption (as we understand it).
But let’s not hear it as a parable this morning; let’s hear it as a true story about a family you know. A father and two sons. A friend of yours pulls you aside in the grocery store and says, “Hey, did you hear what happened to old so-and-so, what his younger son did to him?” “No; what?” “Well, the other day, that younger son asks his dad for his part of the inheritance, as if he couldn’t wait for the old man to die. And what’s stranger is that his dad—without, apparently, any questions asked or any argument made—gave him what he asked for. Even more than that, he didn’t just give some money to the son; he ‘divided his life,’ divided his existence, everything he had to live on, he divided it between them. It’s almost as if he wanted to die himself; he gave everything to his two sons. He has nothing; they have everything. I just hope the older son lets the father stay on there at the house. And I heard that that younger son went off to New York, or L.A., or Miami, or something, and he’s totally wasting everything his father worked so hard for. He’s spending like there’s no tomorrow, like it will never run out—and in this economy…!”
Time passes and you hear that the older son stayed at home to run the family business, to take care of the house and the farm. And he’s not just running it from far away, he’s out in the fields working, doing what a dutiful, responsible, older son should do. He didn’t waste his father’s money, he poured it right back into the business. When you hear these sorts of things through the rumor mill, what’s your perception of each of the sons? Positive or negative? Which is the good son, and which is the bad?
Well, some more time passes, and your friend pulls you aside in the store again, and he says, “Hey, did you hear what happened?” “No; what?” “That younger son, you know the one I told you about? He came back! And of course he had nothing left but the clothes on his back. Spent every cent. But when he comes back, his father had apparently been waiting for him, because before he even knows it’s him, he’s running down the road, falling on him, kissing and hugging him, welcoming him back. He tells servants to bring new clothes, new shoes, get the signet ring of the family and put it back on his finger. It’s sort of crazy. I mean, I get it, we all love our children, but you can’t just let them walk all over you, or it will never stop. No questions asked, no conditions, no promise to make up for what’s been lost; he just takes him back. He’s really just enabling him. It’s kind of irresponsible and reckless, if you ask me.” What would be your perception if you heard of such a father?
Solomon says that if a man gave for love all his life—same word as here in Luke 15—he would be utterly despised (Song of Solomon 8:7, LXX). This father did, and he was. Despised by the older brother, particularly. He comes up to the house after a long day in the fields, tired and hungry, and he expects to see his father sitting alone at the kitchen table, as usual. But all the lights are on, there are tons of people in there, and they’re all singing, dancing, laughing; everyone’s eating and drinking. So he grabs one of the servants by the arm, and says, “What’s going on here?” “Well, your brother came back, so your father killed the fattened calf, because he has him back whole and safe.” And the brother refuses to go inside, so the father has to come out to him. “Come inside and celebrate with us! Your brother is home!” “Oh no, he’s not my brother; he’s your son. You did this. You knew what he was going to do with that money; he’s always been like that. But you gave it to him anyway. Fine. You do what you want with your own money. But now he comes back like this after devouring your money with prostitutes, and you just let him come in, as if nothing’s happened? And, by the way, you treat him like this, killing the fattened calf, when I never had even a small party with my friends? He’s probably just back here for more money.” Despised. Despised by his older son for the gift of his life. And probably despised by the neighbors and everyone who hears the gossip; it’s a little embarrassing to see a grown man run down the street in nice robes. Maybe even despised by the younger son: maybe he’s right now telling his friends how he pulled one over on his old man. He was ready with some sob story about working as a hired man to pay off the debt, but he knew his father would take him back.
If a man gave for love all his life, he would be utterly despised. This is how God loves the world: He gave His Son, His beloved one, into the world, so that whoever believes in Him would not perish but have eternal life. Would not perish like that son, sitting out in the field, wishing that someone would give him the food the pigs were eating. “My father’s hired men have abundant bread, and I’m sitting here perishing from hunger in this famine.” We tend to think that’s the turning point in the story, that “he comes to himself.” But that’s not it. The turning point is when “he comes to his father.” Or, rather, his father comes to him. When he’s far away, his father runs to him. This is how God loves the world: He runs to the world in Jesus. He gives His life. The Son willingly leaves the Father’s house and goes into a far country, into the flesh and blood and bone of a man, and He gives everything to anyone. You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that He who was rich—that’s sort of an understatement—became poor, gave everything, so that we, who are poor, might become rich (2 Corinthians 8:9). He pours out His riches on people who do nothing but abuse it. He scatters the Gospel in absurd ways: like seed on roads, on rocks, among the weeds. A waste. He gives His life, and He is utterly despised. And killed. He perishes in the famine of faith. But then He rises up and returns victorious to His Father. Because death and resurrection was the play all along. It’s reckless and ridiculous to us, irresponsible if you ask any respectable person. But the Son is alive and well, and the party’s just begun. On earth as it is in heaven! Rejoicing and celebrating everywhere because of the Son’s victorious return. Like a shepherd who brings home the one lost sheep on his shoulders; like a woman who sweeps and cleans her whole house to find one coin. They both call their friends and neighbors and have a party. Hey, why not have a party at 9:30 in the morning? It’s like a father killing the fattened calf for his son, who was dead, but is now alive. A party for everyone who’s ever despised the gifts of God. Because, you notice, both sons despised the gifts of their father: the younger one by wasting them; the older one by despising his father and judging his brother as unworthy of the father’s gifts. Well, yeah, that’s kind of the point. Come in to the party! Relax, have a drink, have some of this prime rib. But whether the older son goes into the party or stays out in the darkness, the party’s going to continue. It might go on forever. It will go on forever, because we’re only getting started today. Today the Lamb who was slain for the sins of the world is eaten and drunk, and the Son is here. Because that’s what He does: He receives sinners and eats with them. That’s horrible news if you don’t think—if you don’t know—you’re a sinner; if you don’t know what you’ve done against the Father and how you’ve despised His gifts. But for sinners who know it, it’s the sweetest word there is. Because there’s famine everywhere else. But here, in the house of the Father and the Son, there’s a feast that goes on and on. Come and celebrate, among the dead who are alive and the lost who are found.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 3/6/16