Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
What sort of “father” do you have in mind when you think of your heavenly Father? A kindly father, perhaps. Or a stern father? A harsh disciplinarian? A lenient father? When you pray, “Our Father, who art in heaven” what ideas run through your mind? I suppose a lot may depend on what sort of father you had while growing up. This morning’s Gospel reading is often called “The Parable of the Prodigal Son.” But, I think the parable needs a new name. And I think “The Parable of the Waiting Father” has a great sound.
A Son Treats His Father with Contempt
The story begins with a young man who wants to break away from the nest. Like thousands before and after, he had his “reasons” and was not shy about expressing them. He wanted to be his own man—his own boss. The son longed for a life where he could get up when he wanted to, go where he wanted to, and return when he pleased.
The younger son couldn’t wait for his father to die. He said, “Father, give me the share of the property that’s coming to me.” In other words, “Dad, you’re worth more to me dead than alive, and since you seem in pretty good shape and not ready to check out any time soon, just sign over the inheritance check now and let me hit the road.” The son would get his share of the family estate, a much smaller piece than the elder son, but only upon his father’s death. Incredibly, the father does just that. Nothing forces the father to grant the request, yet he legally drops dead. He divides the property between them. So, the son sells his part of the family farm and off he goes.
Now he could buy anything. And he did. The boy is rolling in the dough, spending it freely on whatever he feels like. Wine? Women? Gambling? Who knows? Does it matter? Pretty soon, there is no money. Before you know it, the inheritance was gone, wasted on “reckless living.”
It got worse. A famine broke out in the far country. Problems always pile up, don’t they? You lose your job, and the kids get sick, the car breaks down. The young man had no money, no food; he was broke and homeless. Out of money, the younger son takes up work in a Gentile’s pigpen, which is about as bad as it gets for a Jewish boy. Pigs were unclean, remember. And you know you’ve hit bottom when pig food starts to look good.
How much do you see yourself in the prodigal son? We are all prodigal sons, spoiled and bratty children, who’ve told our Father, “I want things my way! I’m on my own now!” God has given us numerous gifts, yet we routinely waste them on our sins. Every time we sin, we are insulting our heavenly Father. We tell God to drop dead with every sinful thought, word, and deed.
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. Yet, this parable tells us that there are consequences for our actions.
The Father Treats His Son with Grace
Hungry, broke, lost, smelling like pigs, “he came to himself.” “My father’s hired servants are better off than this. They have food, a roof over their heads. So he comes up with 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.” And off he went back home.
He probably rehearsed his little speech on the road. “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you….” He probably wondered, would his father accept him? Or would he turn his back on his son? That’s what repentance is. Admitting you screwed up and returning home, where you belong. It’s acknowledging that you’ve been away in a far country where you’ve wasted what God gave you. You recognize that you stink, and you’re broke. You’re hungry. You’re alone, and you want to be home again in your Father’s house, where you belong.
When he was still far off, a speck on the horizon, his father saw him. The father didn’t just happen to see him; he had been watching. Every day he would look out for his son. Despite being insulted by his own son, the father longed for him to come home. So, he spent his days waiting. The father saw him, and he recognized his walk. He had compassion. He ran down the road – something no respectable middle eastern father would have done – and ran up to him, this boy stinking of pigs, and he embraced him and kissed his filthy cheeks. While he’s in his father’s embrace, the son starts to squeak out his little rehearsed confession as the father is kissing him. And amazingly, he never gets to his deal! There is no transaction in the embrace of this father. The father starts ordering servants around to kill the calf and call the musicians and gather the people for a party. My son was dead, and now he’s alive again; he was lost and now is found. And the music started, and the wine flowed, and the party began.
The parable is about what kind of God you have. When we turn to Him, our God comes running to lavish his love upon us! That son spent his inheritance with “reckless living”. Do you see how reckless his father was? He doesn’t wait for his son to finish speaking before restoring him to full status in the household, symbolized by the robe, ring, and sandals. This is what grace looks like! God’s grace is a grace that’s eager to give and restore! God has been reckless- wild, luxurious and extravagant- with His grace in Christ. God lavished his grace upon you, all at Christ’s expense. Even though Jesus never knew any sin, he became a sacrifice for sins. Christ’s holy life was lived for us, and he freely gave it for you on the cross. He bore all your sins so that you might be restored as God’s beloved child.
The prodigal son teaches us something by his repentance, something that he had to learn. There is joy in heaven over the repentance of a sinner. God rejoices when a lost child has turned home again. You are that prodigal son lost and found, dead and alive. God’s Son has found you, claimed you, redeemed you, raised you, clothed you, forgiven you. In the parable, the father gave the younger son gifts to show he was restored to the family. He brings him the “best robe” to put on. You received the robe of Christ’s righteousness in holy baptism that covers up all our sins. In the parable, the father throws a feast in celebration. We celebrate a feast every week. When you come to the Lord’s Supper this morning, recognize yourself as that rebellious, prodigal son returning home to his father, walking down that road that leads to home. It’s as if God the Father is saying to the Son as you receive His Body and Blood: “It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother, your sister, was dead, and is alive; he was lost and is found.”
Don’t forget that there’s also an older brother. He’s out in the field, doing his work when he hears the sounds of celebration, the music, the singing, the dancing. He smells the roasted meat. He comes near to the house and asks a servant. “Hey, what’s going on?” And the servant tells him, “Your brother has returned, and your father is throwing a party for him. He’s safe and sound.” And the older brother is furious. He refuses to come near the party. He wants nothing to do with it. Even when his father comes out and pleads with him, he won’t. He’s resentful. He thinks he should have a party because he was the good brother who didn’t run away. He didn’t understand his Father’s generosity.
Jesus told this parable to those who imagined they didn’t need to repent. Many looked down on those who needed to repent. These were people who kept grumbling about the company He kept. Some still think that sinners need to clean up and smell nice before being welcomed into their father’s home.
The lesson here is that only when you see yourself as sinners will you be able to rejoice in the repentance of another sinner. We welcome all repentant sinners here at this Church. When you realize that God’s generous grace has been lavished upon you, you will join this party of sinners and prodigals that we call the Church.
So, this morning I want you to recognize the sheer extravagant outrageousness of God’s grace and goodness toward you. God receives repentant sinners with an open heart and open arms. Because of Jesus, the Father loves you and embraces you and welcomes you. You don’t reek of your sins; you smell of Christ. You’re not soiled with the mess you’ve made; you’re washed with the blood of the Lamb and clothed with the robe of His righteousness. No one is beyond his love, not even you. You cannot do anything that will keep God from forgiving you. If you repent, God will rejoice over you and lavish countless gifts upon you. You deserve none of it, and he gives you everything anyway, because that’s the kind of heavenly Father you have.
May the peace of God, that surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.