Luke 15:1-2, 11-32: The Prodigal Son

Father hugging Son (610x351)The Pharisees were grousing against the outrageousness of God’s grace. “This man [Jesus] receives sinners and eats with them.” Now, that’s wonderful news for you and me—if we see ourselves as sinners. It also would’ve been splendid news for the Pharisees—if they would’ve be honest enough to admit that they were sinners, too.

So, Jesus tells them a story. Well, He tells them three, all about something lost: a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son. The first two set up the pattern, priming the parable pump. A shepherd leaves 99 sheep on the hillside to seek and save a lost, lone sheep. When the shepherd returns with the sheep, there’s much joy and celebration. A woman loses a coin and scours the entire house to find it. And when she finds it, there’s also much joy and celebration.

The message is clear: There’s more joy in heaven over a single sinner who repents than over those who think that they need no repentance. And that brings us to the story about a man with two sons, both of whom would receive an inheritance. The older would inherit the land; the younger, enough money to buy some land of his own. That’s how it worked in those days.

But the younger son didn’t want to wait for his dad to die, so he demanded his inheritance early. He said, “Father, give me my share of the estate.” “Dad, you’re worth more to me dead than alive. But since you look healthy, give me my inheritance now and let me make my way in life.” In short, “Dad, I’d be better off if you were dead.” And so the father dies, at least when it comes to granting his inheritance. He gives the younger son his money and signs over the farm to his older brother.

It only took the young son a few days to pack and journey to a faraway land. And far from home, far from family and community, he did what so many young men do—he lived recklessly, squandering all the money he had.

With his money gone and not a friend to speak of, he finds whatever work he can so he doesn’t starve. He winds up slopping hogs on a Gentile farm. That’s about as low as you can go for a Jewish boy. Remember, pigs were unclean animals to the Jews.

Hungry, broke, lost, and smelling like a pig, with hog slop starting to look tasty, the younger son comes to his senses. He realizes that he was better off under his father’s roof than he was feeding pigs for a Gentile. So, he devises a plan. He will confess his sins: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and you.” And then he will strike a deal: “I’m no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me one of your hired servants.”

That’s the way we’d expect the story to go—and that’s what those who were listening to the parable also expected. They thought the younger son would return to his father’s house, groveling and pleading. They presumed the father would be harsh with the son, for insulting him in such a humiliating way. They would’ve expected the father to make his son a slave, probably the lowest slave in the house—just to make a point!

But that didn’t happen, did it? When the younger son was still far off, just a speck on the horizon, his father saw him. After all, he’d been watching, looking down that road every day for his son. He recognized his walk. Compassion filled his heart.

And then the father ran, having to yank up his robes around his crotch, something no respectable Jewish father would have done. In full view of the neighbors and community, he hurried to meet the son who wanted him dead. And if that wasn’t outrageous enough, he then embraced the boy, who still reeked of the pigpen. Even before his son could get a word of confession out of his mouth, the father continues kissing his son’s filthy face.

The boy can barely get out his canned, prepared speech. He only makes it halfway through: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and you…” But his father continues to hug him and calls out to the servants for the finest robe, the family ring, and shoes for his cut, swollen, and blistered feet.

The father tells the servants to prepare a calf for the feast. He calls the musicians and gathers people to celebrate. My son, my son, he was dead, but now he’s alive; he was lost, but now he’s found. Then the music begins, the wine flows, and the party starts.

Like the prodigal son, we don’t earn our way home. It’s the Father who receives and welcomes us. And any confession that we do make, we make in the embrace of His forgiveness. There’s no deal-cutting with God. He’s the one who drops dead to save the sinner. He seeks and saves the lost. And He doesn’t just bear our sins, or the guilt and punishment of our sins; no, He even becomes our sin.

This parable is about Jesus. He left His royal throne, the home of His Father. He emptied Himself of all the perks and privileges that He had as the one-and-only Son of the Father. He left His Father’s home to join us in the pig pen of our sin and squalor. He was baptized into it. He was crucified in the thick of it. He was buried in it.

And then, having risen from the dead, Jesus goes back home to the Father to be received at His right hand. Jesus now wears the royal robe and the signet ring of the Son with a communion feast thrown in His honor.

But the parable is also about you. For you are baptized into Christ. In Christ, the Father embraces you; clothed in Christ, He forgives you and calls you His son. Yes, you are that prodigal son—lost, but now found; dead, but now alive.

God’s Son has found you and claimed you. He has redeemed and raised you, clothed and forgiven you. Because of Jesus, God the Father now welcomes and embraces you. For you no longer reek of your sins; instead, you now smell sweetly of Christ. You’re no longer soiled with the mess of your making. No; you’re washed in the blood of the Lamb, clothed in His righteous robes, not in the filth of your sin.

But, remember that the father in the story has two sons. So, what of the older one? He’s not at the party; he’s in the field working. He hears the commotion of celebration, music and singing. He smells meat roasting on the spit. Curious, he comes toward the house, asking a servant, “What’s with the celebration?” And the servant replies, “Your brother has come home, and your father is throwing a party for him.”

But, instead of rejoicing, the older son becomes enraged. He refuses to go into the house. How could his father do this? How could he throw a party for that waste of skin who squandered his inheritance, getting drunk and sleeping with prostitutes?

And again, it’s the father who comes to the son. He stops, at nothing, to gather his children. He pleads with his older son to join the celebration. But the older son won’t. He’s the religious one, the commandment-keeper. He has dutifully served his father, never disobeying a single commandment. He lashes out, “You’ve never given me so much as a young goat so that I could celebrate with my friends.”

Unlike the father, the older son disowns his younger brother. He tells his father, “But when this son of yours…” Notice that he says, “Son of yours,” not “my brother.” But even then, look at how the father responds, “My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.” The father doesn’t disown his older son either.

If someone isn’t part of the family, that’s not the father’s doing. As with the younger son, the father never disowns him. What the older, commandment-keeping son fails to realize is that he’s the same as his brother. Like him, everything the father has is his—not because he deserved it—but because he is his son. You don’t earn an inheritance.

And then the story ends. We don’t know what happens next. Will the older son go into the house or not? Will he join his younger brother, feasting at the expense of his father’s prodigal mercy? Or will he remain resentful, outside the party in which he has a place? Will he rejoice in his father’s lavish grace, who forgives both his sons, both the good and the bad, who welcomes home the lost, who makes the sinner righteous?

At the end of the parable, which son is lost? Was it the commandment-keeper, the religious son, the one who did everything right for all the wrong reasons? In the end, what kept him out of the party? It wasn’t the father! He begged him to come in. It wasn’t his brother. If the older son isn’t at the feast, he has only himself to blame.

The younger son learned something, and he teaches us something, as well. In Christ Jesus, there’s no bargaining when you’re in the embrace of God’s mercy. And when we do confess our sins, we aren’t bargaining with God. We’re just embracing the forgiveness that is already ours in Christ Jesus.

Jesus dirtied Himself, joining Himself to the muck of our sin—that’s why He died our death. He became what we are, so, in Him, we become what He is to God the Father. Now, the Father wants to celebrate. So, come, for the feast is ready. Amen.