✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
If your parents were anything like mine, they didn’t want you hanging out with the wrong crowd. They knew that if you spent too much time with those who were troublemakers, disobedient, kids who experimented with drugs, that you might well go down a dangerous and destructive path. The Bible says this explicitly in 1 Corinthians 15, “Bad company ruins good morals.” Even as adults you know that this is true. If you hang out with people whose talk is foul-mouthed, you tend to start talking like they do. If you spend a lot of time with those who are worldly and secular in their lifestyle, you’ll tend to start thinking and behaving like they do. If pop culture is your daily company, with all of its mocking humor that scoffs at what is decent and true, with all of its shallow, mind-numbing silliness, that will certainly affect your faith and life negatively.
So it seems understandable, at least on the surface, why the Pharisees and scribes complained about the company that Jesus was keeping in today’s Gospel. “This man receives sinners and eats with them!” He wasn’t just keeping company with thieving tax collectors and conspicuous sinners; He was actually sharing a meal and fellowship with them. How could this man dirty Himself and His reputation like that? Was He lowering the standards of His teaching? Was He condoning their sin? It all just seemed wrong to the religious leaders.
To show what He was doing, Jesus told three parables–the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. The first two reveal Jesus’ searching love, how He has come to seek out and save the lost, to call sinners to repentance, back to Himself–not to condone sin but to forgive sin. Bad company may ruin good morals, but the good company of Jesus redeems and gives new life. What brings joy to heaven is not the self-righteous model citizen, but the one who repents and trusts in God’s mercy.
Today’s parable of the lost son highlights that mercy of God. A certain man had two sons. The younger son tells his father that he wants his share of the inheritance. He’s tired of waiting around for his dad to keel over. He wants to move on with life and have some fun. And so in his impatience and audacity, he makes this self-serving request of his father.
The father could have rebuked him for his insolent attitude, but instead, he grants his request. The father knows that he can’t coerce and force love from his son, and so he takes the hurt and lets him go, knowing that the son will likely have some very hard lessons to learn as a result.
God also deals with us in the same way. For we too have sometimes tried to use Him for our own ends, praying selfishly or using a religion as a cloak to justify our behavior. In fact you could describe sin as the wish that God were dead, so that we could then live our lives the way we please. God could sternly enforce obedience from us if He so chose. But He doesn’t want slaves cowering in submission; He wants children who receive and return His love. And so He sometimes lets us go our own way; He lets us mess up so that we can see how barren our life is apart from Him.
And indeed the younger son’s life turned out about as barren as it could be. He may have had fun partying with his friends and living the good life for a time. But when his money ran out, so did his friends. In the end he was left all alone, and the best job he could find was feeding pigs–the bottom of the barrel for a Jewish boy. That’s the way sin always works. It gives short term happiness and long term pain. It lives for the moment and sacrifices eternity.
When the younger son was so hungry that the pig food started to look good, he finally came to his senses. He realized what he had lost by leaving his father. He realized that even his father’s servants were doing better than him. He was sorry for what he did. But notice that sorrow isn’t what brought him back. It was the memory of his father’s goodness that moved him to turn and head toward home. In the same way, we are made able to truly repent only in the certainty that we have a merciful heavenly Father. Being sorry is only the beginning; Judas was sorry, too, you recall. Believing that your heavenly Father will receive you back for the sake of Christ in spite of your unworthiness is the heart of the matter. True repentance includes faith. Romans 2 says that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repent.
Even with his repentance, the younger son underestimated his father by thinking that he could only be allowed back as a servant. But the father hadn’t written him off like that. He’s waiting, looking down the road, hoping that his lost son will return. It says here, “But when (the younger son) was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him.” Dignified men don’t run, but the father was compelled to by his love, hurrying to welcome his son back.
The father goes out to the son, even as God is always reaching out to us with His mercy. And notice that the father embraces the son even before the son can say a word, even before he can make his confession! In this we see that God doesn’t receive us back and forgive us based on how well we repent or because we formulate the right words. God forgives us and receives us to Himself because of His grace and mercy toward us in Christ. His very nature is love. It’s all based on His undeserved and unmerited kindness. There is the saying that confession is good for the soul, and that is true. But we learn here that absolution is even better for the soul, for the mercy of God is what restores and saves us. That’s what the father is doing here–forgiving and welcoming his son back to the family.
And it’s not just a conditional or probationary status that he’s given until he proves himself. Rather, the Father treats him in a way that only a full, honored son would be. He puts a distinguished robe on him. He gives him the family ring. He puts sandals on his feet, for only the servants would be barefoot. And the father throws a party, to celebrate that his son who was “dead” is alive again.
This is the picture of God’s compassionate love for you. God’s servants, the holy angels, rejoice over the sinner who repents. You don’t have to prove yourself first. Rather God embraces us fully as His children with all the blessings that brings, so great is His joy to have us home.
In fact so much does God want to have us with Himself that He made His own Son to be like the younger son. When it comes right down to it, Jesus is the real prodigal son in this parable. It says here that the father gave to the younger son of his livelihood, or literally his “substance”– just as we confess in the Creed that Jesus is of one substance with the Father. Then the Son of the Father goes to a far country, which is to say, the Son descends to earth and becomes man for us. Here He blows His wealth and His substance consorting with tax collectors and sinners and the likes of us. He is prodigal and beautifully excessive in the way He dishes out His grace and mercy toward us. He loses it all for you, dying in your place as if He were the rebellious sinner, to win your forgiveness. Then Jesus arises and returns to His Father, who exalts Him to His right hand, and gives Him the name that is above every name, rejoicing that He who was dead is alive again, that He who was lost for a time to the grave has been found triumphant over sin, death, and the devil.
Once you were dead and lost. But God raised you to life in His Son Jesus. The Father now says to you, “Your brother, My Son was dead, and is alive again. Repent and find your life in Him. No matter how low it has gotten for you, Jesus has gone to the lowest depths on your behalf in order to become the way back for you. You’re not an outcast stepchild here. You are robed in Jesus’ righteousness at the font and the family ring is put on your finger. The banquet table of the supper is laid before you, the body and blood of Christ given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. You’re a full-fledged child in My house through Jesus. There is great joy in heaven for each one of you who are here in penitent faith. Welcome home.”
Now before we finish, we unfortunately need to talk about the older son. Notice that the father has to go out to him, too. He too had left home in a sense, forsaking the father’s love by thinking He had to earn it, that his father’s favor was a reward for his good behavior. “All these years I’ve served you” he says, talking more like a servant than a son. But here, too, the Father gives all. He says, “All that I have is yours. That’s the way it’s always been.” And in the end the question is left unanswered: does the older brother believe that? Do we? Do you believe that the fullness of God’s mercy is yours apart from any merit or worthiness in you? Do you believe that it’s all a free gift in Christ?
Jesus declares in today’s Gospel that it most certainly is. Let us, then, never become like the older brother, whose legalism and self-righteousness kept him outside of the household and away from the joy of the feast. Let us never think that there are certain sinners who aren’t worthy of God’s mercy, as if Jesus didn’t shed His blood for them, too. Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners–only sinners. If we refuse to keep company with those who repent and trust in Him, we are refusing to keep company with Christ Himself, just like the Pharisees. We are putting ourselves outside of the joy of the household. Only as we repent can we rejoice in the repentance of another. Only as we see ourselves as lost sinners can we rejoice that Jesus welcomes penitent sinners to His table. “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” That’s good company. So come in and make merry and celebrate the Lord’s mercy. In Him the lost are found and the dead live.
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠